Hunting For Habitat

Celebrating conservation on the Montana prairie

Even here, on the sunny south-facing hillside, a good amount of last night’s snow remains on top of the thin layer of ice. The fresh snow dampens my footsteps as I watch the pointers circle downwind of a copse of trees, each dog testing the breeze and looking serious about the results. As one dog stiffens, the other follows suit. Bryce Daviess of High Steppe Bird Dogs and Montana Upland Outfitters looks back and signals me to get on the downhill side of the stunted trees. Daviess takes the high side, moving toward the dogs until he is standing next to them. The dogs don’t flinch, sensing the unseen with their noses. Daviess plunges into the thicket, beating away branches as he progresses step by step. He doesn’t go far before I hear the familiar rumble of a rooster pheasant taking flight. As the bird comes into view, I mount my gun and swing. At the report, the pheasant cascades back to earth amid a shower of autumn-colored feathers. Daviess’ pointer brings the bird to hand, and I slip it in the back of my vest where another pheasant, three sharp-tailed grouse and three Hungarian partridge had been that morning. To say it had been a good day would be an understatement.

Eleven hours earlier I was staring up at the Montana sky from a layout blind alongside Brian Kelvington of Federal Premium Ammunition, Jared Wiklund of Pheasants Forever, and our guide, Cale Updegrave of Montana Upland Outfitters. Wiklund had invited me to Montana in late November to witness the ongoing collaboration between Pheasants Forever and Federal Premium Ammunition—a partnership that has been protecting and creating new upland habitat for more than four decades. When a winter storm blanketed the area with snow overnight, it didn’t take much convincing from Updegrave to see if the geese would cooperate. 

Hunters gathered in Montana to witness the results of Pheasants Forever and Federal’s longtime partnership.

Icy snow continued to fall as the sun crested the horizon, illuminating the six dozen Canada goose decoys Updegrave had placed earlier that morning. Soon groups of geese began to appear in the distance, rising from the land like puffs of smoke.

“Four birds coming over the pivot to the left,” Updegrave suddenly whisper-yelled, and the four of us simultaneously tucked into the blinds. “Keep your faces hidden. Stay as low as you can. Don’t move until I call the shot.”

Updegrave blew a series of honks and clucks, and the geese continued toward us. When they were 80 yards out, they turned slightly, skirting the edge of the decoys and passing straight in front of us but out of range. As they reached the right edge of the decoys, they turned away, circling to the left for a final pass. Updegrave continued calling as the geese slid back and forth squarely in front of us, losing elevation with each change in direction. Finally, with the birds’ feet stretching toward the ground and wings backpedaling, Updegrave called the shot—and all four geese fell into the decoys with as many shots.

It was a morning of firsts for me. I had never shot a goose with a 20-gauge, let alone an over/under. The night before when Kelvington had handed me a box of HEVI XII No. 4s, I had been skeptical. I’d grown up believing that goose hunting required a 3½" 12-gauge and shells stuffed with BBs.

“They’re tungsten,” he’d tried to reassure me, but I’d looked at him quizzically. “Imagine throwing a ping-pong ball and a golf ball at the same speed. Which one is going to hit harder? It’s the same with steel and tungsten. You’re holding the golf-ball version.”

Beautiful habitat in creek bottoms and coulees produced not only Huns, but also pheasants and sharptails.

As group after group of Canadas worked into the decoys that morning, our stack of birds grew until we had a three-man limit. In Montana that’s 15 birds. Of those, only one had required a follow-up shot on the ground. Most of the geese I’d shot had been dead before they’d hit the dirt. 

With a pile of geese in the bed of the truck, the four of us headed back to camp. As we drove, pheasants scampered across the road and flocks of sharptails flickered in the hills. When we crested the final rise, camp stretched below us with welcoming woodsmoke rising from the half-dozen wall tents.

In my tent I found my pointer, Tippet, shivering—not from the cold but from anticipation. The evening before, when I’d arrived, I’d let her out of the truck to stretch and had gotten concerned when she hadn’t returned after 10 minutes. When I’d gone looking for her, I’d rounded a stand of Russian olives and found her on point. Moments later three pheasants had exploded from the brush. After that she’d been all business—and bathroom breaks were taken on a lead . . . .

