By Nick Simonson
September brings with it the initial upland seasons of the year, and sharptailed grouse have often been that first flush that has sent my heart soaring each fall after its beat echoed steadily in my ears as my dog held point. While these buff and gray birds with the trademark chuckle that can be heard over their whirring wings are creatures of the open prairie and rolling grasses, there are certain spots that seem to hold them better than others. What follows are some subtle structural elements that have paid off in the past, and likely will again this season, for sharptailed grouse.
Affinity on High
Holding the high ground is what grouse do best, and near the crest of a hill or at the top of a rise is where coveys are often found. Their desire to see trouble a long way off and flush well out of range is fostered by occupying the tops of hills, outcroppings and buttes, and hunters would be wise to be aware of that fact before the birds bust without leaving a shot. The best bet is to work the breeze uphill and into the rise, or in familiar hunting areas, note elevated positions where birds have come from in previous seasons and make plans to circle around as needed to catch them off guard. Take note of features like draws and breaks, or sharp changes in elevation that give birds an advantage, as these elements often hint at bird locations as well.
Beat Around the Bush
In addition to providing elevation, stands of prairie bushes like Buffaloberry also give cover and some food sources for sharptailed grouse. These areas become favorite resting places where one or more of the group can post up on the branches and watch for predators, triggering the rest to flush when the lead bird takes off. Even if there isn’t a sentinel keeping eye on things, it’s likely there are birds in bases of the vegetation and in the surrounding grasses. Scan the hillsides of a prime grouse hunting area to find clusters of buckbrush or bushes, and plan an into-the-wind walk up to each set when starting out on an early season sharptail adventure. Whether in a planting, or naturally occurring, brushy areas provide cover in hostile conditions or on windy days as well, and are good spots to check before or after an autumn storm.
Unlike pheasants, which typically relate to transition areas of heavy cover like sloughs, to loafing areas like grass and feeding areas such as field edges, sharptailed grouse are more comfortable in a wider expanse of prairie. However, there are those places where the grass meets certain agricultural fields where grouse seem to relate more regularly. Working those stands of cover alongside plantings of alfalfa are a primary consideration when thinking about the softer edges that grouse like. The alfalfa provides both moisture and food in its leaves, and it also draws in late-season grasshoppers which are easily picked off by hungry grouse. Additionally, cut fields of wheat and stands of sunflowers can make the edges of grass around them more productive as these are popular food sources for sharptailed grouse as well, and the latter often stand late into the fall.
While it can seem like finding sharptailed grouse in a sprawling expanse of prairie is like locating the proverbial needle in the haystack, there are some features that can help make hunts more productive. Utilize rises, clusters of berry bushes and buck brush, and those favorable nearby agricultural fields to find the best stretches of prairie and get the most out of your upcoming grouse hunts this autumn.
Featured Photo: Grouse will relate to bushes and shrubs all season long. When you see them interspersed in the grass and hillsides of an area containing sharptailed grouse, their always worth a look. DEO Photo by Josh Holm.