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    A Season of Sharptails

    (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    The birds erupted from knee-high grass, a scant 40 feet from the dark, twitching nose of a black-and-white English setter, his flanks, ribs and legs invisible to the eyes of the hunter. I swung on the nearest bird, the barred primary feathers of its wings beating frantically for lift into full flight. Too hasty, my first shot flew wide. Now thoroughly panicked at the prospect of failing to reward Percy’s diligent dog work with a grouse, I cycled a second and third cartridge fruitlessly through the action of the Weatherby semiautomatic.

    Percy the English setter fetches a sharptail from regrown alfalfa, a magnet for foraging coveys. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Percy the English setter fetches a sharptail from regrown alfalfa, a magnet for foraging coveys. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    An early-season grouse from Carbon County, Montana. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    An early-season grouse from Carbon County, Montana. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    When available, grouse take to grain stubble, especially when it’s adjacent to grass cover. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    When available, grouse take to grain stubble, especially when it’s adjacent to grass cover. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Sheepishly, I watched the birds glide back into the yellowed sward some 200 yards ahead. With the birds now scattered, no longer an intact covey, the odds seemed promising Percy would again get a snootful of sharptail scent and his handler, an opportunity to redeem his shoddy shooting.

    In the world of fly fishing, when directing the casts of a novice angler, the practical trout guide loves cutthroats. They’re easier to catch than rainbows or browns, affording the neophyte a welcome opportunity for success. The same is true of sharp-tailed grouse, for young canines and people alike. Gray partridges and pheasants routinely sprint from pointing dogs, frustrating the designs of pup and trainer. Sharptails, on the other hand, are much more likely to feel pinned by an advancing canine. Bouncing about in the kennels of many upland hunters in the likes of Montana and Wyoming are hundreds of pointers, setters and bird-hunting mongrels that first held a point over a single sharptail or a covey of its kin.

    However, the notion that a canine companion has an easy job of bringing a sharptail to point is patently in error. A setter working a thick grouse cover in New England straying half the length of a football field from its handler may not be “out of mind,” but it’s almost certainly “out of sight.” On the lope for sharptails on the open prairie, where the horizon stretches for miles in any direction, a dog coupled that close to a hunter is at low odds of going birdy. The best sharptail dogs are those capable of ceaseless quartering in a mile-eating pattern that scours cover by the square mile, not by the acre.

    Energized by the flush, his enthusiasm on overdrive for this first grouse hunt of the season, Percy pinned a single in the same manner he found the covey. Sweeping nearly the entirety of the “once a wheat field now a grassland preserve” at a mile-eating gallop, he skidded to a halt in the engulfing wheatgrass ahead.

    I strode as quickly as possible through an intervening 80 yards of stalky tangle. A small grouse, young of the year, burst into flight within easy range. A self-scolding after the previous flush seemed to have some effect. The bird dropped on the first shot.

    We picked up two more on the hike back to the dusty county road where the vehicle was parked, though I refuse to reveal the shot count required. A week into September, seven days of Montana’s upland bird season had expired. With shooting legal until New Year’s Day, the season of sharptails had just begun.

    Two weeks later, my wife Lisa and I wound through an up-and-down landscape of native prairie adjacent to several fields planted to taller, cultivated varieties of grass in the heyday of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). I chose to leave my shotgun in the Expedition and serve as flusher and dog handler as it was Lisa’s first bird hunt of the year.

    The namesake tail on a harvested bird. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    The namesake tail on a harvested bird. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Sharptails have adapted to agriculture but are equally at home in their native habitat. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Sharptails have adapted to agriculture but are equally at home in their native habitat. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Micah Ballard with a bird taken in a dryland hayfield in eastern Montana. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Micah Ballard with a bird taken in a dryland hayfield in eastern Montana. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    In the folds of earth, a few almost-green junipers sent their roots deep into the soil to find moisture. Skunkbush also sprouted in the ravines, its foliage beginning the transition from muted tones of green to brilliant hues of red and orange. In autumn skunkbush, a member of the sumac family, appears in crimson mounds. It is a native shrub of the prairie able to withstand drought, and it provides browse for mule deer in severe winters. Fire destroys its crown, but the season after a conflagration, new shoots bulge from the roots.

