By Nick Simonson
The day after I tagged my deer last season was warm but windy and there was no snow on the ground. It was more like a September scene than one from November. With temperatures in the mid-50s and gusty breezes at 25 miles per hour, I watched the hillside grasses bend as the northwest gales curled around the sunny side of the hill my lab Ole and I walked on during our final day of vacation which was set aside for big game, but now took on a new purpose after a punched tag.
Not a hundred yards from the truck on the breeze came a sudden realization that with it was the scent of something sporting in the waving amber flow we waded into as Ole scent-checked the air, sprung forward, lifted his nose again and bounded ahead. All around him, sharptailed grouse sprung up and gurgled as they battled the breezes to get aloft and away from us as fast as possible. I downed one and then another. I caught my breath as Ole retrieved the second bird and I reloaded as we approached the corner of the unharvested field and the small grass strip that led to the next grassy stretch of our walk.
Not three feet from me a gray football sprang into the air and took a collision course toward my face, laughing the startled cry that the prairie birds are well known for. It banked about six inches away, sending a woosh of air into my ear. Nearly able to bat it from the air with the barrel of my 20 gauge scattergun, I ducked and shouted with a reactionary “AH!” as it peeled and turned down into the small valley and behind some brush, safely out of range. Ole paused and looked back, confused as to why I didn’t close on the trifecta as the bird’s chuckles were muted by distance and the continued gusts of wind.
Whether late season birds like in last year’s final hunt in November, or the early season coveys that take off from the edge of a stretch of light grassy cover, that laugh which sharpies make is a defining sound of fall. Sometimes, it’s so startling that all one can do is instinctively flock shoot in desperation as a blur of beating wings takes to the air. Other times, it’s almost maddening as the rush of a pointed bird on the rise consumes even the greatest wingshooter. In the end though, it’s important to remember – or at least try to convince yourself – that the birds are laughing with you and not at you in the renewal of the great fall chase which binds us as hunters to the habitat that holds our quarry and reignites the matching of wits and skill against millennia of instinct and escape ability.
From the stands of buffaloberry bushes and buckbrush to the brome, bluestem and autumn-dried blossoms of a CRP stand, that covey rising is the reward for wearing down the leather of hunting boots, and the hope that one or two birds lag behind the group or a singleton somewhere along the trail pops up for an easy shot. While not as boisterous in voice or in fashion as their introduced contemporary, the rooster pheasant, sharpies are hardier and often harbingers of what the fall is to bring to uplanders across the plains. When their numbers are good, other upland birds have likely done well. Listening for that laugh, and looking for the lone sentinel on a hay bale or the top of a stand of bushes signaling to the nearby group, is that first indication that autumn is upon us and all the excitement that awaits a good dog and a decent shot.
With the first major upland season and the pursuit of sharptailed grouse just days away and a cooling in the air this week, I’m able to laugh a little easier, knowing that good times like these and more memories to be added to the photo album are coming quickly with the start of the season that always produces at least a chuckle…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author’s lab with a set of sharptailed grouse on an autumn 2019 hunt. Simonson Photo.