Our hunting expert shares his top hot spots for waterfowl and upland birds along with his favorite local places to eat and experience the local bird-hunting culture.
For diehard bird hunters, the season gets going just as the snow begins to fall and birds settle into their seasonal habits. For waterfowlers, the migration is in full swing. For upland hunters, birds are moving to thicker, more secure cover, which might be tougher to hunt, but it’s bound to hold cackling roosters or explosive quail or a limit of tight-holding grouse.
There is as much variety to bird hunting across the country as there are regional accents and distinctive foods. Local traditions can vary even across county lines, which means a roadtrip for birds is really an exploration of the texture and variety of America. Here are some destinations to consider for consistently hot action on birds and some very distinctive local hunting—and culinary—cultures.
By December, this is the throat of the duck funnel across the interior West. Orange-legged northern mallards by the thousands are dropping into the wetlands along the northeastern shoreline of this mammoth salty sea, but that’s hardly all. This may be the best place to go for fully plumed pintails and canvasbacks, and for layout-boat hunters with long blocks of diver decoys, redheads, ruddy ducks, shovelers, and ring-necked ducks fill out mixed bags.
Big game is on waterfowlers’ minds, too. For those who drew tundra swan tags, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge offers almost guaranteed shot opportunities. Farther south, there’s great public access in the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area, and for those with big fan-powered airboats, the phragmite marshes in the shallow interior of the lake offer wonderful shooting, especially just after a cold front blows piles of northern birds into the Salt Lake basin.
Local Flavor: The best way to end a cold, wet day on the Great Salt Lake’s duck brine is over a plate of chicken-fried steak at Maddox Ranch House Restaurant in Brigham City. The warm, buttery rolls are legendary.
The economy of greater Aberdeen is so reliant on, and happy for, pheasant hunters that a local group has worked to open access to private farmland to welcome more hunters. The result is quantities of wild birds, abundant access, and one of the most hunter-friendly towns you’ll ever visit.
And the pheasant hunting ain’t bad, either. By December, the easy roosters have been picked off, and the veterans are wild and wise. They’ll head to thick cover at the first hint of hunting pressure, so bring your A-game: be stealthy, keep your dogs in check, and use a combination of post-and-push hunting and working heavy cover like cattails. Your reward will be heavy straps of long-tailed roosters.
There’s decent access around Aberdeen through the state’s Walk-In Hunting program, but the best way to find private land that’s open to hunting is to check out the website of the Aberdeen Pheasant Coalition and check out its directory of enrolled properties. Not all will be rooster factories, but they’re good places to start hunting to see the patterns of pheasant behavior. To tilt the odds even more in your favor, hunt just after a heavy snowfall. The snow will make the birds hold tight in dense cover.
Other ways to increase your bag: bring a tightly choked shotgun and heavy field loads to reach out to wild-flushing birds, bring a dog that’s happy working cattails, and place your blockers before the flushers start to push a field. After you’ve limited on pheasants, hit Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge for mallards, but remember to leave your lead shot in the pickup.
Local Flavor: The Brass Kettle does a whole bunch of dishes right, but it’s hard to go wrong with the ultimate comfort food—brisket mac & cheese—to take the edge off a cold day chasing long-tailed roosters.
Across much of the Midwest and Southeast, bobwhite quail are about as rare as one-owner Parker shotguns. But in Oklahoma’s Panhandle and across parts of adjacent northern Texas, coveys are large and abundant for hunters willing to stretch their legs.
One of the biggest contiguous pieces of quail country is the Black Kettle National Grassland, more than 30,000 acres of rolling sand hills and brushy draws located near the town of Cheyenne. The property is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and it’s almost all accessible for hunters, though there are some property-specific rules to follow.
You’ll almost certainly see other hunters, but if you’re willing to work the rough interior of the grassland, you’ll find good numbers of quail. Take good notes where you see turkeys and come back in the spring for some excellent public-land Rio Grande gobbler hunting.
If you’re interested in straying from the Panhandle, consider knocking on doors around Amarillo, Texas, and working fields for sandhill cranes. The birds aren’t especially beloved across the Panhandle, and access is more likely for these “flying prime ribs” than for quail or deer.
Local Flavor: Ode’s Drive-In in Cheyenne is a favorite spot for locals, and lunchtime is so busy that you might have to wait a bit for your burger-and-fries. However, the wait is worth it for huge portions of classic diner fare. Alas, it’s not open on weekends.
