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    Eastern Idaho: Columbian Sharptail Safari

    Say the words sharp-tailed grouse and most bird hunters think of the windswept prairies of the Dakotas, the Sandhills of Nebraska or perhaps the high lonesome of eastern Montana. Historically though, seven subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse were found in two-thirds of the lower 48 states from Michigan to California, Alaska and in the Canadian provinces from Quebec west to the Yukon Territories. The New Mexico sharptail subspecies was declared extinct in 1952, leaving six, some with huntable populations and others reduced to only remnants of their former populations. Good populations of sharptails still exist in the northern Plains states, eastern Montana and Alaska, as well the Intermountain West.

    Many bird hunters are surprised that the Mountain West states of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado boast huntable populations of sharp-tailed grouse. The subspecies found there is the Columbian sharptail, first noticed and categorized as a different subspecies from the Plains sharptail by none other than Lewis and Clark. Of those four states, Idaho is reported to have some of the most robust populations and the longest season. As of press time, the season runs from Oct. 1–31 with roughly the eastern third of the state open to hunting. And the daily bag limit is two birds per day, four in possession. While there are more commonalties among sharptail subspecies than differences, there are some unique habits of the Columbian subspecies that can make hunting for them a challenge. At times, the Columbian subspecies can be found near ruffed grouse habitat.

    Habits and Habitats

    The textbook says the Columbian subspecies prefers slightly heavier cover than its Plains subspecies brethren: patches of sagebrush, bitterbrush, chokecherry, serviceberry and hawthorn interspersed among the grasslands.  Look for areas of grassland intermixed with the above-mentioned woody cover and start hunting. If you find yourself walking in near-ankle-breaking thick sagebrush, you’re in the wrong piece of real estate. If it is a particularly dry year and you are not finding anything, move up in elevation and start hunting near fruit-bearing thickets of chokecherry, hawthorn and serviceberry, and often you will find birds. While all subspecies of sharptail are grassland birds, and that’s usually where you find them, the Columbian will sometimes move up in elevation rubbing shoulders with their forest grouse brethren. I have taken more than a few sharptails just below the conifer zone on hillsides covered with snowberry, serviceberry and chokecherry.

    Early season hunting is better because as the season progresses, the birds seem to be wiser and wilder. Be sure to check out the “rock islands” – areas of lava rock occurring on both cultivated and uncultivated lands, often covered in dandelions, sunflowers, Oregon grape and other tasty treats sharptail relish. If covey after covey keeps flushing wild beyond gun range, just keep moving; eventually you’ll find a bird or two that holds or at least gets up within gun range. It pays to be as quiet as you can as sharptail seem particularly wary of the human voice. If you have hunted sharptail in other states, you know that pointing dogs have a learning curve to go through before they become adept at handling them. Don’t be surprised if your normally rock-steady chukar and Hun dog starts bumping birds; many an experienced dog will fall down hard on sharptail. Given time and patience, they will learn to cope with them. As with any upland bird, hot dry fall weather – often common in eastern Idaho – does not make for good scenting conditions. Also it seems as if good sharptail country is also loaded with prickly pear cactus. If your dog will tolerate dog boots, use them; if not, be sure to check its paws for embedded spines at the end of the hunt.

    Sharptails will avoid blaze orange almost as much as mallards do. I have seen many a bird avoid a hunter decked out in blaze orange only to fly right over another hunter in near-duck camo gear. Interestingly enough, Idaho does not require blaze orange for upland hunting unless you are hunting state wildlife management areas where an upland permit is required, meaning areas where pheasants are stocked for put-and-take shooting. And none of these wildlife management areas is within the sharptail hunting zone.

    One unique aspect of hunting sharptails in Idaho is sage grouse will often be found overlapping your hunting area. While Idaho still has seasons on sage grouse, they are set on a year-to-year basis and may be hunted in some areas and not others. Be sure to check out the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s online how-to video on the differences between the two bird species.

    Where to Go

    Idaho is well known for open spaces and accessible public lands. Sharptail can be found on federal, state and private lands. Here are some possibilities:

    The Curlew National Grasslands

    Located near the town of Holbrook, Curlew is the only national grasslands in the Intermountain West. At just under 48,000 acres, it offers plenty of room to wander. Private land intermixes with the grasslands, and boundary signage is usually good. Managed grazing is conducted on the grasslands, so don’t be alarmed if you see livestock on public land.

