Bird hunting is already rolling in Montana and much of the West for prairie grouse, Huns and chukars.
These birds all have their charms. I’m especially partial to hunting chukars in Wyoming. There these birds remain largely unmolested by the chukar-obsessed hordes that descend on better-known devil bird hotspots like the Snake River country of Idaho.
Hunting should be good for chukars across most of their range, though it’s too early in the season for me to hunt Wyoming. To call that country “rattlesnake-infested” is a little like saying there are a few elk in Montana.
Wyoming first requires a hard frost.
Folks like to say there are more pronghorn than people in Wyoming. Not quite, but it’s close. When it comes to buzzworms, however, I suspect the snakes have the naked apes outnumbered. Maybe that’s why no one hunts Wyoming chukars.
If you’re willing to drive and have a chukar itch you must scratch, Nevada might be your state this year. All but the southernmost tip of Nevada is marked chukar habitat on range maps, though chukar hunters know the birds are only found on the steepest slopes imaginable. Think cliffs, with just enough angle to allow some sagebrush and a few tufts of cheatgrass to set root.
Much of Nevada received about 200% of normal annual precipitation so conditions are ripe for a great chukar season. The Eastern Sierra in California also received the deluge, so hunting there should be good as well.
For many folks, however, upland game hunting doesn’t begin until pheasant season opens. Pheasant prospects there aren’t quite so glowing, though the Dakotas are forecast for a good season. And a good pheasant season in the Dakotas is pretty much the gold standard. Last season, 1.16 million pheasants were killed by hunters in South Dakota and another 276,970 in North Dakota, where spring crowing surveys were up 30%, despite the harsh winter.
If you can’t make it that far east, the forecast for Montana’s prairies is decent, despite a lot of snow. While it was often deep, conditions were such that it rarely crusted over and the birds could dig down to food.
In Kalispell there’s always the drive around the lake to Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area, the best spot to hunt pheasants in Montana on public land west of the mountains. The parking lots are frequently crowded with No. 4 license plates, at least until the general big game season opens, but you’ll often find birds.
Other states to consider if you’re willing to drive: Nebraska, Idaho and Kansas. All are worth the effort for pheasant hunters. I live in Nebraska now, where the locals love to whine about how bad pheasant hunting is compared to the good old days — always before I arrived, no matter the place — but I see more pheasant here than I’ve ever run across in Montana. Nebraska and Kansas (maybe the No. 2 pheasant state after South Dakota) have both been hit by recent drought, but there are signs an uptick is on the horizon. Idaho is also forecast for a better season than last.
If you’re willing to put in the miles, the best bet in the West may be desert quail in the Southwest. Arizona and California were slammed by drenching monsoons all winter, and nothing grows desert quail like winter rain. Hunting for California quail should be quite good, as should Gambel’s quail in the eastern Mojave and all across Arizona. I’m also hopeful the rain will reverse the long-term downward trend for scaled quail in Arizona.
If the previous year in the southwest hadn’t been one of the all-time worst for quail we might be in line for a record season. But no matter how good the habitat you still need grownup birds to make babies.
Stack another epic monsoon season on last winter’s, and 2024 might be quail-hunter nirvana.
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