By Nick Simonson
Despite the headwinds on the prairie due to lower numbers of upland birds resulting from habitat loss and drought, this season marked a monumental first for me. By combining a September trip to the pine-and-popple forests of northeastern Minnesota, along with weekly adventures on the plains of the Peace Garden State, I was able to piece together the upland slam, harvesting all four major upland bird species available to most hunters in the upper Midwest. Almost as an afterthought, I put together the combination of ringneck pheasant, ruffed grouse, sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in my head from this autumn’s trips. The feat took nearly the entire season, with the final piece falling into place last week.
The start of the slam came in late September, while visiting family on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. With ruffed grouse populations on the upward peak of their decadal cycle, opportunities at flushing thunderbirds were plentiful, once the soaking rains that wetted 25 of that month’s 30 days let up for two good days of weekend walking. In the chill following Friday’s front, under clear blue skies and a canopy of red and gold maple and aspen trees, a lone gray-phase ruffie rose from the forest floor, and a second shot connected with the bird. Despite many missed shooting opportunities leading up to it, that ruffie would be my only one, though just enough to start the trip around the proverbial bases.
Pheasant opener was cold and windy, and the lack of flushing roosters – where once there were many on our traditional walks around the family farm near Watford City – was noticeable. On a solid point from one of our group’s veteran labs, I bagged a young-of-of-the-year rooster on my second shot. It would be one of the three short-spurred birds in our group’s four-day bag of 16, with the majority of the harvest made up of carryover cocks from last season.
Early November’s cold and snow set the stage for a wave of flushing sharptailed grouse along a treeclaim on some PLOTS acres north of Bismarck, where the trailing bird in a pair of close-departing stragglers provided a near-perfect right-to-left-cutting shot. Crash landing in the remaining snowbank from the recent squall, the sharpie was an easy retrieve for my young pup. All down the rest of the walk, dozens of the laughing prairie birds would take flight, giving insight that huntable populations of sharpies still remained in the region and served as seeds of hope for a better spring and more hunts like that particular one next fall.
Finally, following one of his first points on a tight-holding rooster, my dog finished up our remaining walk, splitting a pair of Hungarian partridge in the air over a small stretch of private grass north of New Salem. He took after the bird that broke right, and my shot rang out as I spun after the one that went left, sending it into the beige grasses for an easy pick-up. Admiring the rust-tinted grey plumage on the small upland bird, I placed it in my vest’s game pouch before I realized what the Hun signified. But as I opened the door on my F-150, it came to me.
It was a combination of luck, opportunity, skill and dog work that had helped make it my first Upland Slam in a season possible despite limited time in the field, and limited populations to chase after in some areas. On a mix of the alphabet soup of public lands across two states – WPA, WIA, WMA, and PLOTS – and access from generous landowners to some prime private parcels, the upland slam came to be. Next year, the hope is to do it all again, this time entirely within the borders of North Dakota, with trips planned to the Turtle Mountains and familiar stretches north of my hometown of Valley City for the two grouse species. While I hope to find more pheasants back on the farm, and the chattering flush of Hungarian partridge interspersed in greater numbers wherever my bootleather may be worn shiny by open fields, soaked by soggy slough bottoms and frosted by drifted snow in the wide and varied places that the pursuit of upland birds takes me and thousands of other hunters each autumn.
(Featured Photo: The feathers on the tailfan of a ruffed grouse stick out from the game pouch of the author’s hunting vest. Simonson Photo)