Upland bird hunting has a deep-rooted history in the United States, and its passionate fan base could easily make up a subculture of its own among sportsmen and women. Chasing after birds like pheasant, grouse, quail, chukar, and woodcock has a certain special thrill that can't be matched.
Most folks think that only big game like elk, moose, and deer offer tough hunting challenges. But let me tell you, upland bird hunting has its own set of hurdles, and it's nothing to scoff at. Some of these birds hang out in high places with thick forests, while others chill in fields with super dense vegetation—so dense that you really need a well-trained bird dog to help you flush them out.
For the past few years, I've been on a mission to hunt every North American upland bird species. I've had some awesome luck, crossing several off my list. Some of these hunts have been downright amazing, with daily bag limits and coolers full of meat for the family. Then there were those that felt more like wild goose chases, leaving me with empty coolers and a whole lot of head-scratching.
In my quest for these incredible birds, I've found some states that totally blew me away with their upland hunting. Sure, some of the best states for upland bird hunting might be well-known—but there are a few that have been flying under the radar. These days, they offer killer upland hunting spots for those looking to dodge the crowds. Here are the western states that, in my book, offer the best upland hunting around.
Remember how I said some of these may come as no surprise? You likely could have guessed the state known as the pheasant mecca would be on this list. Annual harvests frequently hit over 1 million birds per year, giving it the title "Pheasant Capital of the World" by a long shot. You'll frequently hear old-timers talk about how the numbers aren't what they used to be, and while that might be true, thanks to several conservation programs, as well as sportsmen doing their part, pheasant numbers are seeing a steady increase as of late.
I was able to visit Aberdeen, South Dakota last year for a late season pheasant hunt, and I was in shock by the number of birds we were seeing. Not only will you find an abundance of pheasants in this wonderful state, but also a population full of passionate and friendly residents willing to lend advice as well as share stories about what this lifestyle of upland hunting means to them. This state should be on every hunter's bucket list!
Perhaps one of my favorite states to hunt in, Idaho has a reputation for not only incredible big game hunting, but also some of the most exciting upland bird hunting in the entire country. One of the things that makes Idaho so great is that ability to target a large variety of upland birds. Over 70% of Idaho is public land, so finding acreage to hunt shouldn't be an issue, assuming you're willing to put some hiking boots on and scout. Finding birds typically requires hiking through some rough terrain, so make sure you're in good shape before the trip, you'll be thankful for it.
The most sought after bird in Idaho is most likely chukar, and finding coveys of these zippy birds can be a challenge, but believe me, the population is there. If you're interested in going after other birds, Idaho boasts a healthy population of quail, partridge, pheasants, and five different species of grouse!
If you even mention Wyoming to an avid upland hunter, be prepared for a long conversation about one of the most iconic game birds there is, the sage grouse. The link between the two comes from the fact that nearly 40% of the sage grouse population lives in this great state. Hunting sage grouse is an experience unlike any other hunt, but if you're thinking about planning a trip, there isn't much wiggle room. Wyoming divides sage grouse seasons by area, and the most desired area only has a season of about two weeks. Some of the other areas are even less than that. If sage grouse doesn't excite you, Wyoming is still an incredible state to pursue other upland birds, such as blue grouse, Hungarian partridge, chukar, and more. There are over 30 million acres of public land in Wyoming, so with some diligent scouting, you're in for the bird hunt of a lifetime.
Earlier I mentioned states that have slipped under the radar for upland hunts. In my mind, New Mexico might be the best kept secret. While you won't see pheasant and grouse numbers like you do in states like South Dakota and Wyoming, New Mexico provides opportunities for another beloved game bird: quail. It is one of the few states that has an open season for four quail species: Gamble's Quail, Northern Bobwhite, Montezuma, and the Scaled Quail. If you're looking for a unique and challenging hunt that could result in scratching all four of these off your list, look no further than the Land of Enchantment.
If you're not already sold on the incredible landscapes, trout streams, and mountain elk of Montana, allow me to add another benefit of visiting Big Sky Country; the upland bird hunting is phenomenal. This state draws in thousands of hunters every year to experience one of the most exciting early season hunts you could ask for, and with over 30 million acres of public land across the state, you'll feel like you're on a private ranch by yourself. The eastern half of the state boasts impressive sharp-tailed grouse numbers, while the western half holds great populations of the forest species such as spruce, ruffed, and even dusky. While you might not see quite as many birds as you would in Wyoming (although you could), the views alone will be worth the trip.
The beautiful forests and rich wildlife of California often get overshadowed by the glamor and industry within cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. So much so, that you may not have even considered California to be a bucket list destination for your pursuit of upland birds. But you should. In the northwestern corner of California lies heavily forested mountain ranges, home to an abundance of wildlife such as black bears, mountain lions, and you guessed it, trophy birds. Specifically, one of my favorite upland birds, and one that I have been itching to scratch off my list, the Sooty or Blue grouse.
These birds inhabit the wet areas with thick vegetation in the northern mountains of California. Even spotting one of these elusive birds can be difficult, but getting them to flush within range is a whole other challenge altogether. The use of a trained bird dog is almost certainly required to hunt these areas of California, and the DNR limits your harvest to only two birds per day. If you can get that, consider yourself lucky. California may not possess the traditional feel of upland hunting, but their population of sought after birds as well as the challenging terrain that accompanies these hunts, more than earns it a spot as an honorable mention. If you get a chance to hunt the mountains of Northern California, jump on it.