The horizontally falling snow painted a stinging contrast against the heat radiating from my exposed face. Though it felt like a journey portrayed by Homer himself, I had likely only traveled a mile or two, but the rapidly deepening snow had left my feet soaked and freezing within my grossly over-sized boots. I trudged on. With a trail of warming anticipation behind me, a beautifully crisp set of widely separated pheasant tracks lead me onward. Nearing the end of the grassy brush tangled ravine, the pheasant tracks would only have been hotter had the old wily longtail been standing in them himself. Tightly gripping the receiver of my mother's 28 gauge pump, the ice covered metal bit at my skin through the plentiful holes of my worn out wool gloves. The shotgun's model/manufacturer was irrelevant, and whether it bore fancy inlays or interchangeable choke tubes, meaningless. Full choke for me, along with a few faded shells of unknown shot size, and the important knowledge that the accumulating ice on the slide would likely make this a one shot scenario despite the pair of shells waiting patiently in the magazine for their chance to shine. Assuming of course that my frozen finger could find and toggle the safety, I would need to take all the time the old bird would oblige.
As if orchestrated by an acclaimed novelist, a geyser of snow blasted from a nearby grassy mound driven by a flurry of wing beats and golden feathers. As indicated by the line of large tracks coming to an end under the exploding mound of grass, along with a hunter's instinct, this was no hen; this fact confirmed not by the crimson red eye patch, or the shimmering of surrounding greens and blues as you might guess, but instead by the supernal white ring breaching the cloud of snow, lancing through the immeasurable white produced by the blizzard as if it were a light in darkness. As any upland hunter will tell you, no conscious knowledge of the sequence from flush to shot is sequenced in thought; this experience is as fluid and thoughtless as breathing, with the only mental element remaining as a vivid image of a bird in flight, and a ghostly fading memory of actions taken to bring it back to the earth.
Over my years of upland hunting, my passion for the outdoors has driven me to become better equipped than my early years of chasing late season roosters across the snow blown fields of southern Minnesota, but many of these introductory trips remain as my most memorable and vivid experiences. My upland hunting fire was lit in those moments of freezing cold excitement, and though a fancy shotgun, high tailed pointer, and moisture wicking clothing would have likely lead to the same experience, the lack thereof did not cause my fire to burn any less bright, and should not be a barrier preventing others from experiencing it for themselves. We all have to start somewhere, and an introduction to the wonderful world of upland hunting does not have to be an expensive one. Instead of going over some advanced wingshooting technique, comparing whose vintage shotgun has the shiniest inlay, or which $3000 bird dog is best, lets go over some basics of what an aspiring upland hunter truly needs to light their fire and begin their own lifelong upland journey.
To begin with, the only common element of clothing all beginning upland hunters should acquire is a little blaze orange for safety, and likely legality; check your state regulations for blaze orange requirements before hitting the upland. Thankfully a few articles of blaze orange will only cost a handful of dollars, if you don't already have them lying around. Beyond that, the requirements are very minimal. To this day, my go-to footwear is a nice light pair of sneakers until things start getting wet or cold, at which point the $50 Cabelas specials usually get their chance. Fancy upland shirts, pants, and vests are unnecessary, and a pair of jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and/or a light jacket you don't mind getting scratched up will work just fine. Be sure to dress in lighter weight layers so as the day progresses you can peel off the layers to keep from getting too warm. In the clothing department, everyone should be able to come up with something that will work as long as you steer clear of the extreme weather days.
The shotgun is one of the few standard items among all upland hunters' gear, and they come in all shapes, sizes, weights, gauges, and most importantly, prices. Along with bird dogs, you will not find anything more preached and touted about as an upland hunter's shotgun, and the shotguns of a seasoned upland hunter become some of their most prized and expensive possessions with costs surmounting thousands. Though one day, today's upland beginner may become tomorrow's shotgun snob (guilty as charged), a shotgun's details are much less important than what everyone makes them out to be. Many a flushed game bird has been downed from the lowest of .410s to the highest quality of kingly 16 gauges; the bottom line is if you shoot true, they will fall. Yes, there are many advantages to a higher ticket shotgun such as lighter weight and various shot spread options, but for the beginning upland hunter, you can spend as little for a shotgun as you want and be blessed with a bird dropping machine! Though any shotgun will get the job done, if you're on the hunt I would recommend a 12 or 20 gauge for several reasons: shells are readily available, both gauges have plenty of shot to create very consistent shot patterns, and they're powerful enough to tackle any game bird species. The first thing I would suggest is to borrow a gun if you don't already have one; all hunters have a shotgun or two, and most will be eager to borrow out a gun for someone looking to get into the sport. This provides a great way to gain some experience with a firearm without having to spill out any cash. The next best choice is to find your local gun shop and talk to the man or woman behind the counter. Explain your situation and that you're looking for a simple, modern, entry level shotgun whose only requirement is to shoot straight. If they try to push you on anything over $200, go somewhere else; you should easily be able to find a used shotgun under $200 if not under $100. Remington and Mossberg pumps are usually a dime a dozen, and they offer all the reliability and straight shooting needed for beginner or veteran alike. Don't get hung up on ammo, get a box of 2 3/4" #6 game loads of the appropriate gauge and you're good to go. There are countless variations of shot shells, but a #6 shot 2 3/4" will bring down every game bird species out their at a reasonable range, and you'll have great shot coverage on the pattern - worry about the details later. I won't get into any wingshooting introductions as it is perfectly fine to hit the fields and learn on the fly as it is mostly instinct. Find someone willing to offer some shooting tips on a trip through any trap shooting range can be a quick way to speed the learning curve.
