A bird dog zig-zags through a grove of Douglas fir and pine at about 6,200 feet in elevation on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness.
There’s already a dusting of snow on the jagged 10,000-foot peaks, and a wool shirt is mighty comfortable. It’s September, and it’s time to chase mountain grouse on forested ridges and mountain sidehills in Idaho’s high country.
The dog is sniffing the tangled mass of boughs at the base of one evergreen, and the excitement intensifies. You’ve found the birds here in years past and anything can happen. You have a regular circuit that takes you each fall into the Sawtooths, Boise or Salmon River mountains for the coveted game bird that’s hard to beat smothered in mushrooms in a Dutch oven.
Frrrrrrr! Five birds flush within seconds of each other. The thrumming sound of their wings throws you off for a second, but it doesn’t take long to zero in on the birds flying through the trees. Boom! Boom! Two down. The rest vanish in the trees.
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Upland bird seasons for grouse and doves are already open, and the chances to hunt chukars, huns and quail are coming up fast.
Most bird populations are up, and it looks like a good year to be an upland hunter.
“It’s a good year for blues. Conditions are dry, but it looks like there was a real good hatch,” said Winton Sanders of Boise, a veteran forest grouse hunter.
“We saw groups of six to eight birds and haven’t seen those numbers in a while,” he said after hunting in the mountains of western Idaho. “I talked to a couple of friends and they got three birds, and another group got seven.”
Idaho Fish and Game biologists are upbeat, too.
The reason for this year’s optimistic forecast goes back a couple years. In general, the spring and summer of 2014 and the mild winter of 2014-15 were favorable for upland birds. As a result, a good number of game birds survived. With more birds carrying over and a good hatch for the second year in a row, there should be plenty of birds for hunters. This year’s spring and early summer weather conditions also contributed to the survival of young birds.
“Most species are up compared to 2014,” said Jeff Knetter, Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s upland game and migratory bird coordinator.
Here’s a rundown from Fish and Game’s annual fall bird report:
Ruff grouse populations are up from last year, thanks to good carryover and an excellent hatch, biologists said.
Dusky and spruce grouse numbers are up this year, too, spurred on by a mild winter, good spring and summer conditions and a solid hatch. Forest grouse season opened Aug. 30 and continues to Dec. 31 in Southwest and Central Idaho. The daily bag limit is four with 12 in possession.
Zimo’s take: I’ve already been hunting and got into a large brood of birds. I’ve also seen a good number of birds while hiking the high country this summer.
Favorable late spring and early summer weather likely contributed to a good hatch. The forecast indicates populations should be up from last year and above the 10-year trend. Idaho Fish and Game will begin stocking wildlife management areas throughout the state before the youth hunts and continue throughout the season.
Pheasant season in Southwest Idaho is from Oct. 17 to Dec. 31. The daily bag limit is three roosters with a possession limit of nine. The limit on wildlife management areas with a permit is two each day and six in possession.
Zimo’s take: Wildlife management areas are the place to go for pheasant hunting if you can avoid crowds, though hunters are usually successful even on busy days. I’ve hunted thick, brushy river bottoms throughout the Treasure Valley in past years and have seen an increase in the number of wild birds.
Populations along the Bruneau and East Fork Owyhee rivers are up. Populations at Arrowrock and Brownlee reservoirs and along the South Fork Payette River appear to have slightly improved, too.
Hunters can expect to find larger broods in their usual areas compared to last year. Hunters should avoid hunting upland birds within the perimeter of the Soda Fire in Southwest Idaho. Other hunting areas in the Owyhees should be good. Hunting season for Southwest Idaho is from Sept. 19 to Jan. 31. The daily bag limit is eight and 24 in possession.
Zimo’s take: I’m seeing and hearing chukars on the Boise Front and in areas of the Boise River Wildlife Management area where I haven’t seen them in 20 years. That’s a good sign the hatch is up. I’ve also seen and heard birds along the Salmon River. It’s definitely going to be a year to hike your heart out for chukars.
The number of gray partridge, commonly referred to as Hungarian partridge, have been excellent during the past three years and remains stable. Hunters can expect to find gray partridge in uplands near agricultural fields and in sagebrush near water. Hunters should avoid the area within the boundaries of the Soda Fire. Good hunting can be found in Gem, Washington and Adams counties.
Hunting season in Southwest Idaho is from Sept. 19 to Jan. 31. The daily bag limit is eight partridge with 24 in possession.
