A Gentleman’s Sport

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I’m not really sure why the sharp-tailed grouse doesn’t get the attention that other upland birds do. Heck, I’m still not sure why upland hunting in general isn’t more popular. Sure it’s not as “sexy” as public lands backcountry archery hunting, it doesn’t seem as hardcore as busting ice with headlamps and decoy bags in the dark and all-to-often it gets called a “gentleman’s sport,” but most of the time there’s pretty much nothing gentlemanly about it.

When boots reach upwards of 10 miles in a day, dog collars are reading triple that, and vests are empty I sometimes find it more akin to big game hunting. When I’m literally pounding my knees upwards in cattails in December just to gain one more step through this slough, sweat dripping from beneath by stocking cap, I envy those tucked away in layout blinds and when your season spans from the 80 degree waning days of summer to the -30 windchill kind of January days on the northern plains you sometimes question whether a silly bird is worth all this, but only for a second.

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Because from rolling hills prairie grouse country, to thick aspen stands in search of woodcock and ruffed grouse, to the notoriously difficult mountain-dwelling chukar, to dry desert quail or even the sloughs and thickets of misrepresented pheasants, upland hunting can be as challenging as you make it and as diverse as the landscapes of the quarry. It requires physical and mental endurance, composure amidst heart-throbbing flushes, and a heck of a lot of persistence.

But the rewards of learning a species’ habitat, training and watching a bird dog work ahead of you instinctually, rewarding him and you with a bird in hand, and celebrating like kings at the tailgate are among some of the finest in hunting. Maybe that’s why it’s called a gentleman’s sport. And don’t think that the table fare isn’t fine or abundant either. Meat from these endeavors can begin to slowly fill a freezer all the same, each species with some of the most distinctive flavors wild game has to offer.

And so after a frustrating weekend where I failed to remain composed and flat out wasn’t in the right place at the right time, I crest a hillside flush with fragrant sage, flowering goldenrod, and the remnants of prairie coneflower stalks, it felt grousey. I returned my focus to the task at hand, immerse myself in the moment, and reap the rewards when a sharptail erupts just feet ahead of me, shoulder gun, safety off, fire. Feathers are blowing in the prairie wind as my dog returns it. I smile, maybe there’ some truth to the namesake, I do feel pretty noble after all.

Cayla Bendel

Cayla is a conservation professional that resides in North Dakota with her husband and pudelpointer, Finley. Together they enjoy avidly hunting, fishing, and otherwise frolicking their way through the seasons.

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