Excitement and adrenaline. It’s normal. The sleepless 5 hours passed by like molasses on a cold day. The alarm blares and you snap out of bed and hit the alarm before it wakes a grumpy bear in your bed. 3am! Up and at ‘em! If ever there was an Olympic sport for International Quick Dressing, you would be a Gold Medalist!
You meticulously picked out every bit of gear and had the truck packed the morning before. You have been waiting nearly a year for this moment! You jump into your rig start the engine, as it idles your mind goes through a checklist. Shotgun. Ammo. Vest. License. Cooler. Stove. Blankets. Do I have enough food? Water? Crap… I gotta stop for gas before hitting the road…
The morning is chilly. No one is up at 3am. You hope your neighbors don’t call the cops, thinking you are a robber as you sneak through your equipment in the back of your truck, giving it a once and twice over. You try your best not to rattle pots and pans. The neighbor’s dog starts barking. So much for leaving quietly and unnoticed.
You glance at your watch. You’re running late. You head back into the house. You kiss your loved one’s goodbye while they sleep and feel just a little guilty for leaving them for the weekend. You are going to have blast. You just know it. Regardless if you come back with birds or not, you’re going to get to spend some time in some beautiful country… for what? Birds? Adventure? Maybe to reconnect with nature, yourself, or maybe even God. It’s a time to reenergize. A time to get back into your groove. Let off some steam. Wrestle with some ideas. Look for direction. Reinvent yourself. Challenge yourself. Or do a spiritual overhaul. Whatever it is. It’s going to be good. The birds. The land. The journey. All of these will shape you. You will fall in love. You will obsess about chasing birds through the uplands the rest of your life. And that day is finally here.
This might very well be your first time heading out on your first DIY upland hunt. Assuming that you followed along on the previous articles of the “Beginner’s Guide To Upland Hunting” (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), chances are that you are pretty new to upland hunting, although you seasoned hunters may also enjoy reading this and hopefully walk away with some tips you never thought of. In particular, this guide caters to new upland hunters and especially those hunters that have no bird dog. This is likely the case for most upland hunters who are just getting into the art. Or you just might be a stubborn guy like me and enjoys hunting without a dog (nearly 15 years). So, hang on tight! Take some notes. And have some fun out there.
First things are first. Be sure you carry your license on you at all times while hunting. You took that hunter-safety course… remember what you learned! Safety first! Keep your safety on and keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot! Always be sure about what you are shooting at and beyond! Wear blaze orange, especially if you are hunting with others. If you happen to be hunting with others, be clear about where you will be positioned and do not deviate from your agreed shooting lanes if you are hunting near buddies. If you are hunting with someone who is allowing you to shoot over their dogs, be sure you are clear about how and when to shoot and never shoot at ground level. Bring enough shells. If you are planning on being out a good part of the day, bring two boxes worth of shells in your pockets (about 50 shells… what? I never said I was a great shot!). Remember, it’s not about bag limits. People that brag about that are missing the point of upland hunting. Lastly, this is an art. This is wing shooting. Never ground sluice a bird. You may be new to this, but it is no excuse. If you want to do things the easy way, get a dog. Now onto chasing some birds through the uplands!
So… Hopefully you were able to get some scouting done well before heading out on opening day. Chances of successfully seeing and getting opportunities to shoot some birds drastically fall if you have not scouted prior to the season starting. This is true of any species. Big Game. Small Game. Or Upland Game. Period.
Wait. What? Don’t tell me you didn’t scout?!? Well, it’s not completely FUBAR if that was the case… life happens and we get busy… but next year do your best to get out scouting! Say it with me… “I will scout next season”. We’ll chat later about this. I’m not mad. Just disappointed. For those of you who did your due diligence, HIGH-FIVE! The odds are in your favor.
Now, if you are spending a few days out, I always recommend heading out the day before the season starts if you can manage it. This gives you ample time to set up camp and even do a little scouting. Yes. For those of you that did not scout prior to the season, you have a chance to do a quick crash scouting session. Keep scouting within a small general area and try not to waste too much time scouting areas wide and apart. It’s a waste of gas and will only lead to frustration (this is why it is important to scout way in advance!). Hopefully, you are very lucky and see some birds you can hunt the following day. If not, opening day will be a scout while you hunt kinda day and won’t be as fun.
