We proceeded in silence. Silence that was only broken by the sound of a dog’s collar bell and the occasional discharge of a shotgun.
I had my first upland bird hunting experience on the 13th of this month. The chukar partridge pictured above was one of the first birds harvested during that experience. I harvested seven others like it that day, under the watchful eye of a guide instructor whom I hired to teach me the proper way to hunt birds over dogs. How I got there requires a little explanation, particularly if you are accustomed to reading about my cycling or sporting clays activities.
If you’ve been following along, you know that I took up sporting clays a little over a year ago. Shooting at fast-moving, sometimes small orange and black clays is exciting but I was losing interest in the score-keeping aspect. The truth is, some of the targets are just ridiculous and don’t represent anything that happens in real life. I was getting “up in my head” about scores and not really enjoying the experience. Two things converged over the summer to make me consider a guided hunting experience.
First, I changed my practice habits to focus more on relaxing and shooting more instinctively than worrying about a score. I also practiced not thinking too much about a shot plan; rather shooting “trapper’s choice” where the shooter doesn’t know which trap will be thrown. My scores improved a bit by shooting more instinctively and not dwelling too long on hold points and shot plans.
The second thing that happened was that I started looking into bird hunting opportunities. I had always wanted to hunt birds at least once just to see if I could do it and to experience a true forest to table experience. Yes, I imagine this has its roots in primitive-man programming to catch and eat one’s own food and, since taking up shotgunning, I certainly had the means to do it. And, as such, I started poking around the internet to learn all I could about upland bird hunting.
Why Upland? Reason one: duck hunting involves getting up way before sunrise and sitting in the cold and wet. My work and lifestyle don’t allow for that. You also need a boat or dog to retrieve the downed bird. I have neither. Turkey hunting, as I learned in my hunter education course, is the most dangerous thing you can do in the woods with a gun because a lot of people shoot at things they think are turkeys but are actually other hunters. No thanks. Also, I dont look good in cammo!
My research uncovered a treasure trove of books, magazines, websites and podcasts geared toward helping new upland hunters get started in the field. Project Upland was a tremendous resource, packed with useful articles and gorgeous films. Reading the articles and watching the films, I realized that upland hunting has elements of everything that I enjoy: finding interesting places to visit, spending time in the field and, of course, shotgunning. Somewhere along the way, I found Reid Bryant’s excellent podcast. Reid has been very helpful to me both through the podcast and on the phone in conjunction with the friendly folks at Orvis Sandanona. If you are remotely interested in upland hunting, I cannot recommend Reid’s book enough. I’ve read it cover to cover three times since receiving it; it’s packed with useful advice.
One of the useful bits of advice is to find someone else to hunt with at first. There’s a lot going on during a hunt and being safe with a firearm is only one aspect. As such, it’s an activity that you probably should not undertake without some form of guidance. I do not come from a hunting family and none of the people I socialize or work with hunt, so I had to make some connections to figure this part out. My researching led me to the Ruffed Grouse Society, where the Northeast Regional Director, Tripp Way, suggested I hire a guide and do a controlled preserve hunt before heading afield on my own. And that is how I found myself in fields choked with sticker bushes and dead corn stalks on the 13th.
My guide for the day, Tom Fiumarello, is a hunting and sporting clays instructor based in the Hudson Valley. We talked on the phone a few times prior to the hunt to set expectations and discuss options. We settled on a preserve-style hunt, meaning that we would be hunting in an area where birds had been released into the fields prior to our arrival. This takes some of the guesswork out of a traditional upland hunt, where you can hike for hours and never see a bird. Tom wanted me to see and shoot birds, and learn how to conduct myself in the presence of his dogs. The birds were free to move around, or even fly off; just because they had been released into the fields did not guarantee I would find them all.
We had a few false starts prior to the 13th due to weather. It was bloody hot in NY during October. The heat isn’t good for dogs and it also makes birds sit tight and conserve their energy. The morning of the 13th was miserable with rain and scattered snow but the weather cleared just as we got out of our cars. Tom ran through some shooting basics, reviewed safety measures and other helpful advice before we set off into the fields behind one of his Brittanys.
