As a big game hunter, who occasionally shot upland birds, jumping into a more dedicated approach to fully utilizing my versatile hunting dog has been an eye opener. Bird hunting seems to have many more options than big game. If one chases both upland and waterfowl there is an amazing opportunity for days afield. However, it takes a bit more planning and thought that I had originally assumed. Most big game hunting allows for a lot of cross over in gear. The gear you wear chasing Muleys might very well work for your elk pursuit, and vice versa.
Upland is the easiest transition. All it really requires is a shotgun and dedicated upland vest. The upland vest needs to serve some simple purposes. One, ensure you meet the blaze orange requirements of where are. Two, have a spot to stash a few birds. Three, have some pockets to organize gear (shells, leashes, gloves, etc.). Dedicated uplanders might add upland specific packs, but these more than likely evolve as upland pursuits evolve into more advanced pursuits. In most cases your big game hunting boots will work just fine. However, wet days make an insulated rubber boot a welcome addition.
Another nice to have upland gear item is some sort of waterproof pants or chaps. I mainly just use my Sitka Thunderhead pants as they are quiet, seem to snag less than standard rain pants, and breath decent enough for what I do. I have hunted in knee high rubber boots and jeans and been frustrated with the amount of debris that drops down into the boot when wandering through tall grasses and brush. A gaiter, or pants over the boot, are a must. Dedicated uplanders probably have better suggestions and tips, but in my opinion this minimal list is enough to get one out hunting. Time afield will reveal needed if additional gear is needed.
Waterfowl, on the other hand is one complicated son of a gun! There are about as many ways to chase these winged devils as there are styles of big game hunting. Timber, marshes, fields, tidal flats, rivers, the list goes on and on. Adding to the complexity is that often waterfowl hunting is done in some nasty weather! Waders are must have for some of these, rubber boots and rain gear for others. Weather might dictate the need for gloves, and don’t forget calls. Thousands of duck and geese calls are on the market, with die hard followers. If that is not enough to complicate things, add in some decoys! Still not enough, how about stands and covers to keep your hunting dog in position and out sight! Then there are the rules, and specie identification requirements, some of which must be made on the fly (literally). In my opinion Waterfowl hunting is perhaps the most intimidating sport to jump into. The massive amount of gear that seems needed, the need to understand the rules, the art of shooting on the fly, and time of year the seasons exist, all add to this.
I choose to add a hunting dog to my family and spent some serious time (albeit not enough) in training. This has allowed me to blunder my way through a decently successful upland experience. The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) has chapters across the country. My initial membership began with the Alaska Yukon Chapter, and transitioned to the PNW Chapter due to a relo for work. The group approach to training and mentoring was critical to getting me to where I am, and much more is needed before my Pudelpointer is the dog I know he can be. My point in this is that I was new to gun dog training and found a place to mentor and train me on this journey. It is something I plan to below to for as long as a hunting dog is in my house.
Upland was an easy enough transition that I feel most people could blunder their way through it with minimal help. Northwest WA State has several pheasant release sites to explore, and despite the crowds, people are always friendly and willing to help. I hope that similar scenarios exist in areas across the USA and Canada, or your experience might be more difficult. Where I felt a bit overwhelmed was taking on waterfowl. Several key questions came to my mind. What shotgun works best for this pursuit? Do I have the gear to even make it to the good spots? How in the world do they train those dogs to sit perfectly still and quiet while birds are a flying and calls are a squawking? Is this free duck call (thanks to a Ducks Unlimited mailing) going to work, and am I even doing it correctly? Do I really need to call? If so, when? Is that bird that just flow over legal? Decoys…. Where do I start on those?
As I pondered these questions, I realized I had too much to lose to “wing it.” Breaking a rule, even unintended, is not something I am willing to risk. I also did not want to develop bad habits, both for me and the dog! My first step was to starting talking to waterfowl hunters. Surprisingly many still used pump shots guns (Remington 870s) and used far less gear than I assumed. My goal was simply to talk hunting with them. I purposely did not invite myself, or even hint at a joint excursion. I just gathered info. Through the process I decided two things, one to join the Washington Waterfowl Association (WWA) (mainly because their monthly meetings are conveniently located) and get to a dedicated shotgun range and get to know my shotgun better.
I am hoping that the meetings with the WWA allow me to better understand the issues faces local hunters and learn more about local species, migrations, and habitat. I am slowly building relationships that I hope evolve into days afield with experienced waterfowlers. The shotgun range proved that a 20 gauge, while not ideal can still drop some ducks. My bird hunting journey is just beginning, the learning curve will be long, but the journey is what it is all about. I hope this helps one enough to jump in and get going.
To summarize. If you have a dog, join a training club of some sort. If there is a bird hunting group that meets near where you live, join it (Pheasants Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, etc.). You owe it to the birds to shoot that shotgun more, find a shotgun club and spend some time there. Use what gear you have, add what you need as the need becomes apparent. But most of all build relationships (attend meetings, training sessions, and work days) and continually educate yourself on regulations and the species you plan to pursue.
As my journey progresses, I’ll provide updates on key learnings, must have gear, and more! Get going and get out there!