By Nick Simonson
The whir of wings on the far side of the stand of pines caught my attention as my hardworking lab sniffed out the row’s only resident. From the sound and the urgency, I guessed it was a pheasant as we had put three hens up on the walk down the valley, before turning our backs to the wind and wandering up the hillside. While I never saw it, my mind was comfortable on this final walk of the year in presuming it was of the fairer sex that seemed to exclusively inhabit the near side of the wildlife management area.
At the end of the trees, mixed in amongst the cottontail trails and the toe-drag of whitetail deer through the snow was another set of three toed tracks. I dismissed them as the markings of the just-escaped hen as I waited for my dog to finish up his double-back inspection of all the scents that had piled up behind the wall of green and the snowdrifts that had built in behind it. It had been a long time since either of us had hunted in calf-deep snow, and I could feel the strain of the final afternoon’s hike of four miles building but was relieved by the warming temperatures of the first afternoon in a while where the mercury rose above zero and winds were light. As I stretched and Ole wandered back to me, I followed the upland bird tracks out of the mix and into the snow-covered plants up the slope.
They lacked the notable straight-line urgency of pheasant tracks, and I was puzzled by their absence of direction and relation to nothing in particular. They curled around the stalks of the brushy cluster of berry plants, now bare from winter’s winds stripping their gray-green leaves and the small white beads of fruit had been long lost to the frost. Like the trail of a bumblebee in a child’s drawing, the path looped over and around itself, showing the haphazard walk the upland creature had made in the drifted snow now covering the vegetation. I shrugged as I traced it into the drift, where it disappeared, without wing or tail marks to signify a takeoff or landing. They simply vanished into the white of the crest rising out of the frozen plants.
Then it hit me.
Snow from the drift exploded all around me as if I had triggered some sort of bomb buried within the depths of the white wind-forged wall. It continued to rise and swirl as wingbeats pounded and threw a sparkling smokescreen up while a chuckling covey of sharptailed grouse took flight so close I could have hit two of them with the barrels of my over-under. In the second it took to figure out what was going on and mount the little scattergun, I replayed those stories relayed from mentors in outings long past, about how late in the season, they had experienced the same moment: exploding snowbanks, beating wings, laughing birds, and a feeling of bewilderment that sometimes stunned them to the point they were unable to shoot.
Had it not been for the fact it was late in a season filled with many successful hunts and once again warm enough to walk in my light jacket over my sweatshirt, both factors played to my advantage and allowed the butt of my small shotgun to find its home between my chest and shoulder. Overriding the adrenaline and excitement, the shot I could muster rang true and my dog was quickly on the downed sharptail at the far side of the drifted brushy stretch. Stunned, I cautiously wandered through the area, seeing the grouses’ tracks now amidst the deep holes in the snowbank and my lab’s bounding footprints, expecting yet another covey to rise.
Receiving the sharpie from my dog, I looked it over. In late season splendor, its plumes of black, brown, gray and white were full and thick and for its sacrifice I promised to honor it as the last bird of the season and craft from its coat a series of flies for spring crappie and trout fishing on the small lake down at the end of the brushy drain which led to the impoundment. I congratulated my dog as the last of the rush wore off and we turned back toward the truck as the late afternoon sun of the final day of the hunting season guided us through the quiet snow and an exciting end to another memorable season…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Sharptailed grouse tracks amble through a drift-covered stand of low berry plants on the sloping hills of a Morton County WMA where the author finished his upland season with an exciting occurrence. Simonson Photo.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor for Dakota Edge Outdoors.