My Lab, Kiri, and I walked into a grassy swale on a southwestern Montana ranch a couple days ago and two pheasants flushed from the cover, surprising and thrilling both of us. As it happened, both those birds were protected hens, so shooting wasn’t part of the story.
An hour later we completed our stroll through the pheasant cover. We never did put up any roosters, though I did spot one, head down and making tracks down a little ditch created by a center pivot irrigation system tire. That pheasant made a successful escape.
A couple hours earlier Kiri and I walked along a warm water spring creek on the same ranch in search of ducks. One bunch of ducks flushed from their tropical paradise before I got in range, though I did get some shooting when we put up another little group of mallards.
I won’t count the covey of Hungarian partridge that flushed from an alfalfa field, as they got up within 20 yards of ranch corrals where ranch family members were feeding cattle. I love to get the occasional partridge, both for their delicious meat and feathers for flytying, but not at the price of losing my welcome.
Obviously, this isn’t the type of hunting story we look for if we happen to pick up a hunting magazine. We expect to see the results of a lot of shooting, more than a dead shotshell or two.
The real story is that there are lots of opportunities for hunting in early winter, even if the general deer and elk seasons have closed for another year.
The upland bird hunting season, Montana’s longest hunting season, still has almost a month to go before it closes at sunset on New Year’s Day. There is still time to chase some pheasants, or roam an aspen thicket for ruffed grouse. Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse, even wild turkeys, are still fair game.
It’s a different game now in early winter than it was in September and October. As the seasons progress, sharptails bunch up and if you see some sharpies the chances are they will see you first and take off and fly a mile or so. The pheasants of December are mainly the survivors of this year’s hatch. These are the birds that have evaded hunters and predators and if they survive the winter, these are the birds that will produce the next generation next spring. They’re survivors and not forgiving of hunter mistakes.
As for waterfowl, the late season is my favorite time for bagging some prime drake mallards. They’ve been feeding on waste grain in the stubble fields and a fat mallard is a gourmet treat on the dinner table.
I’m actually hoping for some colder weather in coming weeks that will move ducks off the rivers and onto these little spring creeks.
I rarely hunt geese, but on my walk of a few days ago, I saw big bunches of Canada geese, both in the air and on a field where they were feeding. Goose hunting can be challenging, but there is definitely no shortage of birds.
The waterfowl season, here in the Pacific Flyway portion of Montana, runs through January 6, then closes for a few days, and reopens on January 12 for a long weekend before it closes for good on January 16. Of course, check the regulations or go online to Fish, Wildlife & Parks for more details on season dates, and note that the Central Flyway dates are slightly different.
Of course, we do have these shoulder seasons for elk, if you’re still looking for one of those big deer to fill the freezer. I think the jury is still out as to whether extended seasons for elk is the way to manage them but we don’t have the space for that discussion right now.
In any event, here in Montana, we are blessed with long hunting seasons and that translates to lots of opportunities to stretch our legs and horizons.