“The prairie skies can always make you see more than what you believe.”
― from the novel The Past Never Ends by Jackson Burnett
The situation in Pierre
Fort Pierre National Grassland, dead smack in the middle of South Dakota, is a hundred thousand acres of shortgrass prairie that is some of the best hunting ground anywhere for sharptail grouse and prairie chickens. But finding the feathery critters was a challenge for the Over the Hill Gang this September.
Prairie grouse are a “shoe leather bird” – you wear out a lot of shoe leather on the long treks across the grassland in search of Tympanuchus phasianellus (the sharpies) and Tympanuchus cupido (the chickens) – so part of our difficulty was that we do not cover as much ground in our 60s as we did in our 30s. But a bigger problem was the extreme change in habitat. It rained in Dakota in the early summer. A lot. July was dry, but more rain fell in August.
We did not check the weather records, but precipitation figures for 2014 must have been close to the highest ever. Stocks ponds that had been dry for years are now full, and when we looked out over sweeping prairie vistas from the ridge tops this fall, the land was tinted dark green, not russet-brown.
This is a good situation for farmers and ranchers around Pierre. Row crops appear to be the best in a decade or more, and cattle stand in belly high grass on almost all the federal allocations of grazing land. The Fort Pierre National Grassland, most years, is a semi-arid country. This year it is lush.
But for grouse hunters, the changed countryside was a puzzle to be solved. We know how to hunt sharptails and chickens on semi-arid prairie. We did not know how to hunt them on lush prairie.
On previous hunts, the best habitat for birds was the downwind sides of ridges and hills where the grass was thin, dusting areas were plentiful, the wild rose clumps were heavy with red berries, and the grouse could see predators a mile away and felt safe. We had learned to avoid the stands of brush and taller grasses on the flats and in the low areas, which were unlikely to hold birds any longer than it took them to feed out on greens and grasshoppers in the early mornings.
This summer’s frequent and plentiful rains caused plant life to boom, and even the highest hills and the most windswept ridges were thick with dense green fescue grasses, clumps of little blue stem and other native grasses, a dozen different prairie forbs and flowers, and stands of knee-high brush. Even more unexpected were the thickets of hard, brittle, four-foot-tall stalks of yellow clover. Nasty stuff. This abundance of cover made the walking the toughest I remember on a prairie hunt, and it drastically changed the habits of the birds.
At the end of the first day’s hunt, some lights began to come on in our dim minds, aided by reports from other hunters who had been beating the brush three days before we started. To find grouse, you had to scout for the areas of shortest grass – the pasture allotments that had been grazed the most – and hunt the flats and the low swales between the hills. With an overabundance of rich grass everywhere, the cattle had no reason to labor up hillsides to graze, so the slopes and tops of hills were likely to be thicker cover than the lowlands.
Add to this quandary the wind. There was none. The final two days of our hunt were virtually windless. This does not happen. The wind is always blowing in Dakota. Always. We depend on it as a factor in our bird-finding. But how do you find a grouse covey’s “wind shelter” places when there is no wind from which they need sheltered? Go figure.
Still, we found enough birds to make the hunt exciting and keep our anticipation high each time the dogs showed “birdy.”
Although I would like to make an estimate of grouse populations on the Dakota grasslands in this wet year, I have only the slimmest anecdotal information on which to base a “best guess.” We saw three or four dozen birds, but we spent one day hunting where the birds were not, and two days hunting where the birds might be, but often were not. Also, as frequently happens in late September in Dakota, the temperatures rose into the 80s by noon or 1 p.m., so our hunts were limited to half-day ventures. We did not want any of our dogs to collapse from heat exhaustion. And the dogs did not want any of their owners to collapse from heat exhaustion, which may have been the greater risk.
The birds were probably there, but they were not where we were. Or we were not where they were. Well, you get the idea.
We bagged half a dozen grouse during our three morning hunts, but could have bagged nine or ten with better shooting. Having injured my left shoulder and arm in June, and struggled to get my shooting form back to normal after rehab, I was relieved to hit a few birds on this first hunt of the fall, including two that held for points by my young dog Abbey, who performed well. Better than I had any right to expect, given my failure to put her onto some pen-raised birds during the off-season.
On the other side of the card, it was bitter-sweet to follow my old dog Sasha, now eleven, on what was probably her final Dakota hunt. She may still have the stamina for a couple more years’ hunts in the cooler woodlands of Minnesota in pursuit of ruffed grouse and woodcock, but her days of busting miles of heavier cover and scrambling up and down steep hillsides on the prairie have come to an end. Every hunter who has gone through the declining years of his “every day – every bird” dog knows about this sadness, and about the consolation of remembering hunts of the past while he shares a stick of jerky in the cool of the evening with his companion of ten years.
I also set aside some time to walk to a hilltop to scatter the ashes of Annie, my rebellious German shorthaired pointer who passed on a year ago at age thirteen. The grassland was always “her hunt,” the one for which she was best suited and that she enjoyed with mad enthusiasm. This is where her spirit is meant to be, running wide and finding birds.
All-in-all, it was a good trip. The log: 1,200 miles, $600, some sunburn, blistered feet, tired and aching bodies, weary dogs – all for six grouse in the freezer to bring back Dakota memories when they are filleted and sliced and stir-fried this winter.
Was it worth it? Yes, it was worth it. Well worth it.