Out West, big game gets all the glory, but the left half of the country offers an unbelievable array of opportunities for wingshooters. Out here, it's all about variety and many of the states in this round-up hold a half dozen (or more) huntable species of upland birds. It's not unheard of for an enterprising hunter and his bird dog to put six different birds in the bag during a day or two of hunting.
Admittedly, that does take some work and planning, so we've put together a short list of states that hold the best birding in the West.
Though the state gets overshadowed by its southern neighbor, North Dakota has some fantastic pheasant hunting. From Valley City west, particularly in the area south of Interstate 94, offer some of the best hotspots, though plan on knocking on plenty of doors to find permission or paying for access. Brood counts were up across the state this past summer, with the southwest corner showing an increase of 34%. Non-residents are limited to private or federal lands for the first week of pheasant season, which saves North Dakota's popular PLOTS walk-in properties and state areas for residents.
Areas west of the 100th meridian should also offer up the opportunity for a bonus Hungarian partridge, but in this half of the state sharptails are the real draw. The Little Missouri National Grasslands offer more than a million acres of public mixed-grass prairie, along with a checkerboard of private lands and ag fields: which is heaven to a sharp-tailed grouse. But don't think it's going to be easy. Like any open-country grouse hunt, plan on walking a lot, especially later in the season when grouse group up and flush wild. Bring a dog and plenty of boot leather.
Pheasant: Oct. 10 — Jan. 3, 2016; Limit: 3 roosters
Ruffed and Sharp-Tailed Grouse: Sept. 12 — Jan. 3, 2016; Limit: 3 each species
Hungarian Partridge: Sept. 12 — Jan. 3, 2016; Limit: 3
North Dakota Game & Fish Department: gf.nd.gov; 701-328-6300
License Fees — Non-resident: $122 (14-day); Resident: $31
The ring-necked pheasant is king in South Dakota, and for a very good reason, or 1.5 million very good reasons actually. That's the number of pheasants hunters killed in 2011, the last year the state's roadside pheasant index equaled 2015 counts, which came in at 3.8 pheasants per mile It also marks a 42 percent increase over last year's PPM. Even when counts are low (and by low, I mean still higher than any other state), South Dakota shines, thanks in part to smart management practices fueled by the millions of dollars pheasant hunting brings to South Dakota annually.
The state does have a reputation as exclusively pay-to-play and outfitting pheasant hunters is big business here. However, smart hunters know there are great opportunities to be found on public lands and the 1.25 million acres of private lands leased for public hunting under the state's Walk-In program. Skipping the first few weeks of the season also increases the likelihood of finding places to hunt and, if you can bear the cold, December can be the best bet of the year. Also, don't discount paying a small trespass fee, which can open prime acres for an unguided hunt. South Dakota Wild (southdakotawild.com) can turn hunters onto exclusive properties and help secure lodging as well.
Pheasant: Oct. 17, 2015 through Jan. 3, 2016 (Open to residents starting Oct. 10)
Grouse (Ruffed, Sharptail, Prairie Chicken): Sept. 19 — Jan. 3, 2016; Limit: 3 in aggregate
Hungarian Partridge: Sept. 19 — Jan. 3, 2016; Limit: 5
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks: gfp.sd.gov; 605-223-7660
License Fees — Non-resident: $121 (10-day); Resident: $33
As a Nebraska resident, I shouldn't tell you this, but the Cornhusker State is a sleeper for wild bobwhite quail. Sure pheasants get top billing here, but it's not unheard of to kick up several coveys during a day of hunting. Of course, I'm not going to tell you exact coordinates, but concentrate your efforts on riparian corridors and overgrown fencerows and you might be surprised at what you kick up. Covey counts are highest in the southern part of the state, but there are a few other unlikely areas that hold good numbers of birds too. You're on own when it comes to finding them. I've already said too much.
As for pheasants, they're plentiful too, especially in the southwest corner of the state. Across the state, numbers are up more than 50 percent over 2014, thanks in no small part to last winter's mild conditions and a very wet spring that enhanced cover and forage during the critical May/June timeframe. According to Pheasants Forever, top counties will be the perennial favorites of Hitchcock, Perkins, Furnas, Hayes, and Frontier.
Grouse hunters will also find plenty of country to cover. Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges both offer thousands of acres of rolling grasslands in the central part of the state with healthy sharptail populations, while prairie chickens can be found throughout the Sandhills and in some of the grasslands in the southwestern Panhandle.
Pheasant: Oct. 31 - January 31, 2016; Limit: 3
Grouse (Sharptail, Prairie Chicken): Sept. 1 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 3 in aggregate
Bobwhite Quail: October 31 — January 31, 2016: Limit: 6
Nebraska Game and Parks Department: outdoornebraska.ne.gov; 402-471-0641
License Fees — Non-resident: $101; Resident: $34
One of the most successful private land/public access partnerships in the country, Montana's Block Management program opens up several million acres of private land to hunters, much of it excellent upland habitat. That's a lot of boot leather to burn in search of the best birdy Block Management Areas (BMAs) the state has to offer, but with nearly all the popular upland species living within the state's borders, there's something for everyone.
