column By: Culinary Creations from Gordon Hamersley | January, 21
Before firing up the stove, though, I set out to learn a bit about these birds. Turns out sharp-tailed grouse are pretty cagey. They use a sentinel system to keep the covey safe from predators like falcons, owls, goshawks and, yes, humans. How cool is that? It also makes hunting them a challenge.
Wildlife biologist Al Stewart, Upland Game Bird Specialist and Program Leader for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says, “The sentinel sharpie looks for danger, alerts the feeding group that hunters are approaching and off they go, well out of gun range.”
When the sentry system isn’t employed, the birds hold well for pointing dogs. Stewart mentioned a scenario that happens quite often. A staunch setter points, and a covey explodes out of the prairie grass. Many shots are fired, and perhaps a couple of birds fall. But the setter is still solidly on point. Then up come the stragglers in ones and twos and, of course, the hunters don’t have shells in their guns for these late flushes. I asked him politely if they ever thought about a couple of hunters taking the first group and another perhaps waiting to see if lagging birds would flush?
“Nope. We’re not that smart.”
To get shots in range, staunch pointing dogs are key, and the best are trained exclusively on sharpies. A traditional New England adage advises, “Want a grouse dog? Train ’em on grouse.” The same thing goes for sharptail dogs.
Reid Bryant, Endorsed Operations Manager at The Orvis Company and a springer spaniel guy says, “I don’t feel like flushers can adequately do what is necessary to find birds, and sharptails hold so well for a pointing dog, it’s a bit of a miss to not see them hunted in that manner.”
Stewart, who has hunted these birds from western Saskatchewan to his home turf, noted that Michigan is the eastern-most state in the sharptail’s range and that the U.P. is divided into two areas.
“The western area is closed (to sharptail hunting), but the eastern area has perfect habitat. That grassland was originally created by The Great Michigan Fire of 1871, and today the eastern portion is mostly hay and small grain agriculture with a mix of grazing land for cattle mixed with aspen and brush. In the spring, the sharptail mating display is one of the true great sights.” (Google “sharptail, dancing, YouTube” to see a terrific video of their mating dance.)
Because of the long distances they fly, sharptails have dark breast meat. Blood pumps through those muscles, and that keeps the meat deep red.
“Sometimes they’ll fly 40 acres or more at a time,” says Stewart. “They are full-flavored; some might call them gamy, but I’m a big fan. Marinate them in Italian dressing if you want your birds to taste like, well, Italian dressing. I cook mine with salt and pepper in butter.”
Perhaps with Midwestern wild rice and buffalo berries? I totally agree, Al!
Cooking sharptails calls for a quick sear, grill or roast so they finish cooking at medium rare. Beyond medium pink, the meat will taste “livery.”
Joanne Linehan, chef and co-owner of Linehan Outfitting, ventures each season from her northwest corner of Montana with husband Tim and hunts what they call “the east side,” returning with a few sharptails.
“I usually grill or flash-cook sharpies in a cast-iron skillet and love the combination of huckleberries, fresh sage and black pepper. Sometimes with a little port wine,” she says.
This is the way to go. No intense marinades to disguise the natural flavor but rather add something zesty to complement the distinctive sharptail flavor.
Joanne also makes a huckleberry sauce with ginger, lemon, orange zest, sugar and port. I reminded her that sounded a little like an adaptation of the traditional Cumberland Sauce, the gold standard for game meats. I love introducing familiar ingredient combinations to new techniques. And as always, substitute where needed. I used fresh cranberries and dried red currants.