For the rest of you, arriving a day early allows you to do some scouting in surrounding areas, or maybe you had some doubts about the area and want to check some other areas. This far into the game, I do not recommend switching spots. Try to stay within the vicinity of the original area you had planned to hunt. If you scouted there prior and saw birds, chances they will be in and around that area. Circumstances may change, however. I get that. If you do some scouting on the day before the hunt, ensure that you are not doing any hard pursuing of the birds and try to make as little noise as possible. Completely refrain from shooting at other game that might be in season in this area. You are sure to spook birds and get them moving out of the area before the season even starts!
The main reason why I come out a day early before the opener is to get a feel on how much hunter pressure will be in an area, as well as claiming a camping spot. As a public land hunter, we have to contend with these factors. Even when you think you are far out enough and there is no guarantee other hunters will not show up. Do not put it past a Lazy-Hunter seeing your truck and parking in right behind you, joining you in the field. I also, as I mentioned, use the time to lightly scout the areas surrounding my chosen hunting spot. This allows me other areas to hunt in the case other hunters have shown up at my spot. If I see a bunch of trucks on opening day, I just head down the list of other areas as needed, instead of scrambling to find a new spot.
On that note. Be respectful of other hunters and give them space if you encounter them in the field. When I see other hunters, I wave, say hello and ask where they are hunting. I will head the opposite way. Safety is paramount. There are more than enough birds. And these lands are here for us to share. To all the Lazy-Hunters out there… quit being lazy! If you see someone’s vehicle parked on the side of the road, head down some ways. Do not enter the same field where other hunters at are at. Yield to other hunters already there. Find another spot or turn away in another direction! Oh, and pick up your damn spent shells!
On opening day, I like to set out for my spot well before the sun rises. I am usually at my hunting destination by 4am or 5am at the latest. This not only ensures my spot is “claimed”, but also gives me time to warm up some coffee, eat a little breakfast and get my gear together, quietly. I will get out of my car anywhere from 30-45 minutes before legal-shooting time and be very quiet when closing doors, etc. I do not want to overly alert birds to my presence or educate them to sounds of my arrival as best as I can. Birds get educated to sounds as the season progresses. So, keep that in mind. Taking time and effort to be quiet will improve your chances of getting into birds before they are fully aware of you being there.
You may choose to walk into the field as soon as you can see, but be aware of legal shooting times per your hunting regulations. I normally will walk into the uplands about 5-15 minutes before legal shooting time. Most birds are still roosting, but my experience is, as soon as the sun comes up, they are moving. I know many people who prefer to hunt in the later morning, catching the birds at breakfast. As a hunter who does not use a hunting dog, I find that catching the birds as unaware as possible works in my favor and I prefer to hunt them earlier just as they are moving out of roosts.
Quail are small and only appear smaller at a distance. A keen-eyed hunter will scan the bottoms of brush and open spaces. They move surprisingly fast on their feet. Their coloration is a perfect blend that allows them to hide in areas that are often in plain view. Look for quick, jerky movements. As a predator, your eyes are sensitive to these movements. Take your time as you scan the landscape. Look from side to side and behind you at times. It is very easy to walk past these birds and once you have, they take advantage by running or flying away. I cannot express how slow and easy you should go. Take your time!
You should take time to listen to recordings of different quail sounds. Listening is something many upland hunters do not often do and instead trudge along making noise and babbling on about football and other crap. SHHHH! Stay quiet. Listen. Be deliberate. Move slow. Quail and other upland birds can be very vocal. Quail, especially, give off nervous pips and assembly calls that will alert you to their locations. The nervous pips of quail tell me that they are about ready to bolt by running or flushing and are aware of my presence. That’s when I move in fast! Quail often huddle in thick brush and bushes. These shrubs will often have a bit of an opening for them to run under, but thick enough up top to keep predators from reaching in and grabbing them.
Quail will flush as a group. This is one of their best defenses against predators aside from running. The flush is designed to confuse predators (that’s you!) and works. Effectively. The flush still gets me. It’s loud and fast… and instead of allowing you to focus on one bird, you focus on the mass. This is how you miss. Instead, resist the temptation to shoot at the “blob” and focus on one bird. Easier said than done. But with practice, you will start knocking birds down.