After restocking the wood stove and making sure Tippet was squared away, I headed for the mess tent. There I found a steaming Dutch oven filled with sausage gravy and plates of biscuits and fried eggs waiting on a long wooden table. I sat down across from Wiklund and, as I was enjoying breakfast, asked him about the relationship between Federal and Pheasants Forever. He explained that during the past 40-plus years Federal has produced more than 55 million shotgun shells in support of the work that Pheasants Forever does for conservation. Through an on-box royalty program, a portion of the sales from shells like Federal’s Prairie Storm series goes toward funding nationwide conservation projects as well as Pheasants Forever acquisition projects. What often goes unsaid is that Federal also contributes 11 percent of its ammunition sales to wildlife conservation through Pittman-Robertson funds.

Camp consisted of a half-dozen wall tents—all thankfully outfitted with wood stoves.

After breakfast Anthony VonRuden, the owner of Montana Upland Outfitters, had Kelvington and me grab our dogs and jump in his truck. We rambled through prairie hills along dirt roads paralleling brushy draws and past occasional herds of cattle. Eventually VonRuden pulled the truck to the side of the road and explained that we would work to the northeast, following a frozen, snaking creek while Daviess and two other hunters would come from the west until we met at the confluence of two creeks. 

The moment we descended into the creek bottom, VonRuden’s dog got birdy, and an instant later a covey of Huns blew out from the hillside. I snapped the gun to my shoulder, emptied both barrels and was amazed to see three Huns fall. I thought about calling it a day and heading to the nearest gas station for a lottery ticket, but decided to save whatever luck I had left for the remainder of the hunt. The creek bottom was riddled with freshly stamped pheasant tracks, and the dogs kicked into another gear, quartering back and forth amidst a tangle of Russian olives, wheatgrass and stunted cedar trees. I imagined a stampede of pheasants ducking and dodging through the cover in front of us. 

VonRuden signaled me to follow him into a steep, narrow coulee stemming away from the creek. He climbed the side of the ravine, taking the high ground in hopes of keeping the birds below. We continued up the coulee for a few minutes before a rooster flushed behind me. I fired twice, missing both times, before the pheasant disappeared, and then heard a single shot and VonRuden cheering above. He had watched Kelvington take a high crossing shot on the rooster and bring it down almost at his feet.

Afternoon hunts provided plenty of opportunities to take handsome, long-tailed roosters.

When we reached the upper end of the coulee, Daviess and the other hunters appeared in the distance. VonRuden told Kelvington and me to take positions behind a turn in the creek and act as blockers. When the other group was a couple hundred yards away, pheasants began peeling out of the cover between us. Shouts of “Hen” and “Rooster!” echoed back and forth as occasional shots sounded. No roosters flew close enough to me, but the group downed several birds and spirits were high as we returned to the trucks.

Back at camp, the wind picked up considerably and sporadic flurries of snow and ice pelted the sides of the tent. Ducking into the mess tent, I found Daviess, Kelvington, Wiklund and several others warming themselves by the wood stove. I asked if anyone wanted to sneak in an afternoon hunt along the creek where Tippet had found the pheasants the previous evening. 

“Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Daviess laughed, as ice and snow continued to assault the tent. Everyone else was up for it as well. 

Mornings were spent hunting geese, which proved receptive to calling and decoys.

Making our way through the hills behind camp, Daviess’ pointers moved from one stand of Russian olives to another as flocks of sharptails flushed wild in the distance. Eventually a pointer locked up, and Wiklund and I moved in on either side as Daviess walked in front. With the sun sinking below the prairie hills and a muscled pointer beside me, I felt like I was in a painting. That feeling intensified when five sharptails erupted 40 yards out front and three fell dead. We picked them up and continued along the creek, the dogs bouncing between the frozen stream and the trees on the adjacent hillsides. As we looped back toward camp, Daviess’ pointer pinned the final rooster of the day, and my vest got a little heavier.

That marked the end of the first of three days hunting with Montana Upland Outfitters. The following days proceeded much the same, with geese in the morning; a hearty breakfast; pheasants, grouse and Huns in the afternoon; and then beers, dinner and camaraderie in the evening. I sometimes wonder how many days with that schedule I could take before I tired of them—but I’d be happy to try to find out. 

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