By Nick Simonson
It’s hard not to think hunting when a young lab looks up from his bed in the corner of the living room, and the light September wind blows gently through the screen to the back porch. Despite the reports of a sharptailed grouse population again cut in half by challenging conditions this summer, the stare was too much to bare and within a few moments the shotgun was packed in the truck alongside a gallon jug of water and a box of yellow 20-gauge shells. The mere thought of walking after sharpies on such a perfect day was enough to keep the pedal down and hopes high for at least a sighting on an area west of town.
Down smooth blacktop and through the dust of gravel roads we wound our way from the city and into the rolling hills of the countryside leading up to the dark and tree-fingered ridges of the first break west of the Missouri River. There, I thought, on some PLOTS land I had walked the season before, we might stumble in to a few grouse, even in these times of want and woe. Pulling into the approach I let my tree-trunk of a lab bound from the tailgate and into the grasses, and as we made our way in the growing warmth of the morning, a slight flicker on the horizon caught my attention.
The form banked as it approached, and the bird suddenly cupped its wings and turned, providing the clear profile of a gray-and-white sharptail cruising along the small stand of trees and shrubs planted at the base of the hill. While far off, it was on the edge of my scattergun’s range, and I touched off both barrels which did little more than chase the bird faster along the treeline. My dog and I watched it land behind the last of the cedars behind us and in the grass of the hill. Mentally marking the spot, we continued on to the trees and no sooner made the turn when another gurgling grouse took flight, flapping and bonking its way through the branches of a buffaloberry bush before cutting left to right. My second shot sent the bird into the base of a Russian olive tree, making for an easy retrieve.
Inspecting the adult bird, and counting my lucky stars for not only being able to bag one, but see two grouse in such a short span, I tucked it into my vest and reloaded just in time to hear the laughing call of another gray bird behind me.
Once again rounding the treeline’s end, I looked up the ravine to see the bird cruise out of the public hunting area. Turning to an open stretch between the rows of planted trees, we worked into the wind, with each gust carrying the scent of something ahead straight to the thundering lab’s nose. As he bounded, a hen pheasant took flight, and I pulled up on my 20-gauge which instinctively went to my shoulder at the sound of beating wings. Over and over the sight would repeat, as pheasants of varying ages took to the sky. Half-colored roosters, full-grown hens, brightly-ringed adult males and some still too young to positively identify, all flapped their way into the air until the grass once again sat quiet, with Ole holding tight on the side of a bush, his tail slightly wagging while the rest of his body was still. With a quick shout of “Go!” from me, he dove in and sent a brightly-colored rooster into the air, and I laughed as he bounded back toward me and stopped at my feet, watching confusedly as I assured him: “not yet.”
With the adrenaline flowing from the close contact with the 13 pheasants, we crept up the last of the treeline to where the first grouse had landed. My heart raced, my hands clenched the wooden forestock of the shotgun, and I delicately stepped along the hillside grasses, as if I was trying not to spook a deer. Then, in true-to-form fashion, my mind wandered back to the birds in the valley below, and before I could redirect my thoughts, the laughing grouse got up and I shot over it with both barrels. Its chuckle echoed up the hillside and I laughed back, bested by the bird that started the walk.
Content with one in the hand and the knowledge that more were there for future walks, we headed back to the truck as the warmth of the late-summer day began to settle in across the breaks, and after a good watering for Ole, we made our way back to town. On the return trip, two large pronghorn bucks paused to watch us roll by, their large horns evidence that they had enjoyed not being hunted in the area over the past few seasons as herd populations slowly climbed up from their trough several winters ago. They served as a reminder that they too were on the comeback, and that no matter what the numbers say, there’s always a chance of seeing something – expected or unexpected – when everything aligns for a perfect day.
Featured Photo: The author’s lab, Ole, flushes a sharptailed grouse from a grassy hillside. Simonson Photo.