Exploring the gap between what we eat and where we get it.

Hunter Matt Hardinge on Try Upland and His Own Journey Into the Sport

• Country-club hunting

• In love with chukar

• The 20-40 year old market

If you’re like me, there’s nothing you hate more than being the odd man out. Particularly in a pursuit like hunting, that feeling can prevent you from even attempting to learn about it, simply to avoid that humiliating, soul-crushing moment when you’ve been found out. In fact, that’s the number one reason I hear people say that don’t want to hunt. It’s not the blood. It’s not the sweat. It’s not the tears. It’s the unknown.


Well, that’s something that Matt Hardinge and his business partner Will Jenkins are trying to solve. Both of them know that new hunters are flooding into upland hunting, and they want to make that entry to best and most productive it can be:


“Say you're coming from the East Coast and you come out to the West—you're not used to public land the way we have it out here,” Matt told me. “It can feel like you're doing something wrong if you're not accustomed to it. You mean I can just come here with my gun and walk around and shoot stuff? It's not a natural feeling for people. That's how I felt coming from the UK. Am I really allowed to do this?”


So, they created Try Upland. It’s a movement (and now an iOS app) that’s helping new and experienced upland hunters connect to help the sport grow in healthy ways. It’s an idea that stems from Matt’s unique background coming from the UK and having to learn the US style of hunting totally from scratch. In our conversation, Matt and I talked about the differences between hunting in the US and UK, how he fell in love with the wild of the West, and the challenges new hunters are facing before they even pick up a shotgun.


Here’s fanatical upland hunter Matt Hardinge.


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Steve: Can you start by telling me a bit about your background?


Matt Hardinge: I was originally born in Montreal but moved over to the UK when I was pretty young and spent the majority of my younger life in the UK. That's where I learned to hunt. I started going on hunts when I was probably nine or 10 and got more heavily involved as the years went on. The hunts in England are very different from over here. Most hunts are on big estates and they're all driven hunts and you need to be a member of or pay a huge fee to have the opportunity to hunt there. It's generally a mix of wild birds and farm-raised birds, depending on where you go.


When I came to the US for high school and then college, it was totally DIY and I didn't really know what I was doing. One time I drove three hours just to shoot one woodcock. You've got to find out where to go and, especially with woodcock, time the migration correctly. Then I shot a couple of stray pheasants from a local hunting preserve, just hunting the outskirts of their property and picking up a few stragglers. That was my introduction to hunting in the US, going into it blind without a mentor, without a set destination. I had to learn along the way. I went back to the UK, took a break from hunting, and then came back to the US and moved out West. I immediately decided now is the time to get a bird dog and do it as seriously as I possibly can. 


We’ve tackled the logistical differences between the UK and US, but what are the social differences? Is the hunting community more or less inviting?


In the UK, you have to be invited or be a member of an estate. They don't just open up these gorgeous estates to anybody and the cost is significant. I don't know exactly how much it would be, but I'd assume it’s not much different from a country club. It’s a bit more exclusive, but it's definitely very inviting and welcoming once you're in there. But there are definitely some barriers. The UK has very little public land. The equivalent of the way we hunt here would be called rough shooting in the UK—basically, walking around with a pointing or flushing dog. That form of hunting is a lot less popular over there. 


That being said, I really liked the tradition in the UK. You're wearing tweed and a tie, driving around in Land Rovers, and there’s a really cool atmosphere surrounding it. There’s a lot of camaraderie and friendships and big, fancy roast meals at the end of the weekend. But, you definitely lose the sense of adventure, which is really why I like to upland hunt. I like to get out there and explore and hike a dozen or more miles every day to get to places where you feel like you're the only person to ever go there. That's what the West has a lot of, is adventure. And that's what makes me excited about upland hunting.


What was the biggest challenge of teaching yourself the American style of upland?


In the UK, it's a very mentor-heavy atmosphere. You're learning with your dad or an uncle, and that's how everybody is introduced to it. It's very similar here. When I came to the US, I didn't really know anyone who upland hunted. I just knew I loved it, I loved the dog work, and I wanted to start doing it again seriously. I had to learn everything from scratch, a totally different style. 


The hardest thing was finding information, especially when I started trying to learn in high school. That was a number of years ago and there were very limited resources on the internet. There was no YouTube, no OnX. People have it easy now with the abundance of information, whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is another conversation. I'm good at researching, so I didn't have the hardest time, but it was definitely harder than it should’ve been.


What’s your go-to species?


Chukar. Actually, just 10 minutes from my house was the original release spot for chukar in Nevada, back in the sixties. In general, within two and a half hours of Reno, we've got California quail, mountain quail, chukar, Hungarian partridge, blue grouse, and sage grouse. 


What do you love about chukar hunting?