    Indigenous peoples chewed the bark of skunkbush to ameliorate cold symptoms and brewed a lemonade-like drink from its acidic fruit. Songbirds nest in its branches, but for hunters with a head for botany and biology, the shrub is closely associated with sharptailed-grouse. Sharptails feed heavily on the buds and fruit of the skunkbush. They may lounge in its shade in late summer. Females sometimes sequester a brood in the brush to avoid airborne predators such as hawks and falcons. Skunkbush survives fire; sharptails historically thrived after prairie wildfires, so much so the Ojibwe of the upper Midwest called them Aagask, “firebird.”

    We didn’t find any birds among the skunkbush. But once into the CRP, Percy’s pace took on an urgency borne of the scent of sharptails. He pointed a covey out of range ahead of us, but the flock took flight with the staccato kuck, kuck, kuck calls of skittish birds before Lisa could scurry into shooting range. After gaining elevation, the sloping wings of the grouse set the entire covey into a glide. A wing beat here and there, and the covey soared out of sight a half-mile down a broad ravine below the field.

    Lightly hunted birds have a reputation for holding well for pointing dogs, making sharptails an ideal quarry for young canines. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Lightly hunted birds have a reputation for holding well for pointing dogs, making sharptails an ideal quarry for young canines. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)

    On private land opened to public hunting via Montana’s Block Management Program, we obviously weren’t the first prairie trompers to put up the birds. Yes, lightly hunted sharp-tailed grouse can be incredibly accommodating of young dogs and novice hunters. But once educated, they’re frequently as wild as late-season rooster pheasants.

    Columbian sharptailed-grouse are the smallest of six existing subspecies of the bird in North America. They favor transitional habitat in a number of states, often in relatively high-elevation locations where sagebrush and grassland steppes give way to stands of aspens and conifers, edges favored by feeding elk as well as scurrying sharptails.

    Populations of this diminutive subspecies have declined in most areas because of, at least in part, overgrazing, fragmentation of the habitat, fire suppression policies and energy development. They wing across less than 10% of their historic range yet provide the potential for walk-up wing shooting to hunters who punch an early elk tag in several Rocky Mountain states. Twice so far, petitions have been introduced to list Columbian sharptails as a “Threatened Species” under the Endangered Species Act. Both petitions were denied. Currently, they are formally designated as a “Species of Special Concern” in several Western states, where habitat improvement projects and transplant programs in places such as Nevada and Oregon have been undertaken to bolster dwindling populations.

    To be productive, a prairie grouse dog must cover big country. (Photo/Micah Ballard)
    To be productive, a prairie grouse dog must cover big country. (Photo/Micah Ballard)
    Hunters in the contiguous United States are most familiar with the Plains sharptail, the identified subspecies that finds its home on the mixed grasslands of the Great Plains. The birds also adapt well to agricultural areas, especially where fields of small grain crops such as wheat and barley intermingle with swatches of native prairie grass.
    Plains sharptails are the most widely distributed of the several subspecies of these prairie grouse. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Plains sharptails are the most widely distributed of the several subspecies of these prairie grouse. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    A picturesque moment in grouse country. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    A picturesque moment in grouse country. (Photo/Jack Ballard)

    In North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, hunting of the Plains subspecies of sharptails can be easily incorporated into a hunt for pronghorn antelope or deer, either mule or white-tailed. Each season we trek from our home in Red Lodge, Montana – a modest mountain town on the eastern flank of the Absaroka Range in the southcentral portion of the state – to the prairie lands adjacent to the Dakotas. There we hunt pronghorn during the second weekend in October but also find a few days to pursue waterfowl on prairie stock ponds and stomp the hills for sharptails at the conclusion of the antelope adventure.