After a covey flushes, they will usually split off from the group. You may think you are chasing the covey as it runs, but secretly birds are peeling off in other directions and you will soon be chasing a nothing but dust. This is your opportunity to shoot some “singles”. After I bust a covey, I usually let them scatter if I feel they are flying too far off and away. Instead of chasing them up and down hills, I will make them come to me. I hunker down and get real low. I will find an area where I can sit and try not to get spotted by “sentries”. These birds sit high on a perch and will warn other birds of your presence. The second part of this strategy after busting up a covey is calling quail back. Quail are communal birds and they do not like being left alone for very long. Valley Quail and Gambel’s Quail both have a similar “assembly call”. When they think the coast is clear, they will call to other quail, which sounds like someone whistling “Chicago”. In some variation it kinda sounds like: “Chi-ki-Chi-ki-Chi-ca-go-Chi-ca-go”. You will hear it when you are out there, but take some time to sit at home on front of the computer and look up these calls on YouTube. Try to emulate it. I will call for about 15-20 minutes after a covey flushes. In this time, you may hear other quail call back, you may see singles actually run all the way back to you. You can pick off singles by standing up quickly, which startles them, and hopefully they flush. If not, they will likely begin to run, in which case I safely run towards them in an attempt to get them in the air. I have picked off 5 quail in a row (my all-time best) trying this strategy.
If you have been sitting longer than 20 minutes, chances are birds are moving in a different direction, or they may be moving towards you and you cannot see them. It’s time to get back on your feet and after them. You may be surprised to see a few birds you had not seen suddenly appear and flush surprisingly close where you were just sitting. In order to take advantage of getting into some singles, you will find that going slow and steady is the way to go (again). This pace often makes birds flush. I like to think they find your slow and deliberate walk unnerving. Since you are hunting without a dog, you have to cover a lot more ground than a hunter with a dog would have to cover. I hike in a zig-zag pattern, backtrack and I will often kick the base of shrubs to get birds to flush. I stop often and listen and look around for where birds may be moving, which may be only a few steps ahead of you. In those moments where I see birds and they do not flush, I again use the tactic of carefully running towards them to get them flush (this is why it was important that you worked on your cardio!).
For birds that are stubborn and stay lodged in heavy brush and kicking or shaking the bush will not get them to budge, I will often throw a stick or small rock into the bush. If this does not get them airborne, and you have shells to spare, I will sometimes let off a round right over the bush and this usually gets a stubborn bird into the air. Use this technique sparingly, safely and only if you are 100% sure a bird is in there.
There is nothing like a bird flushing, a perfect shotgun mount, and a blast of feathers. The end result is a harvested bird in your hand and that means you did everything perfectly. Let’s get real though, you are taking a life, albeit a small life, but a life nonetheless. Be respectful of your quarry and do everything in your might to ensure there is little to no suffering. I tend to use heavier rounds like #6’s to ensure I get minimal cripples. In my early days of upland hunting, I used primarily #7-1/2’s and saw many cripples and unfortunately some that I was never able to recover. Since using #6’s I have reduced the number of cripples dramatically. That is not to say, it does not happen.
If you encounter a bird that is crippled, do your best to run up to it and grab it (this is where gloves come in handy, especially if you are hunting in the desert). You may have to mercifully dispatch a bird that is suffering. There are a few methods out there, but I prefer to grab the bird by the base of the head/neck between both my index fingers and thumbs. While your index fingers and thumbs are touching and grasping the bird by the neck, you can twist in opposite directions or gently but quickly pull apart. This does a great job of snapping neck or severing the spinal cord. Quick and easy. That is our aim.
In the event that you smack a bird down and it goes running or attempts to flap away into some rocks or very dense brush, and there is just no way you will recover it, I say that it is okay to shoot a bird on the ground. Take note, that this should only be done safely and at longer distances. This is the one and only time I believe it to be acceptable to ground sluice a bird. People may not agree or like that I condone this, but I would rather ensure that I put bird down for good and that does not suffer or go to waste. Hunting without a dog does have its challenges and many would argue this is the prefect reason why you should hunt with a dog. I respectfully don’t agree and do just fine without a dog and I take every step to ensure I recover birds and sometimes those methods are a little extreme… but effective.
A great rule of thumb to ensuring you recover all birds you shoot, is to mark the bird after you connect with it. Watch where it falls and ensure it is down. It is easy to get distracted and lose track of a bird after you shoot it and lose it. Their camouflage is that good! Marking a bird as it goes down can be done by looking for the nearest landmark where it landed. If the bird is not in plain view, you may even want to refrain from shooting other birds until you recover the one you just shot. If you lose track of a bird, try to stay within the general area and give it a thorough combing. Ask yourself, did you see a puff of feathers, did you see it land? Did it move much after? Quail are tough birds, despite their size. It is essential that you do your best to mark and retrieve before moving into more birds. It takes a lot of discipline. Some birds may move to the closest shrub and die shortly after, so please keep this mind if you end up searching for a downed bird. I have spent nearly two hours looking for a bird I was sure I hit. Quail were still flushing all around me but I kept a level head. I never found that bird and it killed me inside a little. But at least I can honestly say to myself, my ethics and diligence were not lost that day.
