The feel of a crisp fall morning can only mean one thing. For me, it is time to chase birds. The past month or so I have been from Colorado to South Dakota, and up through Montana combing the countryside in search of wild upland birds. It has become a fall season tradition, but addiction may be a more accurate way to describe it. To me, there’s no better way to connect with with a landscape than to explore it with a bird-dog in front of you and a shotgun on your shoulder.
My upland excursion this year began in September, finding blue grouse in the Colorado high country. These birds go by a few different names around here – like the dusky or mountain grouse – but I’ve always affectionately known them as “blues”.
I think the blues are a good bird to warm up on in early season, and they inhabit some of the prettiest country there is. The terrain and alpine cover makes you feel like its okay if you don’t see many; just take your shotgun for a hike and its still well worth it. That wasn’t the case this year though, as Colorado blue grouse numbers were up after a good spring hatch and favorable winter conditions last year. With a few days hunting the high country under her belt, my german shorthaired pointer, Maddie, was ready to try her nose on something else out on a wide-open prairie.
The first week of October we traveled to previously uncharted territory in South Dakota. Fellow ranch broker, Jeff Hubbard, a couple of other Georgia boys, and I ventured to an area just north of the Nebraska border looking to bag sharp-tail grouse, pheasants, and the ever elusive prairie chicken. Sharptail are my favorite species to hunt so I was excited to get on my first sharps of the year, but I was also interested to see what the prairie chickens were all about. Not a one of us had ever shot or even seen a prairie chicken before, but apparently in this region the population is prolific.
This bird has been highly affected like many other upland species by habitat fragmentation. When a large and continuous landscape begins to be divided into smaller and more isolated pieces, wildlife habitat becomes broken up. Human impacts and the agricultural economy have influenced this phenomenon out west. Animals of all kinds that rely on an expansive landscape are negatively impacted. There is no better example of a widespread habitat than our western prairies. Grouse, partridge, and especially the prairie chicken have all seen fluctuations in population due to the fragmentation of their habitat. This area in South Dakota is largely intact thanks to enormous Indian reservations, designated wildlife areas and national preserves, meaning the environment and upland bird populations have remained relatively intact and healthy.
Our South Dakota hunts proved challenging though with difficult conditions. Our first two days were extremely hot for this time of year. Bordering on 90 degrees it became stressful and dangerous to run our dogs in the heat, not to mention the birds not wanting to cooperate. We still managed to find sharptails and a few chickens, and we shot our limit of pheasants each day. Prairie chickens behave a lot like a sharptail grouse, and sometimes we even found them loafing together in the same areas. It was tough to decipher a sharpy from a chicken until it was in your hand. The subtle differences are more noticeable up close, and these fascinating birds have a lot of character.
The third and last day in South Dakota the temperature dropped but the wind howled up to 40 mph. Dogs couldn’t pick up scent and the birds didn’t want to fly with winds blowing like that. Despite our bad luck with the weather, we still had a great time and killed a fair share of birds considering the circumstances. And of course its always fun seeing new country.
After South Dakota, I had two back-to-back weekends planned in my homeland of Montana. I had heard good reports from the season already, so I was excited to hunt familiar ground and lower temperatures. The last few years I’ve been focusing my efforts around the Missouri Breaks country in northeastern Montana. This is some seriously bad-ass country. There is an abundance of public hunting ground that is productive. However the secret sauce is in the big ranch territory. I’ve had wonderful days in this region – many of the most memorable hunts I’ve had. But beware; the birds can be as wild as the landscape. Sometimes the dog work is spot-on and coveys hold great, while other times all you get are hail-mary shots from 40 yards out. The primary target for me up here is sharptail grouse, which are native to Montana and have thrived on this landscape for thousands of years. They’ve survived that long for a reason, and they are not always easy to kill. These birds are smart and they become wilier later in the season. To me though, the challenge and allure of this native bird is what makes it so fun.
Hungarian partridge also thrive on this high prairie. These birds group up nicely and are very fast fliers. This year I bumped into more “huns” than I’m used to seeing in this area. Pheasant habitat is also prevalent in the pockets of this sprawling land. When the challenges of the grouse and huns have got a hunter feeling down, there’s nothing quite like dropping a big rooster out of the big sky. Sprinkling in a nice balance of upland prairie walking and kicking out ditch-parrots makes for a complete day of Montana wingshooting.
Like it typically goes, we had a few great hunts and a few not so great. But overall it was another fun year in Montana with good friends and family. I’d say all the good reports I heard early on seemed to have been true.
With such a busy month afield, Maddie now looks at me with frustrated eyes. Wondering why we’re suddenly out of the field and back in the office again. I can’t say I blame her. As the boredom consumes her, she’s spent most of the last several days resting her feet, asleep under my desk dreaming of the next point, flush and retrieve. It’s a good thing Colorado pheasant and quail season is just around the corner.