    At dawn, on the second day of the pronghorn season with Lisa’s buck already hanging from a stout cottonwood limb in the campground, we spotted a herd with an outstanding buck on a square mile of state land. A dry but deep creek bed wound from a parking spot at the edge of the property to its far border, its sinuous course passing within an easy 150 yards of the antelope. I ditched my companions at the vehicle and plunged into the wash. Halfway to my destination, my hurried footsteps were arrested by movement in a copse of green ash trees and chokecherry bushes at the edge of the ravine. Two mule bucks, both with the classic “forked and forked again” antlers of adult males, were ambling toward me. I pressed my body into the nearest dusty embankment, remaining motionless and as silent as possible. After a few minutes, a cautious peek over the crumbly earthen precipice revealed two white rumps with spindly, black-tipped tails departing on the prairie.

    Feathered legs are one of many adaptations for surviving harsh winters on the prairie. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Feathered legs are one of many adaptations for surviving harsh winters on the prairie. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)

    Sharptails may occupy mixed sage habitat, but they favor grass and croplands. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Sharptails may occupy mixed sage habitat, but they favor grass and croplands. (Photo/Lisa Ballard)
    Another hasty scramble along the near-dizzying course of the wash found me beneath a second large thicket of chokecherry, concealment for a crawl out of the creek bed and the landmark that perfectly signaled my planned exit toward the antelope. I squirmed through the tangle, exiting into a patch of flaxen grass on the far side. Rising on elbows, I spotted a standing pronghorn doe well within shooting range. This, I thought, just might be easy.

    But at that moment, I heard a muted kuck, kuck, kuck from the grass a short way ahead. Three feathered skulls popped from the vegetation. Three pairs of sharptailed-grouse eyes strained in my direction. The trio flushed after several long moments despite my best efforts to mimic a fieldstone. At the commotion, the sentinel doe was joined on her feet by another half-dozen females that rose from their bedding places to appraise the noisy departure of the birds.

    After following the herd for a frenetic half-mile, I killed the buck before it could escape onto private land. That afternoon and the next morning, Lisa, my eldest son and I enjoyed several hours of fantastic sharptail hunting. Two sizeable fields on the public parcel were planted in dry land alfalfa. Cut in early July for hay, and sufficiently nourished by late-summer rain, calf-high regrowth had sprouted on the succulent forb. With sprigs of green still remaining on the lower shoots, the fields became as attractive to sharptails as bratwurst to a picnic-marauding wasp.

    Percy happily retrieves what turned out to be the last bird of the season. (Photo/Jack Ballard)
    Percy happily retrieves what turned out to be the last bird of the season. (Photo/Jack Ballard)

    Our family of human hunters was delighted with our fine fortune. Percy had stumbled into heaven on earth. No more running the endless prairie in search of birds where two coveys per mile is good hunting. This was as easy as pointing planted pigeons in a paddock. Even showing remarkable restraint on shooting, we brought home a dozen birds, certainly a few more than we needed. But there are days when it seems clearly immoral to neglect giving a dog his due.

    The season’s final sharptail involved another incidental opportunity, this time late in November when hunting for a strutting whitetail buck during the rut with my brother-in-law. Unlike pheasants or partridges, sharptails frequently roost in chokecherry bushes, shelterbelts and junipers. Birds can sometimes be easily spotted. Sharptails are usually active around dawn, also giving the prospective shooter the opportunity to spot their movement or hear the characteristic clucking noises with which they communicate.

    On that stormy November morning, we heard a covey gossiping among prickly bare branches, gleaning pale berries from the crown of an overgrown Russian olive tree. A scourge to native trees and shrubbery on many a Rocky Mountain riparian area, the interloping olive has but one positive attribute: winter sustenance for birds. Later in the day we spied another small flock, similarly perched, a mile farther down the river bottom.

    Deer hunting done for the day, I casually swapped rifle for shotgun and opened the rear door of the vehicle for an impatient setter. With the dog at heel, we approached within shooting distance of the roosting grouse. I flushed the birds and fired once. Percy made an ebullient retrieve in a monochromatic world of white sky and snow, gray sage and a bird and pup whose clothing blended with the surroundings. No buck but a warm bird, a happily tired hunter and a contented canine.

    Sharptails, it seems, are always in season.


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