Hunting & Heritage  |  11/02/2017

Upland Journey



By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

The last “new-to-me” species of upland game bird I killed was a double-banded sand grouse in Namibia, Africa. As we picked up our evening meal from the sand around that remote waterhole on the edge of the Kalahari, I realized how long it had been since I had taken a new variety of game bird back home. I had never made a deliberate effort to take every species in North America, but I had come close simply by doing what I do every fall.

Often attributed incorrectly to the late Jack O’Connor, the concept of the “Grand Slam” (of sheep, deer, or, more recently, all big game animals on the continent) has motivated a lot of hunters to devote time, effort and money to their pursuit. Despite the amount of time I spend in the field with my longbow every year, my attitude toward Grand Slams has always been ambivalent.

While I appreciate the element of challenge, I’ve always felt that I needed a better reason to kill an animal than simply checking off another box on a list as if I were ordering dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Furthermore, I’ve always been a DIY hunter, and it’s almost impossible to pursue most of the big game Grand Slams without engaging a guide.

Upland birds (and waterfowl for that matter) are different. There isn’t even a generally accepted list of candidate species. Does one include the chachalaca in southern Texas and the Himalayan snow cock in Nevada? How about wild turkeys, and if so, how many subspecies? All are gallinaceous birds and legal game somewhere in the country, but somehow it just doesn’t seem right to include them in the same category as grouse, quail and partridge. One practical definition of an upland game bird is one that a pointing dog will point, although we should include a component of legality to exclude many dogs’ occasional interest in meadowlarks.


Whatever definition one accepts, I’ve taken my share of the tremendous variety our country has to offer, not so much as the result of deliberate effort to seek them out as by hunting enthusiastically around the places I’ve called home. That long upland journey began during my early childhood in rural upstate New York.

Compared to some of the places I lived subsequently, that wasn’t remarkable game country. But I had what a kid that age needs most — a great teacher and room to roam. My father enjoyed a reputation as the best grouse hunter in the county. A fine shot, skilled woodsman and patient teacher, he was generous with the time he shared with me even as he began the pioneering work that would eventually result in his 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Our family shorthair was still the best all-around gun dog I’ve ever seen. The game was limited to ruffed grouse and woodcock, but I’d had plenty of experience with both by the time we moved west when I was in high school. I will always retain pleasant memories of both those great game birds.


Washington introduced me to ring-necked pheasants, and to a terrific game bird I must now travel to hunt: chukar. (While Montana lists chukar in their game regulations, I’ve only flushed one covey there in all the years I’ve hunted the state, and I think those birds landed in Wyoming.) Whether we were fighting our way up and down the Columbia River breaks or floating a stream for fall steelhead with shotguns and bird dogs in the drift boat, chukar were always there for those willing to work hard enough to find them. I still consider them one of our premier game birds.


My educational years in Washington also provided my introduction to the quail family. On days when the steep slopes were too icy to hunt chukar safely or we wanted to provide learning opportunities for one of our young pointing dogs (Brittanies had joined our shorthair in the kennel by then), we worked low-lying coulees for California quail and usually found them. That wasn’t all. The September mourning dove opener became a fixed event on the annual family calendar, although it usually became a race against time to obtain a legitimate dove dinner before the birds headed south in the wake of the first frost. Floating western Washington rivers with my fly rod, I found gravel bars where band-tails would gravel up in the afternoon and offer challenging pass-shooting. The dogs also pointed Huns occasionally, although I never saw enough of them to adjust to their explosive rises.


That came later, when I moved to northeastern Montana and enjoyed the best upland hunting of my life. The first Montana game bird I killed was a sage grouse that made me feel I’d entered a time warp alongside Lewis and Clark. (The expedition first encountered the species in what is now Montana on June 6, 1805, and sent Private John Shields to kill one for science. He missed.) Even then I realized that our largest native game bird faced a rocky future, and I haven’t killed one in years. I’m glad I had the opportunity to shoot a few when I did.

Sharptails were another matter, and they remain a favorite prairie game bird today. Throw in abundant Huns, pheasants and the waterfowl that several wet years had produced, and I sometimes wonder why I ever left.

The terrain there wasn’t mountainous enough to hold another Montana game bird that became a favorite when I moved to the central part of the state: blue grouse. Sometimes blues will flutter up into the nearest tree when flushed, and my bow fed many an elk camp with blues acting the fool hen. At other times though, they would rocket off through the aspens ahead of a point and offer shooting as challenging as any ruff. One way or the other, they were always big and delicious.


