feature By: Story and Photos by John Pollmann | June, 17
A flurry of stubby wing beats and raspy calls, the Hungarian partridge flush then sail across a Saskatchewan wheat field lifting slightly to cross a fence. They angle toward the edge of a distant swale of thick grass and land haphazardly like pebbles tossed into a pond. Are there a dozen? Maybe more? The number doesn’t really matter. What does, though, is the fact that I missed.
Walking back to the truck, I catch the eye of my good friend Mark Smith who made the trip from Georgia to southeastern Saskatchewan. “They looked good from where I was at,” he says, “but maybe they were a bit far?”
They were good. Disappointingly good.
As a product of South Dakota, I’m no stranger to Hungarian partridge. In fact, the first nonnative upland bird stuffed somewhat awkwardly into my game bag was a “Hun” rather than the ubiquitous ring-necked pheasant, thus helping link these bundles of gray and chestnut brown feathers to the very start of my days as an upland hunter. Unfortunately, at least at home, encounters with Huns are often more happenstance than born of any plan. Missing on the first covey of a trip to southeastern Saskatchewan to specifically hunt these little birds, well, just plain stinks.
This corner of the province is dominated by massive fields of small grains and short grass prairie, accented with trees and thickets and depressions choked with heavier cover and oil jacks and other footprints of the energy industry. Where the seams meet in this patchwork of a landscape, Hungarian partridge flourish.
I steel my jaw at the thought of another opportunity to feel the rush of a covey flushing at my feet. Here in this land of edge habitat, odds are that it will happen sooner rather than later.
Slowing to a stop in a field of wheat stubble underneath a picture-perfect, blue October sky, my host Chad Morris explains the plan of attack for the next field of the day. Though not serving as a guide in an official capacity on this two-day hunt, Morris does own and operate Saskatchewan Outdoors, an outfitting business with access to thousands of acres of ground near Weyburn. He knows this area well and feels confident about the cover stretching out in front of us. That we bumped a small covey of Huns with the truck when first entering the field is a good sign.
As Smith and I ready for the walk, Morris releases a pair of dogs from their kennels in the back of his truck: Vera, a young Deutsch Drahthaar, and Kai, an English springer spaniel with more than a few seasons under her collar. The two might look like an odd couple, but they work well together. Not more than 100 yards from the truck, Vera’s pace slows while working parallel to a fence line before a pair of Huns flush wild and split. I am out of place on both birds, but on a fine crossing shot, Smith drops the first Hun of the trip, which Vera proudly snatches up before high stepping through the stubble.
We never find the original covey. Smith’s Hun turns out to be the only one on this short walk, but the Georgia bird hunter is elated with the results. I remain hopeful. Morris is ready for a change.
“I’ve been saving a couple fields of hedgerows for you, and I know there are Huns in there,” said Morris. “I wouldn’t doubt it if we saw some sharpies, too. Let’s get over there. Nobody’s touched it all season.”
That’s northern hospitality at its finest.
The hedgerows live up to their billing. Running north and south within a large wheat field, the lines of trees quickly produce two coveys of Huns, the second of which provides me with another shot. I follow with another miss. Redemption comes, however, when a third covey flushes to my left, and I connect on the first barrel.
Expecting more of the same from the next walk along a line of trees closer to the interior of the field, I am prepared when the sound of flushing wings breaks the silence of the walk, but these are no Huns.
Smith connects first again, dropping a beautiful Saskatchewan sharptail that Kai plucks out of the wheat stubble. A flurry of action at the end of the hedgerow gives Smith and me enough to have our two-bird daily limits of sharpies in hand.
After lunch at our accommodations near Mainprize Regional Park, it’s back to the hedgerows to try to finish our limits of Huns. My shooting improves as the afternoon wears on, but my friend steals the show with the last birds of the day. Needing three Huns to finish out his daily four-bird limit, Smith scores a triple with two barrels, his second shot a Scotch double, to end our hunt along the hedgerows.
With some distance remaining between the sun and the western horizon, Morris is able to scratch out a pair of Saskatchewan ring-necked pheasants on what is the opening day of the province’s resident-only pheasant season. We finish the day in a small town just miles from the North Dakota border, where pizza and sandwiches are ordered as the sun sets on a terrific October day in Canada.
Before the food arrives, Morris delivers a tray of libations and hands out awards for the day’s hunt. Smith is an easy choice for the best shot of the day. Unfortunately, there’s also little doubt over who earned honors for the worst misses.
The second day begins under ominous skies, which threaten to drop rain on hunters and dogs. The storms stay away, but thankfully the Huns do not.
Smith and I both take our limits of partridge after just a few walks in fields holding plenty of edge habitat. After just two days of hunting, it is quite apparent that an impressive number of Hungarian partridge call this corner of Saskatchewan home, though Morris believes that the birds are still on the low side of a population cycle. But when a hunter sees coveys of Huns in more quarter-sections of ground than not, well, that’s just a sign that he came to the right place to fulfill a dream hunt.
A second leg of this trip to Saskatchewan will take Smith and me farther north in pursuit of mallards and Canada geese, but the quick morning hunt for Huns leaves us a little extra time to chase sharptails. The birds prove to be elusive, as the first two walks produce only the opportunity to take in the striking fall colors hanging on in this first week in October. Returning to the truck after a quick, quiet walk, Morris provides a jolt of optimism when he says that he spotted a covey of birds some distance away near the edge of a canola field lined with hedgerows.
Smith and I make our way through the canola stubble, which is markedly taller than the wheat that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past two days. We slow as we near the bowl of grass where Morris says he saw the birds go down. Suddenly, a large covey of Huns explodes from the stubble along the edge of the cover and bears left, sailing out across the canola and lines of trees. It’s hands down the biggest covey of partridge that we’ve seen in two days of hunting. With a quick look and a laugh, Smith and I walk back toward the truck, content to put a wrap on the day and start our trek north. We don’t need to add any sharpies to the bag.
I’ll be back to see them again.
Seeing more coveys of Hungarian partridge in two days in southern Saskatchewan than in the previous decade across the eastern half of South Dakota is not the only important distinction between the two upland hunting destinations.