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Sam Cook column: In the early season, hunters reach out for information

A hunter and his dog pause during an early season hunt for sharp-tailed grouse in eastern Montana. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Two Minnesota hunters and their dogs take a break during a sharp-tailed grouse hunt on the prairies of eastern Montana in September 2013. Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com2 / 2

The blaze-orange telegraph lines are humming.

Hunters, talking to hunters.

The first call the other day came in at 7:25 a.m. Two hunting buddies, headed out for a morning of sharptail hunting in western North Dakota. When the call came, I was in the woods with my dog here in Duluth. When I got home, I punched up the message they had left.

"Hey, Sam... Just wondering if you've gotten any updates on what's going on out there..."

Reports. Updates. That's what we hunters want this time of year. How are the bird numbers? What are you seeing? What are you hearing from other hunters?

The hunter hotline will only heat up with grouse seasons opening this weekend in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I suppose this goes way back. I can imagine a party of Native Americans on horseback coming upon another party somewhere on a ridge in the Great Plains. As the horses switched their tails, the hunters might have exchanged information about bison. What valley? How many? Which way were they headed?

You could argue, of course, that our bird hunting today — grouse, pheasants, sharptails, ducks — is far less important to the well-being of our families than the bison were to Native Americans. But for those of us who pursue wild game, the practice remains a significant part of our culture, of who we are. We may get to our hunting grounds in pickups and gather intelligence on our smartphones, but the essence of the hunt remains much the same.

Montana report

So, we check in with each other. A Duluth hunter had called me a few days earlier on his way back from eastern Montana. He had been hunting sharptails and Hungarian partridge. The season had opened Sept. 1 out there. He had gone out alone — if you don't count the three Labs and one pointer in his trailer. He had found plenty of birds. Yes, it was hot out there. But by rotating his quartet of hunting partners, he had managed to keep the dogs fresh.

He talked in general terms about bird numbers, about where he had hunted, about farmers he had spoken with. Sharptails and Hun numbers were OK, he said. Pheasants, though, appear to be far less abundant than in recent years.

He attached no hard numbers to any aspect of his report, and I didn't expect any. How many birds a hunter shoots is up to him to share if he wishes. How many birds is enough for any hunter, or any group of hunters, is a relative thing. All we want from our early-season reports is a feel for things.

When it is our time, we will go no matter what. Bird populations may be up or down. We may tromp farther between shooting opportunities. But we will hunt.

Hunters know that they go forth not merely to have put birds in the bag, but to have hunted. To have looked out over the tapestry of fields and sloughs. To have watched the dogs scoop scent from the ground and make game.

Familiar country

Part of these check-ins with fellow hunters is for vicarious pleasure. When my buddies called the other day, I could hear the hum of the truck in the background.

"We're just headed out for our morning hunt," my friend had said.

I knew the country they were hunting. I had hunted western North Dakota with them in previous years. As we talked, I could see the oil rigs pumping like mechanical donkeys in the distance. I could see the white contrail of dust behind their Suburban on the country road. I could see the abandoned farmsteads where they would hope to flush coveys of Hungarian partridge.

I told them what I knew, what I had heard from other hunters. We talked about official reports of bird numbers.

I kept thinking about them after we signed off. Kept thinking about crisp Dakota mornings and all of that sky and the way a sharptail clucks when it flushes. Kept hoping my friends found plenty of birds and knowing their hunt would be good either way.

And I thought about the young yellow dog in my kennel and what her first real autumn would bring.

All of that from one conversation on the blaze-orange telegraph.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at