A move to Alaska in 1980 introduced me to a new cast of characters. The first was the definitive fool hen, the spruce grouse. Like most newcomers to the North I quickly fell under the spell of the fishing and big game hunting, but by the time fall rolled around I was ready to shoot some birds. Plenty of spruce grouse inhabited the woods around our rural home, but I could have killed most of those I flushed with a rock. I finally began walking abandoned seismographic trails while my Lab ranged on either side. Occasionally, one of the spruce grouse he nosed up would fly across the opening and offer a crossing shot. Those were desperate times indeed.

Then I discovered ptarmigan. Most of those killed in Alaska are the widely distributed willow ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird and a member of the same species as the red grouse of the British Isles. But the state is home to two others, the rock ptarmigan and the white-tailed, which look quite similar (especially in winter), but occupy different habitat. I had soon taken all three, not because I had become a collector, but because I spent a lot of time outdoors in different parts of Alaska with a shotgun in my hands.

Are snipe upland game birds? That’s a matter of definition. I had killed occasional snipe elsewhere while hunting other things, but I really became alert to their possibilities in Alaska. They were never around for long on the coastal tide flats, but every autumn they offered a few days of furious shooting as they migrated south from the Interior to their distant wintering grounds. My Lab soon learned to locate and flush them, and they provided both challenging shooting and great eating.

Paradoxically, Alaska also turned me into a real quail hunter. No, I did not discover a hidden population of cold adapted bobwhites living in the Brooks Range. I’d lived through cold and snow myself by then, but I had a real problem with the darkness that descended when the sun disappeared in November and didn’t return until February. I did my best with mid-winter ptarmigan hunts and sea duck expeditions, but still fell seasonal victim to cabin fever. So one dark January I packed my hunting gear, headed to the Anchorage airport (back when I could check a dog as my second piece of baggage — free), and flew south to meet a friend in southern Arizona.


The sunshine alone would have been worth the trip, but we also found vast coveys of desert quail waiting for us. The top-knotted Gambel’s provided lots of classical shooting, and the scalies ran like racehorses. The quail sharpened my shooting, re-kindled an interest in pointing dogs, and helped me survive the long months of darkness back in the Great Land. That trip became a regular event.

Time passed. I left my day job in medicine so I could write fulltime. I moved back to my Montana property and married my sweetheart Lori, who became a capable hunter and constant companion in the field. I loved Alaska, but I missed the long prairie bird seasons beneath the Big Sky. We bounced back and forth between Alaska and Montana for years, searching for new experiences in the outdoors and wondering which state we called home. Friends invited us to hunt wild bobwhite in east Texas, further broadening my experience with our country’s six quail species. Then another friend from Alaska, who had solved his own winter problem by moving to southern Arizona, invited us to visit him there and hunt Mearns quail. That proved a game changer.

We immediately fell in love with everything about them — the rugged terrain they inhabit, the challenging wing-shooting they offer as they buzz away through the oaks, the enthusiasm they aroused in our wirehairs. We finally sold out in Alaska, although we still visit often enough to retain our familiarity with old friends and ptarmigan, steelhead and moose. We replaced the Alaska house with a place near the border that has plenty of room for dogs and allows us to extend our upland season from ptarmigan in August to quail in February — and that doesn’t even include spring turkeys.


This record of nearly 60 years afield with American upland birds covers a lot of ground — different habitat, geography, hunting techniques, shotguns, dogs, and especially the variety of game I’ve been fortunate to hunt. I still haven’t hunted them all, primarily because I’ve never made a deliberate effort to do so. The 19 species (if I’ve counted correctly) described here just happened to be the game birds that occupied the places I was hunting.

The few blank spots on this resumé — white-winged dove, mountain quail, greater prairie chicken — form a brief, but attractive bucket list. Alert readers may recognize others. I’ll probably get after them, not because I need to check names off a list, but because each sounds fascinating.

As a parting observation, I would note that I have hunted all of these species on public land, all of the time in some cases, part of the time in others. Public land hunting made all of this possible, and our children should be able to enjoy those possibilities, too. Now politics has reared its ugly head and threatened this honorable American tradition with proposals to divest the public of the lands we own. The future of hunting depends upon our collective ability to resist those efforts.


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