The only necessary accessory is a compass or two, and knowledge of how to find your way back to your vehicle. It can save your day if not your life in some instances. The main piece of equipment beyond a compass that I would highly recommend is a backpack. I'm not talking a fancy structured backpack or anything, just a simple pack of medium size or so. Without a quality bird vest or perfect layering system, you'll need someplace to put clothing layers that you peel off along your hunt, or to have ready in case rain or cold get to you; you can also throw in some extra shells, and if things go well, the pack can serve as a great bird bag! Bring along some small cordage that you can attach to the top loop of the bag and tie on larger jackets so you don't have to cram them into your pack.
The bird dog represents the root of many an upland hunter's passion for the pursuit of game birds, and books upon books have been written on dog breeds, training, and every factor imaginable for our four legged hunting partners. There is nothing better than working with a well honed canine hunting machine, and I highly recommend taking advantage of every opportunity you can. Bird dogs take much time and investment, and I wouldn't recommend everyone to run out and just buy a dog without significant research and having hunting experience. For the upland inductee, I would recommend connecting with some fellow upland hunters in possession of bird dogs and tagging along to get dog experience. There is no doubt that a good bird dog will add birds to your game bag, and there are endless hunters ready to share the woods and guide you to your own bird dog choices.
Not having a good bird dog is a severely limiting factor in many upland species pursuits, but in as many cases, there are great opportunities for the dogless hunter. Several upland game bird species provide great dogless action including Ruffed Grouse, Ringneck Pheasant, Sharptail Grouse, and even Hungarian Partridge (I'm sure there are more, but those are the ones I have first hand dogless experience with). Ironically, the notoriously crafty king of game birds, the ruffed grouse, is one of the most huntable species without the aid of a canine sniffer. It's all about getting in their range and putting on some miles; the ruffed grouse is readily flushable and provide a great quarry for the dogless hunter, though they are one of the most difficult to connect with on the wing. Pheasants also are very huntable without a dog, especially once a little snow is on the ground. Tracking is a very enjoyable way to chase ringnecks around, and if you have a a buddy or two to bring with, you can walk tree and fence lines, crop rows and ravines. Both sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge are covey birds, and though they can be difficult to locate, once you find a covey you can chase them around and get great shooting all day without a dog. The beauty is that you will find some of these four species across most of the U.S. providing opportunity everywhere.
The main point of me writing this is hopefully an encouragement to those out there interested in taking up upland hunting but simply do not have the resources to go out and buy everything they THINK they need to get started. The reality of it is there are few requirements in getting into the sport, and anyone can start the journey with minimal to no investment at all. My own fire was lit in less than optimal circumstances and the flames have only grown brighter. The one point I will mention in closing I touched briefly already, connect with some dedicated upland guys to get a great foothold by starting with some great experiences. There are plenty of great sportsmen out there that would love to take a newbie under their wing to get some good hunting, and in the age of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, it is easier than ever to connect up with these people in your area; you might just forge a few new friendships in your growing fire for upland hunting, and hopefully you will pick up a few four legged friends along the way - English Setters preferably of course!
If you are wanting to get into upland bird hunting or even if you already have the fire lit, follow us on Instagram (@themodernwild), Twitter (@modernwildmn), our blog (www.themodernwild.com) or Facebook (Modern Wild). We always look forward to meeting new people to share stories, photos, and experiences with. Also we will continue to break down the topics outlined in this article a little further from the upland beginner's standpoint to put more detail into the gear, guns, dogs, and birds to get all people new to upland a great place to start!