Most national discussions of New England upland hunting focus on Maine’s North Woods and for good reason: it’s big and mostly accessible, and it holds good numbers of not only ruffed grouse but woodcock as well.
But the North Woods also gets hammered along its access points. To escape the crowds, look just west of the Maine border, to northern New Hampshire, for great public hunting without all the crowds. The Connecticut Lakes Wildlife Management Area and nearby state forest offer classic big-woods grouse hunting—plus bonus snowshoe hares—and virtually limitless opportunities to explore.
For grouse, look to regenerating softwood timber stands and head-high brush. Some of the best mix of habitat is around both First and Second Connecticut lakes in the center of the area. Both are accessible off U.S. Highway 3.
Another option is to head up to either Big Brook Bog or Scott Bog for decent riparian-corridor grouse. Woodcock are seasonally abundant, but by December they will have likely moved to lower elevations and around seeps and other open water.
This forested property on either side of Pittsburg is New Hampshire’s largest block of public habitat, and you may need to drive around a bit to find out seasonal small-game use. Because the habitat rises to over 3,000 feet, snow depth will likely determine not only your ability to cover ground but also where you’ll find grouse. Try hunting the elevations just below the heavier snow line for good bird action.
Local Flavor: You can’t go wrong with a name like the Buck Rub Pub, and the food and staff at this Pittsburg institution are just as welcoming to hunters as you’d expect. Great pub fare and a wide-ranging chophouse menu.
There’s a very good reason that Louisianans kill more ducks than hunters in any other state. This is where nearly all the birds in the Mississippi Flyway end up. Over the past 13 years, The Sportsmen’s State has accounted for fully 10 percent of the annual U.S. waterfowl harvest, according to Ducks Unlimited. Half of all the ducks in the Mississippi Flyway are bagged in Louisiana, and the state’s hunters take over 30 birds per person per season.
The reason is latitude, of course. This is where birds are wintering, but the other reason is habitat. Dabbling ducks like mallards and teal love the fresh and intermediate salt marshes along the shoreline, plus there’s abundant rice and other grain production in the area to keep birds fed as they transition from south to northward migration patterns.
State and federal agencies, realizing the wealth of waterfowl possibilities in the bayou, have established a number of public properties where you can bag your share of birds. Among the best: Pass A Loutre State Wildlife Management Area on the very tip of the Mississippi River delta and the 44,000-acre Sherburne Wildlife Management Area closer to metro New Orleans.
Local Flavor: There is no shortage of excellent Cajun fare across the state. In fact, just about any crossroads café will have memorable etouffee, jambalaya, and po’ boys. But here’s a local tradition that’s worth a look: drive-through daiquiris. One of the best is Iguana’s Daiquiri Express in Buras, a little fishing community on Highway 39 between New Orleans and the end of the earth at Pass A Loutre.
If you want to prolong your wingshooting season, then consider following the northbound migration of snow geese as they move with the receding snowline. The Central Flyway is your spot, but more specifically, you’ll be hunting refuges and adjacent grain fields along the Missouri River from about Kansas City north to Sioux Falls.
This is a moveable feast, because the best spots will change from day to day and even hour to hour as the winds and hunting pressure bump birds from one township to the next. If you’ve seen videos of snow-goose cyclones, where the sky turns monochromatic with the beating white-and-black wings of snows, then you have an idea how good the action can be here. This is unplugged shotguns, no bag limits, and electronic calling. It’s high-volume wingshooting at its best.
Some hunters do well freelancing this season, but if you’re a first-timer, consider hiring a guide service like Minnesota-based Top Gun Guide Service. You’re paying for the use of hundreds of decoys and top-notch calling, sure, but the real value of a service is that they’ve done all the preliminary scouting and have a good idea where to set up, saving you at least as much time as you’ll spend hunting. They have also handled the permission side of the private-land hunting equation, another time-saver.
Local Flavor: Some people call snow geese “flying carp” for their ability to make a living off the leavings of agriculture and their general unpalatability. If you want to taste real carp, however, hit Joe Tess Place in Omaha, where they are famous for their fried-carp plates.
About the Author: Andrew McKean is a longtime outdoor writer and the former editor-in-chief of Outdoor Life. He lives in northeast Montana with his family and yellow Lab. You can follow his adventures on Instagram @aemckean or on Facebook @andrew.mckean.