Zimo’s take: I’ve really never gotten into gray partridge, but friends have and talk about how populations have increased in years in the agricultural/foothills areas north of the Treasure Valley. The good hatch can only mean good hunting again.
Quail numbers counted along established brood routes are up compared with 2014, and the 10-year trends are stable. Quail production appears to range from good to excellent, with reports of good numbers across the Treasure Valley. Overall, quail hunting should be productive in areas with good stands of brush and berries near perennial water sources. Hunters should stay outside the Soda Fire perimeter. Hunting season is from Sept.19 to Jan. 31. The daily bag limit is 10 with 30 in possession.
Zimo’s take: Thirty in possession limit? In your dreams. That would take me 20 boxes of shotgun shells. However, I’m buying extra boxes of Steel 7s for quail hunting while I’m waterfowl hunting. The whole Snake River Plain should be excellent. I had great shooting last season and expect the same thing this fall. Notice I said good shooting. My average is one bird for four shots. These birds fly fast and furious.
Greater Sage grouse
Lek (breeding ground) surveys showed an increase in most of Owyhee County. Two mild winters means hens came into spring in good condition, which translates to good nest success and brood survival. Hunters can expect to find good numbers of grouse near water sources. Steer clear of the Soda Fire perimeter. The seven-day sage grouse season runs through Sept. 25, with a one-bird daily limit and a two-bird possession limit. A separate permit that costs $4.75 is required for hunting sage and sharp-tailed grouse.
Zimo’s take: I don’t hunt sage grouse, but my friends who do usually get birds. I remember hunting sage grouse in Owyhee County when groups of 15-20 would get up at the same time. It was a glorious sight, but it’s not like that anymore.
Late-August dove numbers are down compared to 2014. Grain was cut two weeks earlier this year, and most fields were already tilled, leaving the birds no reason to stick around after the first cold snap in early September. Dove production appears to be very good with a lot of young birds observed along established brood routes. Mild winters also translate in to good survival rates from 2014.
Dove season was extended again in 2015. It opened Sept. 1 and will go through Oct. 30. The daily bag limit is 15 and possession limit is 45. Mourning dove hunters must have a valid Idaho hunting license with a federal migratory bird validation.
A similar bird can also be found in Idaho — the Eurasian-collared dove. The hunting season is open year-round because they are not native to Idaho and are considered invasive. Hunters still need a license, but a federal migratory bird validation is not needed.
Zimo’s take: I saw a lot of doves this summer, especially in the Boise Foothills and along the Boise River Wildlife Management Area and thought it would be a good hunt. In the past few weeks, many have flown south. I expect to see a limited number of doves from now through October, but I wouldn’t zero in on doves because of the other upland hunts that are, or will be, open. Expect to see Eurasian-collared doves throughout the hunting season. They seem to stick around longer than mourning doves. Doves migrating through Idaho from the north are sticking to areas with a lot of sunflowers.
Ducks and Geese
If you saw some of the dried-up desert potholes this spring, you might be worried about the hatch of ducks and geese. But with areas like Lake Lowell, the Snake, Boise and Payette river drainages and wildlife management areas, there were plenty of places for duck and goose nesting. That means good bird numbers.
“I made a drive the other day along the Snake River, and waterfowl are fine. There weren’t any water shortages,” said Craig White, Region Three wildlife manager for Idaho Fish and Game. “To me, resident birds will be fine. The big question will be later in the season in what is coming down from the north.”
Local birds are the ones Idaho hunters get in the first few weeks of the waterfowl season. Then there’s a wait for northern birds to arrive on their migration from Canada and Alaska. Alberta is a vital breeding area for birds passing through Idaho.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the 2015 estimate for breeding ducks in Alberta’s prairie and park lands is 5.7 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimate and 33 percent above the long-term average. The outlook for Pacific Flyway goose populations is generally positive, according to Ducks Unlimited.
Duck season in Southwest Idaho is from Oct. 17 to Jan. 29. The daily bag limit is seven, and the possession limit is three times the daily limit. Bag limits on certain kinds of ducks are limited, so read the state’s waterfowl regulations for details.
Zimo’s take: Like Craig White said, even though a lot of the desert potholes lacked water in the spring, there was still plenty of water in Treasure Valley wetlands for good production of ducks and geese.
Hunters who get out on opening day will have good shooting for the first week or so. If winter kicks up its heels in Canada in November, the cold weather could drive lots of birds south and make for good hunting later in the season.