Wingshooters Guide to Idaho preview
Idaho's Fields of Dreams
    As a boy growing up on a farm in Illinois, I waited for fall hunting season with more anticipation than even Christmas.
In the 1960s duck hunting wasn't particularly good at the eastern edge of the Mississippi flyway so I rarely hunted ducks. Pheasants flushed through my imagination and pushed girls, rock music and even sports into the background when the trees bared and corn stalks turned golden. When the season opened in November my Dad and Grandfather would make one ceremonial walk through our farm's fields. Then I would spend the rest of the month and on through December patrolling every cornfield within walking distance.
Sometimes I could coax our gun-shy family Weimaraner to follow me through the multiflora roses along the fence lines. But usually it was just me and my Stevens .410 bolt action.
    When I was able to press the rare, unwitting rooster to rise rather than run, I missed more than I hit. But when I successfully overcame my shock and the effects of adrenaline, I can remember few feelings more satisfying. My mother always treated me like a returning hero when I brought home a ringneck, sending me into the basement with a big pot of boiling water so I could pluck the bird. Nothing ever tasted so good as the fried fowl I had taken off the land.
    But once the new year came, the season ended and I was forced to wait in suffering for the  next November. I found solace in the pages of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life reading about faraway, mystical places with names like Seven Devils and River-of-No-Return. That sportsman's paradise, Idaho, seemed so distant and enchanting and so unlike the flat farm country where I knew.
    The writers even had a romantic names, Ted Trueblood, told me of strange and alluring birds like sage grouse, sharptails, chukar partridge and mountain quail. Clyde Ormond, a Rigby, Idaho,  high school principal, explained the basic skills of big game hunting. Elmer Keith, Salmon City's Old West outfitter and gun inventor made me want to carry a big gun in the woods and Jack O'Connor of Lewiston, nurtured my love of double-barreled shotguns.
I finally arrived in Idaho in 1985, after detouring through Wisconsin, where I picked up a fair wingshooting eye kicking through swamps for ruffed grouse and woodcock. I soon learned that sage grouse were indeed  mystical birds that explode from the desert like coveys of gray, black and white chickens.
    The blue grouse of southern Idaho were numerous, but unsophisticated, well, dumb actually. They taught me a new meaning of kicking up birds, literally, in their tail feathers. Ducks and geese were everywhere filling the rivers and ponds of this arid land as no where I had ever seen in the Midwest. The pheasants, unfortunately, were for the most part ghosts, relegated to put-and-take hunts at the state's wildlife management areas. As elsewhere, years of clean farming practices and changes in predator population dynamics had reduced the range and numbers of the bird that first lured me into the sport of hunting.
    Most of all I found I no longer had to wait until late-fall to take to the field.
    Forest grouse season opens the last weekend in August, when wild flowers still linger in the higher elevations. Dove hunters also get a short, early start before sage grouse and sharptail season opens in mid-September. Early goose seasons in the Southeast precede the regular early waterfowl opening in October and the leaves have hardly turned yet.
    While most hunters are chasing elk and deer, the local ducks make for fine sport at the dozens of public hunting areas across this huge state. Then pheasant and partridge opens in late-October and the more seasonal upland season keeps weekends busy into the early weeks of January. In 1997, California quail numbers were so high that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game offered a special two-week winter season in January.
But bird hunters aren't done yet. The introduction of turkeys has brought spring hunting to thousands of hunters who like me turned into skiers, steelheaders and fly fishers.
    Idaho's natural wonders tend to pound at the observer like a rock opera turned on high volume.
    Subtlety is hard to find in a landscape that begins in the bottom of deep, narrow canyons, where rivers grind their way through bedrock, carrying even big boulders downstream during the spring runoff. Where big shouldered mountains rise up 12,000 feet, sculpted by glaciers and the elements while they don snowy capes. It's a land that grabs your attention like a gun shot and holds it like a circus tent evangelist.
    Hunters grow up here lured mostly to the mountains and canyons after big game. Elk, that grow big and wander through Idaho's wilderness back country attract most of the out-of-state hunters that have been lucky enough to discover its awesome open spaces.
    But those willing to look beyond nature's clamorous vision will find a place where small events still matter. It is not only a wild world of untamed passionate uproar. In Idaho there are still places where silence reigns.
    There is the desolate, wide-open sagebrush desert of Owyhee County, where man, boy and dog can walk for miles, or even drive, for that matter, without seeing another human. He might see a few dozen sage grouse, quail or partridge, depending on where  he chooses to trek.
    There also is the thick conifer forested swamps of north Idaho, where ruffed grouse can be found as wary as any of their lake country cousins.
    There also is a pastoral Idaho, where grassy drainage ditches divide farm fields of corn, sugar beets, onion, wheat and yes,  potatoes. These are the home of upland game. Pheasants, partridge and quail. These often exotic newcomers to Idaho  seem more at home on the South Dakota prairie, an Illinois cornfield or the lush valleys of California.
    But like the human inhabitants who have transformed the desert into farms and towns, these aliens have adapted. Pheasant numbers have improved in the 1990s and with additional habitat protection may once again return to a shadow of their former grace.
    Finally, this land where water decides fecundity is both home and rest-stop to waves of waterfowl. It is hard to imagine there are other states which wield more productive waters and fields for duck and goose shooting.
    In a nation where hunting appears to be disappearing, hunter numbers in Idaho are rising. This is no fluke. Idaho is what America was.
    But it is not an island. Like most of the country, the changes man has wrought have taken their toll on the state's upland birds. Mountain quail have nearly disappeared. Sage grouse numbers have plummeted.
    Ken Retallic and I wrote this book not only to help hunters to find the many wingshooting opportunities that Idaho offers. The birds and the land we share with them need more stewards. Hunters have traditionally been and remain among the most reliable conservationists. We want this great sport to be available to our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren.
    Upland birds and waterfowl are the fat of the land that we all can share as long as Idaho is healthy from the tops of its craggy peaks to the bottom of its deep river canyons.
Copyright 1997
Rocky Barker, Boise, Idaho