By Nick Simonson
Not ten yards out from the truck, my young lab, Ole, plowed into the lightly drifted snow in the treeline running down the center of a 40-acre square of PLOTS land. The western side had been hayed in reaction to this summer’s drought, while grass on the eastern side, save for a ten-yard strip, remained intact. The trees served as a buffer keeping the small drifts from a few recent light snows from matting down the grassy area while providing bunkers underneath their bases for wildlife. With the white coating, the treeclaim seemed to be a different world in comparison to when Ole and I had walked the stretch during an exploratory hunt in late September.
Then, he had no idea. It was just another walk with different scenery. While my intent was to raise a few grouse, despite the reports of low numbers, his was simply to sniff out the mice in the grass, and chase after the blowing thistle seeds. The lush green of late summer yielded no birds, and my uneducated pup was of little assistance at that time. After a few hours of walking the grasses under the yellow squares on the map, I became disheartened, thinking that at the very least I should have dumb-lucked into a covey of gurgling grouse.
Over the pheasant opener, Ole had his awakening and suddenly scent was the fuel for his fire. It was the same on this cold and crisp afternoon back at the PLOTS parcel with the treeline. With snow flying about him, he steamrolled in the direction of the light and variable southerly winds, and before I knew it a pair of birds popped skyward and curled around the pines. Stunned, I shouldered my 20-gauge and made the positive identification of two sharptailed grouse, before touching off a shot from the bottom barrel. The back bird toppled into the snowy edge of the cut field and Ole made the retrieve.
Having not taken a sharpie in many years – being well out of their established range for the last decade or so – I admired the snow-white body and buff wings of the bird and tucked it into my vest. As I reloaded, a sudden hint of guilt crept into my mind as I considered the possibility from my previous walks here that these might have been the only two sharptailed grouse left on the immediate landscape. The thought grew into concern that I had just taken the leading bird’s mate, and with it, the last hope of re-establishing the population of grouse after the rough seasons the region had endured. Ole’s mind was far from that idea as he began switchbacking and circling along the edge of the treeclaim.
Like late-season birds do, a covey of five grouse rose in the distance, some 60 yards down the north-south row. They pounded their wings and cupped them, floating out over the cut field and into a shelterbelt on adjacent private land. With their rise, my spirit rejoiced and the foolish idea that my hunting efforts had ended their lineage vanished with their silhouettes into the old stand of elms half a mile away. My pup sprinted ahead of me and found their sitting spots along the sloping edge of the hill. Ahead of him, another covey of six took flight well out of range, their white bodies rising over white ground and up into the sharp blue skies.
As we progressed down the treeline, Ole found where each set of birds used to be, while like a curling wave, groups of six, ten and fifteen grouse would gurgle their late-season laugh and flush from cover, with one straggling bird providing a very long shot for my little scattergun which did not connect. It didn’t matter. Ecstatic at not only the fact that my dog had adapted to the sitting habits of grouse, but that there were still sharpies to be had, we finished up the walk as we watched a final covey take flight. At some point, I imagine grouse stop grouping in coveys and those small sets turn into flocks, and this was it.
I strained to count the birds flushing out the back end of our path, still some 75 yards away. By my best estimate, 25 sharptailed grouse got up and beat it for the next stretch of grassy hillsides on the farmland to the south. Relieved at what I saw, I wandered with my dog through the grasses adjacent to the loaded-and-now-emptied tree row without seeing another bird, but finding the spaces where they once sat, thanks to Ole’s nose.
We hit other familiar places from our walk at the start of North Dakota’s upland seasons, and the same scenario played out as we bounced groups of eight, or a dozen, or 15 birds between hillsides like so many winged white ping-pong balls between the strips of habitat snowed in along cut fields. While another shot never materialized, and the birds were jumpy in the calm, crisp pre-winter air, I was more than happy to mark the places they had been on my map and looked forward to coming back to the area, while celebrating a successful return to grouse hunting on the northern plains.
(Featured Photo: The author’s lab puppy, Ole, stands guard over his tailgate trophy, the duo’s first sharptailed grouse taken together. Simonson Photo)