By Nick Simonson
With the opening day of both sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge seasons set for Sept. 8, it won’t be long until the prairies and breaks of North Dakota are once again patrolled by the orange-and-brown-clad hunters out in search of the season’s first upland opportunities. While not as widely pursued as ringneck pheasants, sharpies and huns provide a preseason of sorts for dogs that have spent the summer getting ready for those first forays into the field, and for hunters chomping at the bit and set to follow their four-legged friends. These early seasons present good opportunities to pursue these birds, despite their numbers lowered by last year’s drought and recent habitat loss. Knowing where to look for each of them and how to hunt them and identify each will increase the odds of success.
Hit the Habitat
Sharptailed grouse are grassland birds. The bigger, wider and deeper expanses of unbroken prairie will hold larger populations of sharpies for hunters venturing out in September. Add in a few ravines with water sources and cover such as buffaloberry bushes and buck brush, and a surefire starting point exists for a sharptail hunt. Utilize online maps and GPS units to pinpoint those areas open to public hunting on PLOTS or WMAs and other government lands or reach out to landowners of likely grouse haunts to discuss options. Grouse will also relate to alfalfa fields in late summer and early fall, where pre-frost populations of grasshoppers will still be on the menu for young-of-the-year birds looking to fill out their developing bodies’ demands for protein. The plants also provide a secondary hydration source.
Partridge are edge birds, and like pheasants, find cover, escape routes and feeding locations in farmland adjacent to grassy areas. While they don’t have the same demands as sharpies do for that bigger stretch of wide-open habitat, they do prefer grass over other types of cover, such as cattails. As they are smaller birds, grain fields like wheat and barley near cover are good places to identify and walking grassy areas next to these harvested acres are great spots to start a hunt. Cover such as treerows also gives protection to partridge, and it isn’t unusual to flush a covey from the bases of a shelterbelt or a stretch of planted brush when walking.
How to Hunt
Both species provide fun and excitement behind a good bird dog and can present multiple opportunities to reflush the covey further down the way. Early in the season, when birds aren’t as wary, they’re easy to sneak up on, but as fall settles in, sharpies and huns will be much more skittish and flush farther off. No matter the time of year, mentally mark the direction the birds flew and, if possible to see, where they landed. Walk up on them quietly and into the wind for a chance at another shooting opportunity. Both sharptails and huns can be trailed in this manner, though sharpies tend to finish their flush and land much farther away from the initial point of flight than huns.
Field shot in Size 7 ½ or 8 is enough to take down both species and shotguns in 12 to 20 gauge will provide the best payloads to help turn walks into successful hunts. More open chokes in early season will help connect with close flushing birds or ones held in check by a pointing dog. Tighten up as the season goes along, or when working behind a flushing breed. Sharpies and huns often flush in groups, making flock shooting a natural instinct. To better connect, pick a bird at the front of the flock and focus on putting it down before moving on to the next one in the group. While the exciting situation of a dozen flushing birds triggers a rush, avoid just pulling up and praying before touching the trigger.
ID is Key
A flushing grouse can be a big surprise, the same goes for a covey of chattering partridge. Make certain in this stretch of time both targets can be positively identified. A sharptailed grouse, obviously, has a pinpoint tail, and is whitish-grey with a white belly in flight. They tend to make a gurgling – almost laughing – call when startled and after taking flight will cup their wings and glide. They lack the long tailfeathers of pheasant hens, which they are often confused for, and as a result, not shot at on some occasions.
In the same vein, partridge can be mistaken for young-of-the-year pheasants, and tend to flush in a group, akin to a brood of nearly mature pheasant chicks that aren’t completely colored yet, especially in the case of a late hatch which many places saw this spring. Look closely though, and you’ll see a rust-colored head and hear the rapid, chattery “tick-tick-tick” alarm these birds give off when flushed which pheasants do not make. Ultimately, the responsibility rests with each hunter not to shoot, and if a bird can’t be positively identified, it’s best to hold off and note it for next time.
With these tips in tow, success awaits in the grassy stretches that sharptails and huns occupy in the Peace Garden State. Knowing where sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge reside, how to hunt them, and what to look for will turn the first warm walks of the season into hot hunting.
Featured Photo: A covey of partridge flush on a grassy hill west of Watford City, ND. Simonson Photo.