Our First Western Tour: Preparations

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As a carefree, young, healthy college student, the first round of stay-at-home orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer responsibilities and less work. No longer shackled to the office cubicles where we normally carried out the duties of wildlife research assistants, my roommates and I rejoiced in the freedom, its unexpected rush into our little world. A leisurely “15 days to flatten the curve” sounded ideal. The added flexibility in our schedules meant plenty of time to catch up on sleep and binge-watch the latest Netflix series.

The first week flew by like a dream. Well-rested, we all looked forward to returning to the field for data collection. After all, fieldwork was the exciting part of our jobs, the reason we all chose this career path. Our research projects included monitoring and surveying pronghorn, desert bighorn, aoudad, mule deer, kit fox, and desert quails. Pretty neat.

However, when the message came down the pipe that fieldwork and classes were suspended for the foreseeable future, we instantly became restless. The daily sessions devoted to accomplishing work to-dos regressed, beginning later and later in the morning and the statement “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere” came earlier and less animated. I had to find a new way to stretch my legs. I needed some self-imposed structure in my life.

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As a part of my daily routine, I began running my bird dog every morning for 30-60 minutes depending on the weather, rucking or running for a minimum of 1 hour, working for a minimum of 8 hours, and then a 2-hour session of recreational reading and writing (outside of research) for a combined. It was a great decision that I am still benefiting from today. The evening reading and writing sessions, in particular, introduced me to a world of bird hunting experiences I was unfamiliar with. Having a natural proclivity for research and plenty of downtime, these brief evening sessions progressed into full-blown, obsessive reviews of the diversity of game birds across the United States.

I first created an exhaustive list of season dates and harvest regulations for all upland species, by state, in the western half of the U. S. Next, I studied species distributions, habits, habitats, and hunting strategies, gleaning and synthesizing as much information about the species of interest. Fast-forward ahead 3 months into the quarantine and I had a general understanding of the western gamebirds and where to find them – as good a grasp as one can gain while sitting in front of a computer screen, anyhow. And so began the inception of my first upland road trip.

The previous season, my first hunting season with a bird dog, I had experienced what I would consider a dream season, or a season spent traveling the country, covering new ground, hunting new bird species. However, these trips usually only lasted 3-4 days, with the longest extending to 8 days. The adventure I had in mind for my second bird hunting season would be a significant undertaking, spanning over a dozen states, hunting over a dozen species, ambitious for even a seasoned bird hunter. My own personal interpretation and mash-up of two recent upland hunting reads, A Hunter’s Road by Jim Fergus and Western Wings: Hunting Upland Birds on the High Plains by Ben O. Williams.

I would spend the month of September, the first month of bird hunting season in the lower 48 states, on an upland road trip, hunting my way through 3 states with the hopes of bagging 9 species. The trip would begin in Utah on Sept 1st, where I would hunt ruffed grouse and dusky grouse for 3 days before heading up into the high country for a 3-day backcountry hunt for white-tailed ptarmigan. Then, I would head back to civilization to shower, re-organize, re-up on supplies, and catch up on any work-related tasks before heading north for northwest Montana. While in western Montana, I would hunt forest grouse (ruffed, dusky, and spruce grouse) for 4 days and 1 day hunting California quail down in the Bitterroot Valley. After a quick day in town, cleaning up and catching up, I would turn east, traveling halfway across the state to chase chukar, Hungarian partridge, sharp-tailed grouse, and sage grouse for 3 days. After wrapping up in Big Sky country, I planned to travel to my fourth and final destination, central Wyoming for the sage-grouse opener, before returning back to Texas. It would be a long trip.

With a general schedule written out and route mapped out, I turned my focus towards the packing list. I’m sure there are better, more efficient methods for packing gear for a long hunting trip, but mine is rather primitive. I drug every single piece of gear, down to the smallest pocketknife or box of matches, out onto the living room floor. A literal gear dump. Being a serial over-packer, I packed gear for every scenario. Gear that might not be utilized more than once a season. Additionally, it’s my personal preference to take a duplicate of any piece of equipment that’s failure would mean the trip was over. With the gear laid out on the floor, I began forming piles by categories: camping (tent, sleeping bag, etc.), cooking (jet boil, spatula, matches, food, etc.), hunting (bird vest, shotshells, gun, etc.), clothing (including boots, gloves, caps), dog care (first aid, bowls, collars, etc.), utility (toolkits, bungees, ratchets, etc.), and general (anything that doesn’t quite fit in the other categories). I trimmed out the items deemed unnecessary and placed them in another room. Out of sight, out of mind. Then, I methodically organized the remaining gear into bags, boxes, truck bed drawers, and interior truck storage locations. The last pieces of gear, coolers, water jugs, dog food, and kennel, would go into the truck bed the night before my departure.

Training executed. Research conducted. E-scouting completed. Schedule outlined. Route planned. Gear packed. My bird dog, Cash, and I were ready for anything the road and a month of hunting could throw at us. After months of tedious preparation, it was time to reap the benefits of our efforts. It was time to strike out in search of illustrious new adventure. Adventure that was sure to be filled with record highs and all-time lows, chockfull of memories enough to last a lifetime.

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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