After the Hunt
So, it is mid-afternoon and you are packing it in! Your game bag is a bit heavier than it was this morning and you cannot wait to crack open a beer and grill some bratwurst back at camp. There is some business at hand before the festivities and celebrations, however. Those little trophies in your game bag need to get cooled ASAP. The early days of the season are likely to be in a weird weather transition. Early autumn days are cool in the morning and hot during the afternoon, typically. The birds you harvested should be okay for a few hours, but as soon as you can, they need to be thrown on some ice.
I will let birds cool off by inserting them into a large Ziploc bag. Whole. Feathers and all. I then stick them into my cooler and ensure they do not get wet. Enjoy your lunch and beer. After about an hour or so, I take them out and prepare them for processing. Having a good sharp knife and portable cutting table will save you a ton of hassle. Cutlery shears are optional, but very helpful for cutting through wings and legs.
Before I start… it is my duty to tell you that the proper way to process a quail or any other upland bird is to keep the bird intact and with the skin on. Yes, that means extra work, but it’s the best way to honor your quarry! Besides, breasting birds is a waste of perfectly good meat. Skinning saves you time, but you are eliminating a barrier of thin fat that keeps the bird moist when you cook it. Your choice. But in my opinion, it cooks better and tastes better.
After your birds are cooled, you may begin the process of plucking (or skinning). I usually leave the heads intact and start from the chest down. I will also leave legs and wings attached just in case a game warden wants to see them (see your local regulations for similar requirements). Plucking is a bit of an art form itself and requires some patience. I pull small patches out and go with the grain to ensure minimal damage to the delicate skin starting from the chest down and to the back. The back skin tends to be a bit more sturdier and you can go against the grain if necessary. The larger feathers on the tails can be pulled out as well. Depending on your preference, you can cut the wings off when you get home of take the time to pluck them. I usually cut them at the first joint and pluck the rest. From here on, your bird should be mostly plucked. You will find there are many thin feathers that look like hair that you cannot just get off. It is perfectly safe to cook and eat these birds as is, but if it bothers you, a small torch can singe them right off.
Some people collect these feathers, as do I, for crafts or for fly tying (another hobby I hope to try out when I retire…). You may choose to do the same for yourself or maybe give them as gifts to your favorite fly tier. Make sure no blood, skin or meat is on them and stick in small baggies.
Now that your bird is naked, you may now remove the head. Now is a good time to start becoming a great upland hunter in the making and search for the bird’s crop. A crop is a small pouch that is part of a bird’s digestive system where food is stored. The contents, if any, will tell you what the bird was eating prior to death. Now that you have some clues, you can now play detective and figure out where birds may be hanging out geographically! This information will help you immensely in the future.
You may now proceed to remove the “guts” of your bird. The best way to get into the innards is by cutting just at the base of the sternum (breast) with your knife. This opens the cavity up and with a gentle pull, you can separate the hip area from the breast, giving you better access into the body cavity. By hooking your finger inside, you can pull out the majority of the entrails down and out. They should now be hanging at the base of the birds tail. I then cut a v-shaped notch on the tail, which eliminates the cloaca (butthole… for lack of a better term) and the entrails (This year I may cut some quail down the back for grilling. I will let you know how that turns out!). I personally feel that the gizzard and heart of quail are just too small to keep so I usually just throw those out. Bury everything you are not keeping as far away as possible to keep vermin and other scavengers from prowling your camp.
Birds should be given a decent rinsing initially after processing to wash out small feathers, blood, etc. Take some time to pull out any embedded shot that you might see at this point as well. I like to dry my bird with some paper towels before putting them back into the cooler to delay bacteria growth as much as possible. When you get home, give them a more thorough rinsing, cleaning and drying. By now you should remove feet and wings. I like to wrap my birds up in wax paper and label the dates they were harvested and place them in freezer bags. In the next few months or so, I will post some recipes, but you can find some great recipes online. There are various ways to cook an upland bird, be adventurous (no bacon)!
So that’s it! Enjoy your adventures out in the uplands! I hope this series was helpful to you! I don’t claim to be an upland master, but hope that some of the tactics I use and that work for me help make your upland hunting endeavors enjoyable. I would love to hear about what worked for you and what didn’t! I am also here to answer any questions or provide more clarity! I hope you have a great season this year and many more seasons to follow!
As always… God Bless and Happy Hunting!
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