    For me, the Curlew can be a feast-or-famine hunting experience: If winter snows were good and spring rains came at the right time, birds are plentiful. If the snow didn’t come and the spring rains hit before the chicks could form pin feathers, expect to hunt hard for your two-bird limit. How to know before you pack your bags and bird dogs and head out? The Idaho Department of Fish & Game keeps trend line data on sharptail populations through its springtime counts of the leks, the breeding grounds where sharptails conduct their elaborate mating dances. While the numbers won’t tell you about spring hatching conditions, they will inform on general sharptail availability.

    Access Yes Properties

    Access Yes is a program that compensates landowners for providing access to private lands and/or private corridors to public lands. To find potential sharptail hunting spots, go to the Fish and Game website and click on the “Access Yes” link beneath the “Hunting” tab. Properties are listed two ways: on a map and as a chart. On the chart look for the “X” in the upland game column and a listing of R4, R5 or R6, as these contain the areas within the sharptail boundary. Make sure the property you are looking at lies within the sharptail boundary and is also listed within the same website. After you find a suitable candidate, find the area in question via the map feature and print the map; it also allows for downloading of popular geodata formats and for uploading data into your GPS.

    Sand Creek and Tex Creek WMAs

    Thousands of acres of land owned by the Fish and Game Department are owned and managed exclusively for fish and wildlife. Sharptail are found on many of the state-owned Wildlife Management Areas, but the two stars of the lot are Sand Creek and Tex Creek. Just east of the town of St. Anthony lies Sand Creek, some 31,000 acres of sagebrush steppe that is both upland bird habitat and big game winter range. Sharptail can be found throughout this WMA, but the best bet is to drive along the White Sands/Sand Dune Road until you find a suitable opening in the sagebrush. Drive along the Sand Creek/White Sands Road until you see some likely looking spots. Sharptail can be found anywhere along this route. Eventually, the road ends at the Red Road. Head south and it will take you back to the town of St. Anthony.

    Tex Creek WMA is less than an hour away from the city of Idaho Falls but seems as if it is a lifetime away. At 28,300 acres, it is slightly smaller than Sand Creek but is somewhat contorted and meandering, making navigation challenging. As a bonus, Tex Creek also has Hungarian partridge and the occasional pheasant.

    Hunting the Columbian sharptail is much like hunting any other sharptail but just a little different. A friend of mine who makes a pilgrimage from southern Idaho to North Dakota every year to hunt pheasants and sharptail finally had the opportunity to hunt them in Idaho. Asked if hunting them was that different in eastern Idaho, he quipped, “No, it’s pretty much the same. Replace the chokecherry and serviceberry with buffalo berries, and it’s pretty much the same!”

    If you go …

    The first stop for planning a trip to hunt Columbian sharptails in eastern Idaho is the website of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game: www.fishandgame.idaho.gov.

    There you will find a number of helpful bits of information:

    •    A how-to video on the differences between sharptail and sage grouse

    •    Maps of the Sand Creek WMA (also available at the WMA headquarters four miles northwest of St. Anthony on the 2000 East Road)

    •    Maps of the Tex Creek WMA

    You can also contact the IDFG’s Southeast Regional Office in Pocatello: 208-232-4703.

    Another aid for hunting the Curlew National Grasslands is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Surface Management Maps (Malad City Quadrant) which will show public and private land boundaries.

    The map is available at the Pocatello, Idaho, BLM field office, 4350 Cliffs Dr., Pocatello, ID 83204; BLM_ID_PocatellOffice@blm.gov; 208-478-6376.

    Driving Instructions

    Sand Creek WMA

    To find the White Sands/Sand Dune Road (the road is called by both names), drive north through the town of St. Anthony until you get to North Parker Road, also known as “4th West North Road” and head east until you run into the Sand Creek Road. If you cross the Del Rio Bridge across the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, you’ve gone too far. Take a left at Sand Creek Road, heading north. Drive for 11 miles and take a left at the Sand Creek/White Sands Road. The road has a many little spur roads that split off it, so if you don’t hit any cattle guards within 3 or 4 miles, you know you have taken a spur road.

    Tex Creek WMA

    Head northeast out of Idaho Falls on US Highway 26 for 14 miles. Turn south at milepost 350.7, also known as “145th East Road” and the “Meadow Creek Road.” Head south for approximately 11.9 miles and veer to the right. You will be within the WMA boundary, and the Meadow Creek Road will have morphed into the Pipe Creek Road. Keep driving for about a mile and then head north again to Old Red Granary, and you’ll be in sharptail country.

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