First and foremost, it’s the terrain. It's pretty much the hardest terrain you can find in upland hunting. There are maybe a few exceptions, like Himalayan snowcock and ptarmigan, but it's very steep, cheat grass-covered hills with very little water and volcanic rock. It's hard on the dogs. It's hard on you. It's very unforgiving. You're out there, and it's total desolation. There are skulls from animals that just couldn't make it. That's what makes it so exciting is it marries the physical challenge with the challenge of hunting in general. I like to come back from a hunt and feel absolutely exhausted like I just climbed a mountain. 


How have you seen upland hunting change in your decade of US hunting?


That's a good question. I don't know if it's getting more popular, or if that’s just what you see on social media. It's hard to judge if that's a good representation of the sport as a whole. Within the last couple of years with COVID, there’s been a huge increase in people getting out. The season before, I could go a whole season and maybe see two other trucks, whereas this past season I’d see a truck almost every time I went out. The pandemic definitely brought a lot of people back to the sport who lost interest or didn’t have time before. The one thing everybody had during COVID was time, which is generally the hardest thing to find.


Did this influx inspire Try Upland?


It was actually my business partner Will Jenkins’ idea. He wanted to create a movement. We didn't really know what that meant, but we knew we wanted to make upland hunting a little bit more accessible to new hunters. There are plenty of organizations that have introduced hunting initiatives, but they're mainly focused on kids. But, kids don't have the ability to go out and hunt on their own. They don't have cars or money or their own dogs. Is that the best way to spend our time, trying to get kids into it and expecting them to keep that memory for another decade and come back to it when they're living in New York, working for an ad agency?


We wanted to come up with something that wasn't so age-specific. Our idea was that there are people from 20 to 40 years old, let's say, who are ready to hunt right now and don't know how to do it. We wanted to create this platform for people who are ready, willing, and able to hunt or able to connect with a mentor to show them the ropes. These days, with a lot of people leaving the cities and going to rural areas, the only limiting factor becomes finding someone to show them how to hunt.


Our goal is to create a non-judgmental community where people can ask anything. We also have mentors willing to share their knowledge, who genuinely want to help someone else get started. We've already had dozens of success stories from people meeting someone and going out on hunts and we launched it halfway through last season, in December. It's been really great so far, and it's been really cool meeting older people who want to learn.


What do you think the biggest barrier is for people looking to get into hunting?


You can do all the research you want and still feel uneasy about it. Say you're coming from the East Coast and you come out to the West—you're not used to public land the way we have it out here. It can feel you're doing something wrong if you're not accustomed to it. You mean I can just come here with my gun and walk around and shoot stuff? It's not a natural feeling for people. That's how I felt coming from the UK. Am I really allowed to do this? Having somebody to lead the way and say, “It's actually not as hard as you think it is,” is important.


In reality, upland hunting is one of the best ways to get into hunting. All you need is a shotgun and some good boots and you can get after it. You don't even need a dog in some cases. Obviously, if you're coming into it without any research, it's going to be a lot harder for somebody to mentor you. But I think when you get to a certain age and they’re pretty serious about something, most people will go out and do all the research. Then, you have someone to reassure you and help you put the dots together.


What’s your motivation for bringing new people into the sport?


Especially when you're trying to teach new people, there are unwritten rules or codes of ethics that can be intimidating if you don't know about them and you make a mistake. Like if I take you to a spot, don't come here again or, if you do come back, don't bring five friends. That's the number one rule of upland hunting, taking people to spots that aren't yours. Or, don’t hunt coveys late in the afternoon right before dusk. You don't want to break up a covey and push them around the mountain and have them not get back together for a cold night. Or, don’t hunt the same spot over and over again all year.


If you have somebody to tell you these things, then you're not going to do them. If you're just going into it blind and learning as you go, you can make mistakes that'll cost you friendships or hunting partners. As you grow as an upland hunter, you’ll realize it's not just a bunch of people trying to tell you what to do. There's meaning behind these little rules. To be an ethical and responsible bird hunter, you've got to think about these things.


What can new hunters do to be good stewards?


If you have a mentor who has that conservation mindset, soak up what they have to say and do your own research on top of that. If somebody's telling you to not do something, then take it for what it's worth and then go research it and find out why. Understand the problem or the situation on your own. 


As a new hunter, you need to come in trying to gain as much knowledge as you can. There's so much information on the internet that there's no excuse for not knowing everything you need to know about a species. Figure out what you want to chase and learn as much as you can about it. Each species has its quirks and differences and the more you know about it, the more you understand them and it puts you in a position to treat them right for the long term.


A huge thanks to Matt for taking the time to speak with me. To learn more about Try Upland or to become a mentor for new hunters, head to tryupland.org or download the iOS app on the App Store.


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