Grouse numbers are down. Way down. Both prairie chickens and sharptail grouse. Nebraska’s Game & Parks official bird hunting forecast told us that a month before: beware, there would be far fewer grouse. But we had to find out for ourselves.
We found out. Not many prairie grouse in the Sandhills this fall.
An unseasonal blizzard smothered our Sandhills hunt a year ago, but we had seen good numbers of birds in the McKelvie National Grassland while we floundered around in four or five inches of that slippery snow last October, and in the spring state wildlife biologists reported observing above average numbers of both prairie chickens and sharptails strutting and bobbing on the leks, the annual breeding grounds for these birds. Mild spring weather and plentiful rainfall made for excellent nesting conditions, too, so early projections for increased grouse numbers were optimistic.
Then came a severe six-weeks drought and heat wave that dried and seared the Sandhills at the time chicks were pecking their way out of eggshells and tumbling into the world. Dry, hot weather is a death sentence for newly hatched grouse chicks, and most of the 2017 spring broods baked and dehydrated and died in their first few days of life. The Red Gods of Nature are never gentle.
The unfortunate result for The Over the Hill Gang was that we flushed fewer than fifty grouse in three days of hard hunting during the final week of September. Only ten of those widely scattered birds were brought to bag. The four of us aging and leg-weary hunters shot at another eight or ten, all at frustratingly long ranges, with no discernable effect.
A slim year for bird hunting. Well, we were forewarned, weren’t we?
Incongruously, the weather pattern that was cruel to the grouse was beneficial for the habitat that supports them: cover and food were abundant everywhere. Early and late rains that were bookends for the weeks of drought were apparently well-timed for growth of prairie grasses and forbs, and we had never seen the hills so thick with rose hips, the red berries that grow on the scrubby wild rose plants that cluster the hillsides. The bowls and faces of some dunes were blushed bright crimson with the thousands of rose hips clinging to stems that still held onto a few green leaves in these first days of autumn. It seemed impossible that these hills would not be teeming with birds, but one harsh month in the cycle of life had decimated them.
Low bird populations might have given us reason to grouse (please forgive the pun) that this was far from the top ten on our list of best shortgrass prairie hunts over the past forty years, but in fact we had a great time, the most enjoyable hunt I can remember in many a year. Most of that enjoyment can be credited to Sam, Bob’s two-year-old German shorthaired pointer who proved himself a Sandhills bird dog extraordinaire.
Perhaps the largest GSP in captivity, Sam raced his seventy-five-pound body across the dunes, ignoring the occasional cactus pad or sandbur, and finding the biggest percentage of the grouse we so futilely sought during our twenty-four and six-tenths miles of wandering through the wilderness. (A smartphone odometer application is not necessarily a good thing for aching feet at the end of the day, but it does provide “survivalist” bragging rights for Old Coots.) Sam pointed staunchly, held the birds, and encouraged Bob to shoot them, which he did, accounting for half our bag. He claimed to miss some. I did not witness any of his missed shots, but I’ll trust his self-effacing honesty.
Mostly, my eyes were on Sam. His head is pure black and his white coat is flecked and patterned with plenty of black markings which makes him easy to spot in the scrub cover of the Sandhills. Even for a GSP his ears are enormous, and his feet are bigger yet; if his body grows to match them. Bob will need a bigger truck.
Sam covered a wide range of ground at a pace that never seemed so slacken, around that dune, up this steep face, across that saddle between hills, around a birdy-looking bowl sheltered by a lower dune, a perpetual motion machine. Good retriever, too. A dog to turn a Sandhills hunter’s heart green with envy. Too much dog for me, but a perfect match for Bob who can cover open country at a pretty good pace himself. Sam checked back frequently to assure that Bob was keeping station and hunting with appropriate enthusiasm. He usually was.
My French spaniel Abbey, a breed of pointing dog not particularly well-suited to this type of terrain, could only stare at Sam in wonder and amazement. I think she challenged him to a rematch hunt for woodcock and ruffed grouse in the thick aspen forests of northern Minnesota, but I do not speak French or German so I am not sure about the details of their conversation. Intimidated by Sam, I think, Abbey had a so-so hunt. She did well the first day, got bored the second day, and lollygagged frequently the third day.
But then she may have lost faith in me. She located and pointed a cover of ten or twelve birds the first morning, held steady while I flushed them. She chased and retrieved the one I knocked down, and asked for directions to the second dead bird. “I missed the second shot,” I told her. Her stare was somewhere between disbelief and scorn.
She’ll get over it in the north woods next week. I hope.
Beyond the bird hunting, a trip to the Sandhills has other rewards. Greater rewards. The exotic landscape is beautiful in my eyes, although more than one hunting or camping companion has found it to be too stark and bleak. As I climb each dune I’m filled with excited anticipation about what I might discover when I cross over its crest: a covey of grouse resting out of the wind, a pronghorn standing like a statue on the next ridge, a mule deer doe and fawn bounding out of a thicket of buckbrush, a coyote running for cover. And where else can you find this many western meadowlarks and grass sparrows to entertain your dog when grouse numbers are low? The spreading prairie potholes, some of them covering many acres of lowlands between the dunes, create a whole different ecosystem in the midst of a semi-arid landscape.
On this trip, the best part was the camping. Perfect weather: cool nights for sleeping, sixty-degrees midday while we were hunting. The first morning’s light rain made for god scenting conditions for the dogs.
We set up tents at a primitive campsite where the Boardman Creek flows into Merritt Reservoir and had the entire campground to ourselves. Cy did all the cooking, and the meals were excellent. Bob and I stayed out of his way except to serve as go-fers and to wash dishes. Evenings were spent around the campfire, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar, and sharing almost-true stories about memorable hunts of the past.
Sandhills star-filled skies are often spectacular, and these September nights did not disappoint. After the Moon set the sky was ink-black with no city lights on any horizon, and the dome of the heavens was not flat but three dimensional with each star and planet suspended at its own depth in the Universe. If you have not spent a few hours stargazing in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills you have missed the true “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Good hunting companions, good dog work, perfect weather, night skies, good food, smoky campfire, sound night’s sleep after long treks through the hills – a wonderful week. Would it have been better if we had shot a limit of grouse each day? Maybe, but I wouldn’t trade that for any of the other blessings.
We all promised we’ll do it again next year. We can only hope it will be this good again.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in four collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com Jerry Johnson Author Page