I should note that if there is one thing I learned, it’s that bird hunting is very nearly impossible without a dog! I wouldn’t have found a bird (even if it were sitting on the hood of my car) without the dog. The birds are invisible and their self-preservation instincts cause them to sit still even if you are standing directly over them.
Tom warned me going into the hunt that bird hunting would make sporting clays look boring and he was correct. He also warned that I would be captivated by watching the dogs do their work. He was right about that, too. Within a few minutes his dog Ginger came to point on a bird. We whacked the brush and the bird took flight. I instinctively lifted the gun to my face and felled the bird on the first shot. On command, Ginger brought the bird back to Tom and we inspected it. I waited to see if there would be some sort of bad emotion from inside me in response to killing a living creature. There was none. I felt some vague feeling of honor and respect for the creature, but it certainly did not trouble me. I was concerned about that going into the hunt; that maybe emotionally I wasn’t cut out for the work.
We hunted together with Ginger and Meg, Tom’s other Brit, for about four hours. Other than an occasional question about where to stand in relation to the dogs, or a reminder to swing through the shot, there wasn’t a lot of chit-chat. It wasn’t necessary. Honestly, I could have put down my gun after the third bird and just watched the dogs work, it was that eye-opening and educational.
Back at his truck, Tom showed me how to field dress the birds and gave some recipe suggestions. My promise to myself was that I would cook and eat the birds and–if I did not like the taste of wild birds—never hunt again. I can’t stomach the idea of taking a life and not using the meat. Chukar does not provide a huge amount of meat from the breasts, so I used the medallions to make partridge Marsala over pasta.
It was darn good! I was skeptical that I could get my family to try it. My kids declined because of some sadness that it was from wild birds (yet they eat chicken three times a week). My wife enjoyed it as did my coworkers who sampled the leftovers.
That day in the field was life-changing. I’d often wondered what it would be like to hunt, prepare and eat one’s own food. Now I know. I wondered if I’d be any good at it. I brought home about 60% of the birds I shot at. Some were boneheaded misses due to hasty gun mounting. One bird hovered directly in front of my face for ten or so wing beats, and I was so mesmerized that I didn’t mount the gun until it flew away!
It was a huge learning experience to say the least. I learned to slow down (something I struggle with on the clays course). You never know where the bird will flush to, so step one is getting your body positioned properly and mounting the gun cleanly. You can’t be hasty with this step in the field because you could fall over. I learned not to wear fleece. My sweater was covered with briar stickers that I had to comb out of the fabric when I got home. I learned that hunting is a quiet activity, even if you are with others.
The hunt also reinforced what I learned in the hunter safety course and from Reid’s book. Namely, wait for the birds to flush into the sky; do not shoot “low” birds because the dogs are down there. And do not shoot outside the 40 degree arc if there is someone standing next to you. You can’t appreciate why these two safety rules are so important until you are out in the field and the birds are flying. It’s easy to get distracted or tempted to violate one of the rules, but safety comes first.
I hate to say “I’m hooked” but I think I’m hooked. The experience was, as Tom predicted, more enjoyable than shooting at clay discs. Walking behind the dogs was reward in itself; taking home tasty bird meat was a bonus. I’m not sure how to continue, since I cannot imagine doing this without a dog. I’ll figure it out I suppose.
Not long after my guided lesson, I was invited to join a group of very experienced hunters on the same property. There were eight of us, hunting in two teams with two or three dogs per team. I was the newbie, an outsider to the group, yet the seven men welcomed me and were gracious with their advice. We hunted for the better part of seven hours. I could have done better. I seemed to be always standing in the wrong spot in relation to the flush and the other guns, and I think having others with me caused me to be a bit hasty and sloppy with my mounts (slow down!). But that’s life, it’s a learning curve. We had a very productive day…..
A mix of chukar, Huns and pheasants. I took my turn field dressing the birds with two other guys, finishing after sunset and thankful we didn’t cut our fingers off in the low light. My freezer is now stocked with bird meat and I cannot wait to do it again.
Thank you to all of the people mentioned above who made these two upland experiences possible.