Compared to waterfowling, pursuing upland game birds is far less gear intensive. One only needs a gun, some ammo, a vest to hold that ammo plus any birds shot, and, of course, a dog.
You may also want to carry some water in that vest during warm weather for the dog (and yourself). An e-collar to keep Fido under control is also a good idea, but even with these additions the gear list is still pretty short. Let’s take a look at some of these upland essentials.
Number one on the list is a shotgun, although dyed-in-wool dog people may put pooch first. An upland shotgun should be lightweight, because you’ll be carrying it far more than you’ll be shooting it.
A 12-gauge should weigh less than 7-pounds, with 6.5-pounds being ideal. A 20-gauge should weigh 6-pounds or less, and a 28-gauge around 5.5-pounds.
Browning’s A5 is a great example of a lightweight upland autoloader. My 12-gauge weighs a little over 6.5-pounds and is one of my go-to quail and pheasant guns. Browning also offers a 16-gauge A5 that weighs less than 6-pounds and just may be the ultimate upland scattergun.
Franchi’s Affinity 3 autoloader is available in both 12 and 20-gauge. The 12-gauge model is comparable in weight to the A5, while the 20-gauge weighs 6-pounds with a 26-inch barrel.
Benelli’s new Performance Shop Ultra Light Upland autoloader is also available in 12 and 20-gauge. Its featherweight alloy receiver has been given a tough burnt bronze Cerakote finish, while the respective 26- or 24-inch ported barrels have lengthened forcing cones for improved patterns. Weight for the 12-gauge is only 6.1-pounds, while the 20-gauge weighs a mere 5.2-pounds.
If looking for something more affordable, consider CZ’s new Upland Ultralight over/under. It, too, has a lightweight alloy receiver and is offered in both 12 and 20-gauge. The 12-gauge averages around 6-pounds, while the 20 weighs just 5.8-pounds.
Shotgun choice is important, but choosing the right load is also essential to upland bird hunting success.
Typically, larger shot sizes like 4s or 5s are used for pheasants, while smaller shot sizes like 6s or 7.5s are good for quail or grouse, but there can be some cross-over. For instance, number 5s will certainly bag quail, while 7.5s will drop pheasants.
Number 7s may be the best all-around upland shot size, especially for grouse, as they provided a nice balance between sufficient penetration power and pattern density. Unfortunately, lead number 7s can be difficult to find.
Last season, I enjoyed good success on quail and grouse using Federal’s new Hi-Bird upland load. The Hi-Bird line offers every shot size from 8s through 4s. I was using number 5s.
Number 5s also accounted for a quail I bagged on a Waterfowl Production Area around Thanksgiving. Some of Nebraska’s Federal WPAs offer superb upland habitat. However, non-toxic shot is required on these areas since waterfowl also frequent them.
On that hunt, I was using Winchester Blind Side Pheasant. It features cubed-shaped steel pellets that reportedly hit birds harder than traditional round shot. There are two 12-gauge Blind Side loads, both with number 5 steel shot.
When I visited that WPA the year before, I bagged a rooster pheasant using another non-toxic upland load called Hevi-Metal Pheasant which contains both round steel and tungsten Hevi-Shot pellets. It’s available in both 12 and 20-gauge in shot sizes 4 and 5.
One of last season’s surprise standout shotshells was Aguila’s High Velocity. This 12-gauge load features 1 1/4-ounces of lead shot at a speedy 1,330 feet per second. Shot sizes 2 through 9 are available, but I used 7.5s, which was a great all-around choice.
Paired with an A5 and an extended Invector DS skeet choke, that heavy Aguila payload of 7.5s was absolute death on quail.
As the season progressed, my shots seemed to get ever closer, so I progressively opened up chokes, going from skeet to cylinder. By the end of the season, I was using a Browning diffusion, or spreader, choke in my Winchester SX4.
Spreader chokes open up patterns very quickly, allowing you to hit birds at extremely close ranges. Obviously, they are best used when hunting over pointing dogs.
Browning and Kick’s are two of a very few companies that make spreader chokes. Browning only offers them for the Invector Plus choke system, while Kick’s Negative chokes are available for a wider range of shotguns.
I finished the season by going three for three on quail thanks to that diffusion choke.
Vest choice is also important. I’ve found a strap vest makes gun mount easier than a full vest. It’s also easier to adjust to fit over heavy clothing as the weather gets colder.
My personal strap vest is made by Browning, but there are many others. It has safety orange accents on the front pocket flaps and back, a large game pouch, and plenty of shell loops to keep you shooting all day.
With the youth pheasant and quail season starting this weekend, Nebraska’s upland season is upon us. It’s time to start gathering all that essential gear. Remember to respect the game and the landowner, always ask permission, and never shoot from the road.
Upland birds are best enjoyed when hunted in the proper manner, on foot while following a good dog.
Jarrod Spilger writes an outdoor column for The Independent.