Featured articles, Online Magazine, Wingshooting by John Wiles

American Wingshooting on the Upswing

Having been in the booking business for quite a while now, my key to a successful career was always great hunts in foreign countries, not just Canada (and a brief stint in Mexico) either, but really wonderful wingshooting places like Argentina, Bolivia, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, England, France, and Scotland, plus South Africa. Covid put the kibosh on that for the past two years as most anybody knows, and the current state of the world, which is following the Ukraine/Russia conflict on an hourly basis, is not good, so travel has been down to say the least.

With Covid restrictions coming down – rapidly – and the pent-up need to “get away” coming to a head, people want to be out, and wingshooters have had more opportunities than most. Since the Covid restrictions were all based around being in contact, in some form, with other people, being outdoors at a distance from others, even when hunting or shooting together, was certainly a very positive choice, as were golf, tennis and other non-contact sports, where even a handshake could be mitigated by hand sanitizer.

Since I couldn’t take or send people out of the country, I spent considerable time looking for opportunities for people who wanted to hunt in the USA. I found some really great places, and I know I only scratched the surface of great hunting opportunities depending on what the hunter might be after. The problem for me, and anyone in the booking business, is that most good American outfitters who offer duck hunting, goose hunting, quail, pheasants, cranes, doves, and anything else, don’t need help in getting clients. Americans could, and did, look for quality places here in the good old USA using the Internet. I would guess most looked for places within driving distance of their homes, either for a day trip or an overnighter/long weekend at most.

The draw for going out of the country is twofold – limits and the overall experience. There is no limit on doves in Argentina, and the doves have had two years to replenish, so there will be an incredible number for those that venture south. Here in the US, unless you are shooting feral pigeons or Eurasian doves, there are seasons and limits on everything. Tower or continental shoots here in the US are not the same as traditional driven shooting in England. The Western and Eastern European experiences are wonderful adventures all to themselves, and right now, they too have their own problems to deal with as war is affecting all of us in one way or another.

But if you want a little “out of the ordinary” experience, there are many wingshooting operations that have a uniqueness of their own that make them very special. Shooting preserves have become a mainstay in this country, and they run the gamut of putting birds out 30 minutes before you arrive all the way to putting out young birds, feeding them, and managing predators as much as possible, so that your hunt is as close to wild as they can make it. Anyone can do their research on shooting preserves in their area and find one that fits their style of hunting and price range.

However, many hunters here in the US love “wild birds,” regardless of species, and that brings a new thought process into the equation. If you love to “bird” hunt, for example, quail hunt, South Texas has always been on the list of places to find “wild birds” and big ranging dogs. Apparently, the South Texas region was blessed with rain this year at the right times, and a bumper crop of Bobwhites was the result. In some areas, you need snake chaps and walking stamina to cover lots of distance to find multiple coveys of fast flying quail. In some areas, and if it to your liking (say when you are over 70 like me), you can find good places with a three-man rig where you ride the roads while the dogs hunt and get off the rig to retrieve your shotgun, flush the covey, get some shooting, and then get back on the rig. It isn’t a cheap way to quail hunt, but when you get to see a lot of country, a lot of good dog work, a lot of wild coveys, and are well fed and well housed with friends you like to hunt with, I’d say you are having a good experience.

Duck and goose hunting has changed dramatically from the 1980s when I managed a mile and a quarter of waterfront property on the Chester River near Centreville, Maryland. Goose and duck migrations have changed and continue to change, as does the world in general. In the 1990s we shot geese on Long Island and the Delaware Water Gap, and large numbers of geese wintered on the wastewater ponds that never froze just south of New York city and near the big industry areas of New Jersey. Where once the Mississippi River was the flow for tens of thousands of ducks and geese going south to Louisiana, places like Kansas and Missouri have become great areas for consistent numbers of ducks and geese. You can still find a lot of ducks in Arkansas, but there are a lot more staying in Missouri, as farming practices and milder winters prevail. Check out Kansas too, as the secret of great duck hunting there is no secret anymore. Texas used to be known for snow geese, but now lots of Canadas and Specklebellies winter there, and lots of ducks and Sandhill Cranes, too. Oklahoma is keeping relatively quiet on their duck hunting, but more outfitters are popping up as ducks spread west as much as south.

Canada has always been the first stopping place for migrating ducks and geese, and lodges continue to improve, rebuild to a higher standard, hire professional chefs, and offer all-inclusive hunts – with guns, shells, and licenses – because they too have learned that Americans like the “easy” button and are often quite willing to pay for it. With higher limits than the US, you and five friends can get a six-man limit of ducks and geese in the same day and have them prepared to bring home for the freezer.

South Dakota pheasants are still prevalent, and great lodges are everywhere, as farmers have learned that hunters like walking or blocking, and mostly ‘seeing’ large numbers of pheasants flying out of broad, long cover areas. Again, great food, great lodging, big screen TVs to watch the ball game, and, for many, just the opportunity to relax for a few days is still a tremendous draw.

While my life and livelihood has revolved around international wingshooting opportunities, the past couple of years have opened my eyes to some great opportunities here in the US. Although the cost of hunting, like everything else, continues to grow, the joy of being afield with or without dog, the pleasure of holding and carrying a fine shotgun, the smell of the Fall and Winter, the sight of ducks, or geese, or cranes overhead, the whir of wings, the cackle of a pheasant flush, the heart pounding boom of a grouse bursting from cover – any and all of those things never, never, never get old.

Shotgun shooting, in general, has seen something of an upswing too, with high schools and colleges fielding competitive trap shooting teams, skeet shooting teams, and sporting clays teams – young people learning the mechanics and enjoying the shooting sports, and some of that love will matriculate in the wingshooting world as well. There are lots of good “adventures” here in the US just waiting for people like us to enjoy. Get out there.