Grassland Grouse

The vastness of the South Dakota grasslands makes finding its feathered occupants a daunting task. This is compounded later in the season, when sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens are scattered and flighty.

Rolling waves of prairie grass bowed to 30 mph gusts of wind, creating the appearance of an angry golden sea. It was easy to imagine hundreds of prairie schooners winding through the immense landscape, stretching to the horizon like a giant serpent—their hopeful passengers plotting a course for the promise of a better life. Those weary of travel, hampered by breakdowns or enamored by the prairie solitude and beauty, forsaking the trail to take up residence and eke out an existence in the harsh Dakota Sioux territory.

A sliver of sun eased over the horizon, and I paused to soak in my third South Dakota prairie sunrise in as many days. I’d been walking for more than a half-hour and already my truck had been reduced to a speck on the skyline. Bullet, my young Brittany, didn’t give a hoot about prairie aesthetics and was tugging at his lead, pestering me to cut him loose. My eyes teared as I turned into the brisk wind and cast the youngster out for his first run of the morning. It was nearly an hour later—just as my fingers were becoming numb and my demeanor complacent—when Bullet pulled up into a stanch point. Game on, I readied my gun and walked up for the flush.

During those 3 days in South Dakota, my GPS recorded 28 miles of foot work, and I fell one bird short of my three-bird daily bag limit each session, even though I put up a fair number of birds. (I blame my poor shooting on frozen fingers and the stiff wind.) But aside from my awful marksmanship, this was exactly what I was looking for when I left Minnesota and pointed my truck west: a one-on-one hunt with my dog on public land with little interference from other hunters. Would I recommend it for everyone? Probably not.

The majority of prairie grouse hunters—those perhaps more sensible than me—travel to the grasslands during the first week or two of the season, when birds are in small family groups and the young-of-the-year provide easy quarry for all breeds of hunting dogs, steady or otherwise. Those hunters concerned about wearing out their new boots rarely have to venture far from the truck. During my October hunt, however, I saw very few hunters and the birds I put in the game bag were well-earned.

They Are Where They Are
The good news for upland hunters is that prairie grouse reside where public hunting ground is abundant. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands, where I was hunting in central South Dakota, encompasses 116,000 acres of prime sharptail and prairie chicken habitat. This fertile mixed-grass prairie produces tall, dense nesting cover for game birds, and adjacent croplands provide food that’s especially important during the winter.

The bad news is that because of the vastness of these holdings, locating birds with any degree of consistency can be difficult. To successfully hunt prairie grouse, you have to think like one. Forget what you know about other upland game birds; prairie grouse are largely sight-oriented and shun the brush-choked draws and wooded river-bottoms many out-of-state hunters tend to gravitate toward. These birds are about the wide open country they occupy.

Here are a few nuggets to get you thinking like a grouse. Then it’s time to put in the legwork, because, for a large part, that’s what hunting the prairie is all about.

Hunting In The Wind
If there’s a constant about hunting grouse in South Dakota it’s that you’ll probably have to deal with wind—lots of it. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, wind direction and intensity will, to a degree, help you determine where the birds are. Grouse feed shortly after coming off the roost in the morning and then spend the majority of the day loafing in light cover before feeding again later in the day. During this loafing period, look for birds adjacent to croplands on the lee side of hills, where they can get out of the wind and maintain visibility.

Hunt into the wind when possible. Your dog will be able to pick up scent better and birds will be slower to get up. The down side of hunting in windy conditions is that the birds are often spooky, probably because their hearing is greatly diminished.

Running Large
If your dog likes to run, it will love hunting the prairie. Honest pointers can be allowed to run large. Most of the prairie grouse we encountered held tight and gave me plenty of time to walk up into range before flushing. Flushers, of course, will have to work within effective shotgun range, preferably into the wind.

Location, Location, Location
Prairie grouse favor wide open surroundings, but there are slight diversities in the prairie environment that seem to draw the birds’ attention. Learn to locate these and you’ll save considerable legwork. The South Dakota grasslands are dominated by Western wheat grass and green needle grass on the flats and ridges, with big and little bluestem, side-oats and porcupine grass being major vegetation on the slopes. Blue gramma and Buffalo grass are common, too. I look for subtle edges where light grasses meet slightly heavier cover. Birds seem to favor these (albeit slight) transitional zones, where they maintain good visibility but can hunker down into the heavier cover to avoid detection if necessary.

I’ve had luck hunting the grassy edges adjacent to agricultural crops (mainly wheat and sorghum) early in the morning. As the day progresses, I move farther into the grasslands. Remember, these birds rely heavily on sight as their first line of defense. I found most of my birds about three-quarters of the way up the lee sides of hills, where they can get out of the wind and quickly take to wing if threatened.

Grouse Guns
I’m a 20 gauge guy when it comes to upland birds. I do a great deal more walking than shooting, and shedding those couple of pounds by carrying a lighter gun suits me fine. Early in the season, when birds are holding tight, I generally shoot No. 6s out of an improved cylinder. But later in the season, or in extremely windy conditions, I switch to a modified choke and might step up to 3-inch No. 5s or No. 4s.

It was late afternoon and time to call it a hunt. I had the long drive home ahead of me and my legs were spent. I whistled Bullet in, ruffled him up a bit and told him what a good boy he is. Then, with my pup loaded and gear stashed, I took a final look at the rolling landscape and breathed a content sigh. There’s something about the prairie that sooths the soul and calms the nerves.

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