“Best of all he loved the fall.” —Ernest Hemingway
When Papa Hemingway uttered these words in 1939 on a warm autumn day in Ketchum, he typified the sentiments of many sportsmen and women across the Rocky Mountain West. And today, during the golden months, when aspen leaves turn yellow and the sun shines low in the sky, little has changed for those who hunt upland birds throughout our local mountains and meadows.
The upland species consist of various game birds that are both indigenous and introduced to the surrounding ecosystems, including chukars and gray partridges, ring-necked pheasants, California and bobwhite quail and five separate grouse species: dusky, spruce, sharptail, sage and ruffed.
Often hunted with the assistance of canine companions, the local aviary varieties provide significant challenge for those who passionately pursue them. The use of hunting dogs of various breeds is, for many, the real satisfaction of the experience. Raising and training dogs is a full-time endeavor and developing a working relationship with a retriever, pointer, spaniel or setter is extremely satisfying for hunting dog owners.
Billy Burnett, local upland bird hunting guide and owner of Patton, a 5-year-old German wirehaired pointer mix, said that his greatest enjoyment comes from working with his dog. “After many hours of training, many years in the field, you form a one-on-one communication system. The whole ‘best friend thing’ is a little cliché, but it really is what it’s all about. You spend so much time working in so many amazing places that you forge an unbreakable bond. For me, it is the central satisfaction of hunting upland birds.”
This is a common opinion within the upland bird hunting community. Jason Buck, another local upland bird guide, shares the sentiment. He and his 3-year-old black Labrador, Josey, hunted in several states for a half-dozen upland species last year alone.
“Initially, my dad introduced me to the sport. He preferred to chase pheasants,” the highly experienced mountain guide and father of three said from his home in Ketchum. “And that one bird species led me to pursue others in many different ecosystems, from the plains to the sagebrush country, to bigger and bigger mountains. Eventually I was in the field over 100 days a year. It became an extremely meaningful pursuit for both me and my Labs.”
Clearly, the sport draws men and women alike, not just for the satisfaction of bringing home meat for the table but also because of the majestic landscapes that act as home ranges for the multiple bird species.
Upland birds live in beautiful places. Chukars are famous for their love of steep, cliffy, often volcanic ecosystems, while gray partridge, also known as Hungarian partridge, commonly inhabit the sage and cheatgrass reaches of the prairie. Quail are known for their affinity for shelter, often seeking out old homesteads and dilapidated farm buildings and the bitterbrush, sage and grass that make for excellent cover from constantly threatening predators. The various subspecies of grouse may live in the grasslands, prairies, Douglas fir forests, river bottoms or high ridge alpine ecosystems, depending on their unique natures.
The lengthy seasons are also a draw for many upland hunters. “You get to hunt many different seasons in different ecosystems,” Burnett said. “It’s a long season from August 30 to the end of January. You’ve always got a chance to hunt some kind of upland bird, and the variety of warm, sunny September days when the leaves are turning yellow and orange to the dead of winter when you are wading through drifts of snow in sub-freezing temperatures makes for amazingly varied experiences.”
Buck agreed with Burnett: “I enjoy hunting from horseback at 9,000 feet for dusky grouse. I can ride 3,000 vertical feet up a mountain, dismount and tie up and go for a long hike with Josey,” Buck said with obvious admiration for his outdoor pursuit. “But at the end of the day, the harvesting of the birds is the least important piece of the puzzle. It’s really just about getting out there and living a passionate life in the mountains.”
Surely Hemingway would have agreed.