A Not-So Hot Start
In the midst of a 2-week-long road trip of hunting, celebrations, and work conferences, I stopped off in eastern Idaho to meet up with an old friend to hunt the plethora of game birds the region had to offer. This included dusky grouse and ruffed grouse in the forests, and Hungarian partridge, greater sage-grouse, and the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in the sagebrush steppe and grasslands. The rarest of six extant subspecies, the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse only occupies roughly 5% of their historic range; Idaho is one of the last population strongholds and one of the few places they are still legally hunted. Having only one day to hunt in eastern Idaho before heading to central Montana for another conference, I decided to devote my time to pursue the local Columbian sharp-tails.
Using the tips provided by a local wildlife biologist and friend, I headed out to a nearby Idaho Fish and Game Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Once parked at my destination, I got out, sized up the area, and thought, “this doesn’t look anything like the plains sharp-tailed grouse habitat I had frequented across the Great Plains in previous years.” The terrain was mostly steep buttes with rimrock at the tops of the slopes, aspen stringers running down its creases, and bunchgrass and intermittent sagebrush on the flat tops. I felt I was just as likely to find chukar partridge as I was sharp-tails.
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Shortly after cutting my German shorthair, Ranger, and English Setter, Pearl, the two knuckleheads began putting up grouse. It was just one of those walks. The dogs and birds were equally unruly; the dogs ran through birds as if they’d never smelled one their entire lives, and the few they did point didn’t let me get within 75 yards. By the end of the 2-hr loop, I was frustrated and in need of fresh ground to cover.
For the second walk, I travelled deep into the WMA to less accessible area and put down Ruby, my always dependable English Setter. This loop was the polar opposite of the first. Within 5 minutes of reaching the top of the butte, Ruby turned birdy and locked into a point. On approach, a covey of Huns erupted into an erratic flush. I was able to swing through and connect on a single partridge with my first barrel before the covey pitched off the side of the butte and disappeared out of sight; however, that devious little bird managed lock his wings out and fell 200 feet below. “It sure would be nice to have a dog with a strong retrieve”, I thought. After clambering around the slope for a few minutes, Ruby and I were able to locate and pick up the Hun. Back on top of the butte again, Ruby continued to point Hun coveys, each one following the trajectory of the previous, screaming down the steep grade like their red-legged relatives. Unfortunately, I must’ve been loading blanks into my 20 ga side-by-side as I didn’t make contact with any of the other 4 coveys we moved.
Halfway across the flat top now, Ruby stiffened into another staunch point. This time, to my chagrin, the flutter of feather was accompanied by the characteristic chuckling of sharp-tailed grouse. A single male grouse burst from the cover of the bunchgrass and sage, floating momentarily like a feathery beach ball before gaining velocity and levelling off. With my barrels now straightened out, I covered the grouse, pulled the front trigger, and watched the bird fold and fall back to earth. A sweet relief and sweeter reward. Moments later, Ruby and I repeated this routine, filling out our 2-bird limit of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. Sitting on top of the world, I admired our quarry and took in the surroundings. The day had started out a bit tumultuous but had developed into a stellar outing, and it was only noon.
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