True big-sky country, the remote, northeastern corner of Montana boasts almost a million acres of open land, although getting there requires a lot of windshield time. The long drive is worth the price of fuel, considering you can still hunt sage grouse in the area around Fort Peck. This corner of the state also has pheasants, sharptails and a few Hungarian partridge to be found around agricultural fields.
When it comes to grays, the area between Bozeman and Helena combines healthy Hungarian partridge populations with thousands of acres of BMA lands open to bird hunters. In fact, hunters have access to somewhere around 15 percent of the total private land base in southwest Montana through the Block Management program. Three grouse species — ruffed, blues and spruce — can also be found in the forests here.
Pheasant: Oct. 10 - January 1, 2016; Limit: 3
Sharp-Tailed Grouse: Sept. 1 — Jan. 1, 2016; Limit:4
Sage Grouse: Sept. 1 — Sept. 30; Limit: 2
Mountain Grouse (Blue, Spruce, Ruffed): Sept. 1 — Jan. 1, 2016; Limit: 3 in aggregate
Hungarian Partridge: Sept. 1 — Jan. 1, 2016; Limit: 8
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks: fwp.mt.gov; 406-444-2535
License Fees — Non-resident: $120; Resident: $15.50
Idaho is a mixed-bag mecca, even more so than Montana, and a hunter's biggest challenge is focusing on just a few of the 10 huntable species of upland birds that reside in the state. Certainly, it's chukars that get top billing here, and the ridges lining the Snake River are the region's most famous destination, though any cheat grass or sage-covered steppe will hold birds. Reports for Idaho Fish and Game field staff put chukar counts on an upward trend, particularly in the Clearwater, Magic Valley and Southwest regions. Populations of Hungarian Partridge also appear to mirror that of the chukar, and the two are often found sharing similar areas of the state.
Pheasant populations have long been on the ropes here, but recent upticks have hunters and biologists optimistic. 2015 numbers are at or above last year's counts, with the Clearwater region registering a 147% increase over the 10-year average. In the eastern corner of the state, Pheasant Forever's largest land-acquisition to date — a 2,700 acre-ranch near Hamer, Idaho — sits squarely between Camas National Wildlife Refuge and Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area. Connecting the two public areas created a contiguous 21,000-acre block of protected habitat to boost Idaho's pheasant restoration program.
Quail (Bobwhite, California): Sept. 19 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 10 in aggregate
Chukar: Sept. 19 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 8
Hungarian Partridge: Sept. 19 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 8
Pheasant: Oct. 10 — Dec. 31 (Exact dates vary by region); Limit: 3
Mountain Grouse (Blue, Ruffed, Spruce): Aug. 30 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 4 in aggregate
Sharp-Tailed Grouse: Oct. 1 — Oct. 31: Limit: 2
Idaho Fish and Game: fishandgame.idaho.gov; 208-334-3700
License Fees — Non-resident: $97.75; Resident: $12.75
The first pheasant was released in Oregon's Willamette Valley back in 1882, and the state still has a decent population of ring-necks. However, bird hunters here should concentrate on quail - both the mountain and valley varieties - instead. Populations of the latter, also known as California quail, are widely distributed across Oregon with the best opportunities located in the eastern half of the state. Look for agricultural lands with the brushy cover of a riparian corridor nearby, which offer coveys food, security and all-important water.
If you need some exercise, head uphill for mountain quail. These speedy little birds, with their distinctive plume, would rather run than fly and they tend to congregate in heavy cover. Adding a limit to your bird bag is a challenge, but well worth the effort. Populations of mountain quail have been trending upward lately in the extreme southwestern corner of Oregon and a few mild springs recently should boost nesting success again this year in Curry, Jackson and Josephine counties.
Valley (California) Quail: Sept. 1 — Jan. 31, 2016 (Eastern Oregon); Sept. 1 — Jan. 31, 2016 (Western Oregon); Limit: 10
Mountain Quail: Sept. 1 — Jan. 31, 2016 (Variable opener depending on county): Limit: 2
Chukar: Oct. 10 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 8
Hungarian Partridge: Oct. 10 — Jan. 31, 2016; Limit: 8
Pheasant: Oct. 10 — Dec. 31; Limit: 2
Grouse (Blue, Ruffed,): Sep. 1 — Dec. 31; Limit: 3
Sharp-Tailed Grouse: Oct. 1 — Oct. 31: Limit: 2
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: dfw.state.or.us; 800-720-6339
License Fees — Non-resident: $148.50; Resident: $29.50