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Steel Yourself for More Upland Opportunities


The author’s lab, Ole with a limit of sharptailed grouse from North Dakota’s prairie pothole region. Using steel or other non-toxic shot opens up access to stretches of good upland habitat normally associated with traditional waterfowl hunting areas

Combing the side hills of the Waterfowl Production Area under the warm late September sun, my lab Ole and I made our way up to a slight crest where a lone buffaloberry bush jutted over the near horizon. With the wind at our backs on the homeward stretch of the hunt, it looked as good as any spot for our quarry. But unlike most hunters who might target the green square of land on the map for waterfowl, we weren’t after the ducks and geese that paddled in the rippling waves of the large slough at the center of the public parcel. Instead, we were in pursuit of the sharp-tailed grouse that had recently rebounded from the drought two years ago and had begun to appear more frequently in our early-autumn hunts, especially in the uplands surrounding these pocket sloughs.


As we stepped over the rise we spooked a lone sharpie from the cover of the bush and I let the size 7 steel shot from the bottom barrel of my 20 gauge fly in pursuit and bring the bird down halfway between us and the cattail edge. In a matter of moments my lab was on the buff-colored bird and brought it to hand as I opened the breach and popped in a new shell. As effective as its lead counterparts which were stashed in the console of the truck a half mile away at our starting point, the non-toxic load not only did its job in the moment, but it had also opened up a new world of grasslands for upland hunting around the traditional waterfowling areas in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota.


The Roughrider State has been able to buck the trend of declining hunter numbers, and each year more than 140,000 sportsmen take to the field, which is a good thing in the continuation of the North American conservation model which requires users of the resource to also serve as advocates for it. With that continued high participation rate and the facts that public land creation is minimal in the state and its Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program is under 800,000 acres from a high of 1.1 million a decade ago, the ability for uplanders to explore new areas with a quick switch to non-toxic shot opens up thousands more acres of access for hunters pursuing pheasants and grouse in addition to waterfowl. With recent expansion of late-season opportunities for upland game on National Wildlife Refuge lands throughout the country, selecting a non-toxic shot is often the only hurdle to getting in on some incredible hunting as the autumn wraps up. Options for steel pellets and other non-toxic loads abound, and Federal Premium Ammunition remains at the forefront of the expanding market, helping upland hunters take advantage of these hunting locales.


“Back in the day, a lot of those hunters would hang up their vest, clean their shotguns and put them away, and not go out and chase some of those later-season roosters and now they have the opportunity to do that and so with that comes the need for a high-quality steel shot, or a blended, mixed product for usage…we have a lot of different options available,” explained Jon Zinnel, Manager of Conservation Programs and Youth Shooting Sports Programs for Federal Premium Ammunition.


Today’s modern steel and non-toxic loads are far more effective and versatile than those from ten or twenty years ago. With smaller shot sizes increasingly available to those who would pursue upland game and require loads in sizes 7 and 6 for ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse and larger pellets such as size 5 and 4 for pheasants, options have gone up while prices have declined, making non-toxic options more affordable and giving greater flexibility and access to hunters who might be on a budget. While premium loads, such as Federal’s Prairie Storm in steel are comparable in price to their top-of-the-line lead counterparts which go for around $20 per box, smaller steel shot such as size 7, can be a bit more expensive when compared to traditional lead field and range loads: $9 per box for 20 gauge, size 7 steel, $5.50 for similarly-sized 7 1/2 lead shot. However, compared to a tank of gas, a license or just about any other input for a successful hunting experience, that additional $4.50 pays big dividends via the way in which it opens up a new landscape of hunting opportunities with just a single box of shells stashed in a gear bag. What’s more, modern steel loads are as effective as traditional lead loads and dozens of studies over the past two decades back this up and a heightened focus on patterning shotguns with these various loads helps increase hunter success, according to Zinnel.

“A lot of it comes down to what you’re shooting; not only what gauge of shotgun but also having the right combination of choke tube to fit the load,” he advises, adding “take the time and pattern your shotguns, whether you’re going to shoot competitive targets or game in the field or on the wing, you need to do that because you need to know where you’re going to shoot, and loads are going to act different with different guns and with different choke tubes,” Zinnel stresses.


In addition to the grassy slopes and rolling hillsides perfect for the state’s grouse populations, many WPAs and Wildlife Refuges which open to upland hunters in the late season have incredible and virtually untapped pheasant habitat in the form of cattail edges and other dense cover where these birds winter and can be found when things get cold. The perceived hassle of swapping shot types, or simply the fact they’re viewed as places solely for waterfowl hunting, keeps the pressure low in these near-virgin upland territories, but for those who are in the know and have a selection of non-toxic loads in tow, areas that are often more dense with upland game become secret honey holes – particularly in the later stretches of autumn when the snow begins to fly. Hunters looking to expand their horizons and their productive hunting days would be wise to select non-toxic or steel shot for more opportunities and better success in the field throughout the fall. By: Nick Simonson

The North Dakota Wildlife Federation is a grassroots organization, which protects and enhances North Dakota's wildlife, wildlife habitat and access to that habitat. NDWF promotes hunting, fishing, trapping and other wildlife related activities through education, programs, and on the ground projects. 

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