September 15, 2021
With all of its promise, opening day can really suck. This goes for ruffed grouse hunters in the Northwoods, western sharpie chasers, and anyone looking to pound the CRP in search of a few roosters. The first day in the field is a great opportunity for a lot of stuff to go wrong. Some of these hunt-ruiners are totally out of our control, while others stem from improper preparation or expectations.
Following are five of the most common issues upland hunters suffer when the opening bell rings.
We’ll start with the most common problem that can tank what should be an enjoyable kick-off to the season: dog behavior. There are really two ways that poor dog behavior comes into existence in the early season. The first just stems from game day excitement and the accompanying erosion of solid off-season skills. It doesn’t matter how perfect your dog was in the backyard in August, actual hunting will chip away at those skills, which is no more evident than on the first hunt of the season.
The other area where dog behavior stinks when it should shine, is when we ask too much of dogs that aren’t ready. If you haven’t trained your dog to work gnarly cover, cast back and forth at a desirable distance, or maybe honor another dog, you shouldn’t expect that in the field. Opening day, for all its glory, is a reminder of what we need to work on with our dogs when we aren’t hunting.
Dog Gear Mistakes
More than a few opening day hunters have gone to beep or tone their excited pointer only to realize that their e-collar is deader than disco. Or, that the check cord they intended to keep on their first-year retriever is hanging in the garage, not coiled up in the back of the pickup.
This is where a checklist, and a system for organizing gear, comes in mighty handy. As a lifelong, obsessive bowhunter, I’ve leaned heavily into this strategy to make sure I have everything I need, every time I hunt. The same holds true whether you’ve got treestands in the back of your pickup or a crate containing your four-legged hunting partner’s gear and accessories.
When it comes to upland hunting, there are some things that dogs always need when you head to the field. A tote or gear bag filled with them is a good idea. Extra bumpers, a first aid kit, water, e-collar components, dog vests, and other hunt necessities all fit in a medium-sized container, which is best tossed into the truck before the season ever begins. Replace and restock any items as you need them, and train yourself to make the tote a staple item just like your boots and shotgun.
Hunter Gear Faux Paus
Over the years, more than a few excited upland hunters have laced up brand new boots minutes before hiking out onto the prairie or the big woods. More than a few of them have limped home long before they had a limit, or sunset forced them out of the field, too. Opening day isn’t the time to try new gear for you or your dog. Even something as simple as brush pants or a new blaze orange vest should get a test run before an actual hunt.
I’ve had upland clothing that I absolutely hated for various reasons and finding that out an hour into a hunt isn’t much fun. Those pre-season walks where you and your dog are working toward being a little more hunt-conditioned are great opportunities to break in boots and take a test drive with new duds.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but this also goes for guns. Familiarity with a shotgun is a good thing for safety, and overall hunt enjoyment. If you treated yourself to a new scattergun in the off-season, take it to the range and bust a few clays with it before carrying it into the field for the first time.
In a similar vein, while not technically gear in the sense that your hunting partners are flesh and blood, opening day is often not the best time to trial run a new hunting buddy. There are too many what-ifs to bring a question-mark partner along. It’s best to work out the kinks of the new season solo, or with a trusted, tried-and-true hunting partner before expanding your hunt buddy roster.
Daydreams & Nightmares
In 2014 I hunted mule deer on public land in South Dakota. During that hunt, I flushed roughly a million roosters while trying to crawl up on the whitetail’s big-eared cousins. The following year, a buddy and I drove out there with our dogs to do something about some of those ringnecks on opening weekend.
When we got there, we realized there were tons of hunters with the exact same idea. As a kicker, it was pretty hot and the grass that held the deer and roosters the year before had been mostly grazed down to unhuntable levels.
It was a good reminder that even though bird season is open and life should be good, unrealistic expectations and poor hunt planning can conspire to make it a nightmare. If you’re a public land hunter, go in with realistic expectations no matter what your target species is. If the weather isn’t going to be all that sweet for hunting, plan accordingly. Even though it’s easy to get lost in daydreams of easy limits, opening day crowds and early season weather often deliver a less-desirable outcome. This is much easier to stomach when you set out with the understanding that real-world hunting is out there waiting for you.
Counting on Consistency
If you’ve got a well-managed ranch that is full of bobwhites and you’re the only one with the key to the gate, you can probably expect pretty good hunting. Ditto for the retriever owner whose grandpa is the title holder to 5,000 acres of prime pheasant habitat in North Dakota. For most of us, the one constant from year to year is change.
Bird populations fluctuate wildly depending on habitat and weather. This affects them both on a broad scale, and often, on a micro level that might make one section a bird desert while two miles away it’s a candy store. Like with our South Dakota hunt, just because you had great hunting last year, doesn’t mean this year will mirror previous years. This became real evident to a lot of us last season when hunting license sales stayed pandemic-level high and outdoor participation in all-things-hunting grew.
Count on something to be different but don’t dwell solely on the negatives. Sometimes things break for the better from year to year, which is always welcome. Even so, expect different results and a different experience from year’s past because that’s what you’ll most likely get.
Opening day is often bittersweet. It’s the kickoff to a period of time we love the most, but also an opportunity that is ripe for failure and frustration. But, there are a lot of things we can do in the days leading up to the season to address dog issues, gear concerns, and properly manage the real estate between our ears. If we do, we are far less likely to curse our way out of the field early, empty-handed, and disappointed, which is something worth striving for.