Oregon’s Bird Hunting Preserves Expand Upland Opportunities
By Gary Lewis
What do the words upland bird hunting mean to you?
Kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk. A gaudy ring-necked rooster springs out of the standing corn, headed for the blue sky as you raise your shotgun to your shoulder. You shift your weight, moving your left foot slightly ahead, your cheek settling into the stock.
Perhaps you see an image of a crisp morning when your breath turns to fog as you load the twin steel tubes and stare at the distant ridgeline. You hike to the head of the canyon and follow an old deer trail along the rimrock. A covey of chukars burst from hiding in a stand of bitterbrush, scattering bits of snow as they whirr away left and right.
Upland bird hunting means different things to different people. For some it is a social event when old college buddies gather on their annual outing. For others it is precious family time when a father and his growing daughter get to spend a few hours alone, away from the pressures of career and school. And for others it is a time of quiet, a time to hunt alone with a good bird dog, to bust the covey apart and hunt up the singles in perfect harmony.
Whatever upland bird hunting means to you, you can find it in Oregon, on public and private land. But you can't find as much of it as you once could.
Drive through upland bird habitat today. Wonder why there aren't as many pheasants and quail as there used to be? Modern farming techniques use every bit of land, leaving precious little cover for birds and other animals, maximizing profits. Furrows run to the road and tiny strips of grass are left where the combine can't reach under the barbed wire. Birds, rabbits, coyotes and deer have to eke out a living on marginal lands far from water.
Fortunately, there are still landowners that care for wildlife, leaving borders along ditches, standing grain near fences, and native grasses and trees along the streambeds. A few of these far-sighted landowners make multiple use of their land by turning it into hunting preserves. The year-round cover harbors not only gamebirds, but many other species as well.
In Oregon, preserve hunting takes the place of past state-managed bird planting operations. Today, instead of hunting state-funded pheasants on state lands, most pheasant hunts take place on private properties, many of which are licensed hunting preserves. The system also allows for expanded opportunity, giving hunters the ability to pursue gamebirds through the end of March, far beyond the end of the public-land season.
But pheasants aren't the only birds that can be hunted on preserves. Chukar are Oregon's most-hunted upland game bird. A transplant from the Himalayas, they thrive in some of the most inhospitable habitat that can be found in Oregon. Rim rocks, sheer cliffs, shale slides and canyon slopes are the chukar's home. Their principal food is cheatgrass, though you will find other kinds of seeds and berries as well as insects in their craw. Not quite as big and showy as pheasants, chukars are, however, quite sporting and make for delicious eating.
Hungarian partridge are birds of wide-open spaces. They can be found in cropland, sage, and bunchgrass country from Madras north to the Columbia, and east to the Snake River. Generally, foothill habitat close to irrigated agricultural lands provides the best hunting. When flushed, they explode like chukar, but stay together, fly a little ways, then hit the ground and run. Because they are hard flying, challenging targets, Huns are a popular bird on many preserves around the country.
Some preserves plant birds early in the year, allowing their pheasants, chukars, and Huns to take up residence, find mates, and raise up broods of chicks. Other preserves plant birds the day of the scheduled hunt, tailoring the experience to fit your requirements. If the hunt is arranged for the purpose of training a young dog, the property owner might cooperate by pointing out where the dog can be expected to find the scent.
It doesn't take long for pen-raised birds to gain a little savvy once they've been released in good cover. Cover is the key to a bird's future career and to your success. Often, birds from previous hunts will escape and may provide action or, more often, frustration for subsequent hunters.
Take the time to search out every corner of uncut wheat or clump of cattails. Watch the dog's body language to tell you if birds are close. Don't forget to work nearby sagebrush, or brush-choked gullies adjacent to croplands. You'll find savvy birds that have learned to avoid hunters.
Not all preserves are created equal. A few companies offer lodging and meals as a part of the package. Some provide corporate packages tailored to business groups for hunts that may last three hours or three days. Almost all the preserves can provide you with a guide and a dog if you don't bring your own. A few preserves offer fishing and duck hunting, in season.
Rising Sun Hunting Preserve (530-397-3621) offers pheasant, chukar, Hungarian partridge, and bobwhite quail hunting across the state line near Dorris, California. California's rules are even more liberal, giving the hunter from September 1 to May 31 to hunt upland birds. They tailor each hunt to fit the party. On 1,080 acres of rolling hills, the tall wheat grass, alfalfa, sweet clover, wild grasses, and brush piles make challenging habitat for flushing and pointing dogs. A guest lodge is available for hunters who book for two days. Varmint hunting is available, and several fishing ponds are on the ranch.
Rolling Hills Hunting Preserve (541-676-5819), near Heppner, is based on a 947 acre ranch. Good cover is also a hallmark of this outfit and it shows in the number of wild birds available. A creek running through the property provides water and good riparian habitat that is left untouched by the rancher. For an additional charge, Rolling Hills Preserve will supply a guide and dog at the hunter's request. RV parking is available on the property.
Mayville Flat Shooting Preserve (541-384-4705), near Condon, offers field hunts for wild or released chukar and pheasant in the rugged draws and canyons above the John Day River. The terrain is what makes these hunts challenging and productive. For something different, try their European-style driven pheasant hunts.
When considering a hunt, ask first about the cover. The quality of your hunt will be dependent on the type of ground you will be hunting. If the cover is minimal, it won't hold birds, and your hunt may not live up to your expectations.
Preserve hunting can offer a lot of shooting. Practice safe gun handling by observing shooting lanes and never shoot over another hunter's head. Hunters should stay together in a line, spaced five to ten yards apart, dogs working ahead. Wear hunter orange and don't shoot birds until they are in the air, above the dogs.
When Oregon's regular pheasant season has ended, the best way to extend your bird hunting season is to hunt on a licensed preserve. To find a place to hunt, read the ads in this magazine, or look in the Classified section of major newspapers.
Preserve hunting for pen-raised birds can extend your shooting until the 31st of March. The extra months give hunters plenty of opportunity to work with their dogs and spend extra days afield. And whatever upland bird hunting means to you, chances are you can find it on one of Oregon's upland bird preserves.