The jet black Labrador retriever weaves excitedly through waist-high switch grass, eager in his quest for ring-necked pheasants. His enthusiasm is contagious, and I share a smile with the hunters to my left and right. Promptly the dog’s eyes widen and his tail comes alive—pheasants are afoot. We follow along as the dog tracks the birds’ scent until a thunderous cackling and whirring of wings erupts—powerful music to the bird hunter’s ears. Three roosters flush. We drop two of the birds, while a third finds refuge in a nearby cornfield. The Lab races to retrieve each downed bird.
The morning had all the feeling of a “wild” pheasant hunt, but my friends and I were in fact hunting a well-managed preserve in South Dakota. Our group consisted of seasoned sportsmen, but preserve hunts are also made for those who simply desire a taste of upland hunting. Why? They’re typically full of birds; there’s no need to bring dogs, as well-trained dogs are generally available with experienced guides; and, in many cases, you don’t even need a shotgun—just a little cash to rent one.
Ready to give upland hunting a try? Here’s what to include in your bird-preserve starter kit.
Regular old jeans are widely worn and acceptable, but they provide minimal protection from moisture and thorns. If you care to invest further in your comfort, consider a pair of upland chaps or field pants. Many are waterproof and include a brush-blocking material such as nylon across the thighs, knees and shins.
Snag-Proof Jacket and Vest
Select a jacket that’s waterproof, snag-resistant and sufficiently warm, but not too thick—accurate wingshooting requires fluidity of motion. My preferred material is a tough, lightweight blend of cotton and polyester canvas. I consider the Beretta Upland Jacket to be a top-tier product for its durability, comfort and ample pockets. Gander Mountain offers a more affordable option with its Guide Series Briar-Stop Upland Retriever Jacket.
Many upland jackets also include built-in game pouches, which are convenient for toting downed birds. However, yours may not, or it may be too warm for a jacket. That’s where an upland-game vest comes in. Such vests include the requisite game pouch as well as pockets for carrying shotshells, a bottle of water, an energy bar—whatever you may need afield.
Several newer designs are modeled after backpacks for efficient weight distribution—some even include hydration packs. Personally I like the old-fashioned sleeveless designs. The Browning Bird’n Lite Vest is a combination of both. It has the look and simplicity of a sleeveless vest, plus three adjustable harnesses for backpack-like weight distribution.
It may be cold when you step out of the truck, but once you walk a field or two you may be on the verge of a sweat. That’s why clothing layers are imperative to the upland hunter. Much of your layering, of course, depends on the weather. Preserve seasons typically run from September—when a T-shirt is permissible—through the coldest winter months. I employ a three-layer system that’s suitable for all but the most extreme cold: a moisture-wicking base layer, such as those available from Columbia; a long-sleeved shirt of a thickness relative to the cold; and a button-down shooting shirt. The shooting shirt is optional, but shirts such as Bob Allen’s High Prairie Long Sleeve Shooting Shirt offer a shooting pad on the shoulder to soak up recoil. In warmer weather, I may just wear a T-shirt under the shooting shirt. With experience, you’ll learn how many layers you require to be comfortable at a given temperature.
Lightweight Hiking Boots
The best upland boots are lightweight, waterproof and offer ample ankle support for pesky rocks and holes. I prefer thin insulation so they may be worn comfortably in all months—in cold weather I simply wear heavy, breathable socks. Any hiking boots you already own will do just fine. If you’d prefer more specialized footwear, consider a product such as Irish Setter’s Wingshooter boots.
A Bright Orange Hat
There are two types of hats to consider: A brimmed cap to shield your eyes from the sun and a stocking cap to warm your ears when it’s cold. Blaze orange hats are often required for safety; even if not, orange is always a smart idea.
Shotguns and Shells
Shotguns are often available for rent from preserves. Generally 20- and 12-gauges are offered, both of which provide more than enough oomph for birds such as ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite quail and chukar. The 12-gauge is usually more popular, as its loads contain more shot, but the 20-gauge is lighter and produces less recoil. Action choices—including pumps, semi-autos and double-barrels—are a subjective choice. While semi-autos tend to reduce recoil and double-barrels balance nicely, just pick the one with which you’re most comfortable. If your shotgun features interchangeable choke tubes, improved cylinder or modified is usually best.
Regardless of gauge, I recommend 2¾-inch shotshells loaded with 1 to 1¼ ounces of Nos. 6 or 7½ shot. A velocity of 1200-1300 fps is all that’s necessary. The ideal shotgun/choke/load combination can vary by preserve. If in doubt, consult your guide.
Two Pairs of Gloves
I keep two pairs of gloves in my upland vest—a lightweight pair for warm weather and a heavier, waterproof pair for cold and rainy days. Gloves should have of a “grippy” material on their palms and fingers and must be thin enough to easily slip a finger inside a trigger guard. For the early season, I love L.L. Bean’s Technical Upland Gloves for their comfort and dexterity. Later I switch to insulated gloves that are waterproof and offer about 400 grams of insulation.
If You Go Interested in booking a hunt? The most comprehensive and user-friendly websites I’ve found include GameBirdHunts.com and the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s WingshootingUSA.org. Simply select your state and you’ll find a bunch of preserves to choose form. Preserves can vary widely in the quality of their birds, hunting dogs and the overall experience. Ask them for the names of frequent clients so that you may consult them.