In search of sharp-tailed grouse in the wide-open spaces of MontanaIn just our second year of hunting eastern Montana, we are still learning to read the land and the habits of sharptails. We are learning the country in the best way to learn any new land, by moving across it one step at a time, looking and listening. The openness of the country is stunning, especially to those of us who come from the boreal forest.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
NORTHEASTERN MONTANA — Morning comes early in sharptail camp. We slither out of our down cocoons into the heavy dew before dawn.
A hunter wouldn’t have to get out of the tent this early to hunt sharptails, these native grouse of the short-grass prairie. They’ll be out there all day in the great wide open, sitting in the little bluestem or feeding in the buffalo-berry thickets.
But we know the cool of this early September morning in northeastern Montana will yield quickly to midday temperatures in the low 80s. For our sake and that of the Labs, we want to get in the field as early as possible.
Mark Helmer of Duluth fires up the old Coleman stove and makes a pot of tailgate coffee. Rick Francisco, also of Duluth, toasts our bagels in a big skillet. The Labs — a black, a yellow, a fox red — meander about our camp in a farm family’s hay yard looking for morsels of last night’s dinner.
In less than an hour, we are casting 15-yard shadows across a sea of native prairie. We’re hunting private land that’s open to hunters through a state program. We’ll see no other hunters in four days on the land. The crowds don’t arrive until the pheasant season opener in October, our farm friends say.
You can find sharptails in agricultural land — wheat stubble, tree rows, alfalfa fields. But in our short time in this country, we’ve found more birds in these ankle-high native grasses. We move across the vast prairie three abreast in a loose banner, the dogs at heel or hunting close in front of us. Sharptails are skittish enough as it is. They’re likely to flush even farther away if the dogs are too far ahead of us.
In a cool green swale, four sharptails rise simultaneously, and Francisco, a deadeye, drops two with a single shot. The dogs make quick work of retrieving them. Not much farther along, Helmer takes a single bird, and Millie, one of his two Labs, brings it back.
We walk up a rise and are presented another sweeping view of the landscape. This piece of land we’re hunting is four miles, north to south, and another three east to west. The high prairie, dotted with sage and coneflowers and bluestem, gives way to folds in the land. In these creases, where moisture accumulates, grow knee-high buckbrush with its pale green berries and the head-high buffalo berry thickets.
When we examine the grouse we shoot, their crops are almost always crammed full of red buffalo berries or the green fruit of buckbrush.
Learning the land
In just our second year of hunting eastern Montana, we are still learning to read the land and the habits of sharptails. We are learning the country in the best way to learn any new land, by moving across it one step at a time, looking and listening.
The openness of the country is stunning, especially to those of us who come from the boreal forest. We can see for miles in several directions. If we decide to split up, one of us might look out and see his partner, a tiny blaze-orange speck, a mile or more away.
Where coulees crease the land, one of us might drop into a declivity, disappearing from his partners’ view for a few minutes. Then as he rises out of the gully, he suddenly reappears on the landscape.
The morning warms, and we keep bumping into birds. Some flush from 50 or 75 yards ahead of us, far out of range. Others flush almost at our feet. We cannot understand why they would behave so differently.
For a time, we go separate ways, disappearing from each other’s view. When we eventually reunite, we trade stories of our successes. We are nearing our four-bird-per-person limit. This is the best Montana morning of sharptail hunting we’ve had.
Echoes of the past
But shooting birds is just part of the pleasure of this prairie hunt. It’s difficult to walk this remnant of short-grass prairie without imagining what it must have looked like when 30 to 60 million bison roamed here.
You wonder, moving along, smelling the sweet scent of sage, who has walked this same green expanse before we came. We come across an occasional tin pot or a rusted twist of cable and wonder just how it ended up there.
But more often, you’re apt to let yourself ponder even longer sweeps of time. Who once endured bitter winter nights in that crumbling house on the ridge? Can you imagine the constant wonder that Lewis and Clark must have felt coming up the Missouri, which we can see in the distance? And what about the native people who managed to survive in this unforgiving country long before?
We are walking along, guns ready, when Francisco says, “Sitting Bull is up on that next hill, watching us.”
We pause long enough to let our dogs swim in a stock tank fed by a well. Then we shoot a couple more birds out of the buffalo berry as we make the final climb to the truck. We finish just one bird short of our limit.
That evening, we relax in the shadow of hay bales as burgers sizzle on our little grill. The dogs are flopped out in the cool grass. Mallards gossip on the wetland just across the road.
We are camped here through the generosity of the David and Shele Christoffersen family, whom we met in a chance encounter last fall. The Christoffersens, wheat and cattle farmers, live just up the road.
A couple of grain trucks and a beefy John Deere tractor are parked near our tents. Our clothesline is stretched on their New Holland grain drill. The burgers came from one of the Christoffersens’ cattle.
Knowing the Christoffersens, talking to them about the wheat harvest, sharing a chili dinner in their home, has added context and meaning to our hunt. With them, one evening, we look through World War II photos of Warren Christoffersen, David Christoffersen’s father, who died in the past year. We watch the kids, Bailey and Carolyne, playing basketball in the driveway.
The Christoffersens are the latest in a long line of hardy folks who have carved a living from this land.
Night falls. Cool settles upon the land. The lantern glows atop the dog kennels in the truck. When darkness is complete, we shut off the lantern and sit for a time, gazing at the constellations. The Milky Way is vivid, a gossamer white scarf trailing across a sky spangled with stars.
Nighttime in sharptail camp. The sleeping bags will feel good.