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S-R Hunting Outlook 2020: Upland bird hunters have time to kill

By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Wingshooters who take advantage of Washington bird-hunting seasons can pursue quarry somewhere in the scablands to forested mountain peaks from Sept. 1 through Jan. 18. That’s five months of sweaty bliss.

A bonus to the wingshooting’s wide window of opportunity is the chance for teamwork with a dog. Having a well-trained pointer or flusher adds another dimension to hunting, and perhaps several dimensions if the dog is not well-trained.

Every year is different. A fire, crop rotation or ill-timed thunderstorm when chicks are young could turn last year’s good hunting into a bust this year. Or perhaps the stars aligned and prospects for a certain area could be better. Whatever the conditions are, wingshooters have time to find out and adjust.

Relentless June rains did not fall favorably on 2020 early bird hatches, but the moisture prompted vegetation growth that likely boosted second hatches of pheasants in July and even third hatches for quail in August.

Unfortunately, September wildfires are erasing gains in bird habitat in some choice areas. For example, about 90 percent of the 40,000 acres of state and BLM land managed in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area burned this month, said Todd Baarstad, WDFW habitat specialist. The Whitney Fire alone has scorched more than 127,000 acres in Lincoln County.

“Quail and partridge numbers were looking really good,” he said, “but now those birds have no habitat for miles.”

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has not had the resources to do surveys of pheasant production, but Brian Gaston, department private lands specialist for Whitman County, combines his own counts with information from landowners to create a good hunch. “Pheasant numbers appear to be down a little from last year, but quail and Huns (gray partridge) are up,” he said. “And I saw a chukar brood of 12 by the Snake River – that’s a good sign.”

Of course, a wingshooter with a bird dog is going to go hunting regardless of bird numbers rather than risk death from guilt.

Bird hunting kicked off in Eastern Washington on Sept. 1 with seasons for mourning doves and mountain grouse. Dove hunting generally involves decoying or pass-shooting birds as they fly between feeding, watering and roosting areas. For a variety of habitat-related reasons, migratory doves don’t move through Washington in the big numbers of yesteryear, so finding them is hit and miss.

And when you find them, the hitting and a lot of missing continues.

Mountain grouse hunters, at least those with shotguns and dogs, tend to view their outings as a focused walk in the woods. A day devoted to moving even just a few grouse is time well-spent on a high ridge. National forests provide more free grouse hunting opportunity than a hunter could check out in a lifetime.

Eastern Washington’s most popular general seasons open in October for quail, partridge and pheasants. By then, wingshooters who devoted some time to dove hunting and grousing should find their shooting accuracy improved, and their dogs should be ready to be called by their actual name, rather than various degrees of “Goddarnit!”

Finding a place to hunt boils down to three options: exploring the millions of acres of public land managed by state or federal agencies, getting permission to access private farms and ranches, or booking dates on a private hunting preserve where pen-raised birds will be released in natural habitat for your visit.

In addition, the WDFW combines the easy access of public land with the bonus of pen-raised roosters at about 50 pheasant release sites, 29 of which are on the East Side. Hunters must use nontoxic shot at these sites, which are detailed in the WDFW Eastern Washington Pheasant Enhancement Program brochure or online. Hunting at these sites is open to licensed sportsmen without additional fees.

Birds stocking schedules are unannounced, but hunters can usually count on fresh releases before the September youth pheasant hunt, before the general pheasant season and before Thanksgiving.

Getting permission to hunt on private land requires significant effort and luck. The state helps out with several programs including some “feel free to hunt” areas on private land and “hunting by reservation,” for which hunters face tough online competition starting at 8 a.m. two weeks in advance to reserve two-day hunts.

The number of reservable areas listed on the WDFW hunting access webpage will grow as more contracts are signed before the general seasons. Gaston said pending receipts of federal funding, and staff shortages due to COVID-19 and focus on wildfires has delayed the contract signups with landowners.

Some of these properties listed on the WDFW website have better habitat than others, but all of them offer hunters a chance to walk – no driving allowed – on designated private property in pursuit of birds.

Grant and Whitman counties are the state’s top pheasant areas, according to WDFW harvest statistics. Yakima County is the state’s haven for hunting valley quail. Okanogan, Stevens and Ferry counties are best bets for mountain grouse. The steep, rocky canyon slopes of Asotin, Chelan, Douglas, Kittitas and Yakima counties hold the state’s chukar-hunting hot spots.

Dedicated bird hunters try to rotate through several hunting areas during a season to avoid overhunting one spot. And wise hunters try to explore new areas and add to their destinations each season.

On the other hand, hunting preserves make it easy to find birds to hunt. Simply book a reservation at a place such as Miller Ranch south of Cheney or Double Barrel Ranch south of Spokane Valley and, for a fee, they’ll release pen-raised rooster pheasants in the field for your hunting pleasure.

Some hunters find the preserve option ideal for working dogs, especially if they’re still referring to them in terms such as “Goddarnit!” in midseason.

A bird dog should experience gradual exposure to noises, caps and distant shots before firing a 12-gauge over its head at a flushing bird. Gun shyness is easy to prevent in a dog but difficult to cure, pro trainer Dan Hoke of Cheney said.

“To get the most for your money, bring plenty of water along on the hunt to keep the dog fresh through the entire outing,” he said.

A hunting dog is like any other athlete. It’s more likely to rip tendons, tear muscles and run its feet raw if it hasn’t been conditioned. Consider limiting the first hunts of the season to short outings in the cool of the mornings.

Make sure the dog’s toenails are clipped (yours, too) and that your name and cellphone numbers are on the dog’s collar before turning it loose in the field.

Have some good recipes on hand and perhaps a bottle of wine for the fine dining you’ll have after a successful bird hunt, but otherwise keep expectations in check. If you haven’t fired a shotgun since last season, pick your shots and focus on the fundamentals of shouldering the stock properly, focusing on the beak of the bird and swinging through for the shot.

Similarly, a dog that didn’t get any training during the summer shouldn’t be expected to have improved since last hunting season, even if you snuggled together in the den to watch bird-hunting videos.

Usually the only thing keeping a bird dog from being called something like “Scout” rather than “Goddarnit!” is the hunter who owns it.

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