Originally appeared in Gun Dog Magazine (October/November, 1992)
The Federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has converted over two million acres of North Dakota land back into grassland, and after just a few years of CRP conversion, the sharptail and partridge numbers are on the rise. Here’s how you can use your Labs and retrievers on this vast prairie.
Being a native Minnesotan, I used to hunt sharptail grouse north of upper Red Lake, only a few miles from the Canadian border. Our approach to hunting the birds was fairly simple. We would look for large openings in the heavily wooded aspen forest and walk the edges, keying on hey fields during nice weather conditions. Damp and wet weather required a walk into the cranberry bogs to find birds. Our Labs did real well under these field conditions. Sharptail habitat was limited and birds always seemed to be in predictable locations. Declining bird numbers made us break a twelve-year tradition of hunting Minnesota sharptails, and we have found greener pastures in the central North Dakota prairie but have had to change our hunting techniques.
In hunting sharptails in North Dakota, you have to deal with large sections of prairie and pasture. The local residents party hunt with five to ten hunters in a group. They cover a lot of ground with these large groups and naturally find birds due to the fact they are blanketing an area. At first, I was under the impression that due to the vast area and the wily nature of the sharptail, the only way to hunt them was in a large group. After a few seasons of this type of hunting, I began to observe location patterns and bird habits that do not require party hunting. Party hunting had never been my thing. I had the one-on-one dog work.
North Dakota sharptail is a plains grassland species found in uncultivated areas interspersed with small patches of brush or tree lines. As a general rule, I look for areas with rugged rolling topography that have limited habitat loss due to the plow. The areas I key on have a combination pasture, CRP fields, livestock ponds or sloughs in the area and a few scattered small grain fields. The sharptail feed on berries, seeds, small grains and grasshoppers, if available.
Hunting sharptails is a lot like walleye fishing. We call it structure hunting. When you fish for walleye, lake structure is the key element for holding fish during certain times of the day and season. Grouse are no different. By observing the habitat and field contours, you can eliminate up to 80 percent of a field that not hold birds. Remember, we are not using a wide ranging dog that would cover a section in a short amount of time. Our intent is to maximize our hunting time over birds rather than wearing ourself and retrievers out on a long walk. Let’s study a few locational patterns and tips that work well for us the first three weekends of the September hunting season.
Retrievers work well for grouse if you know how to read habitat and can identify sharptail location as it relates to the time of day and weather patterns. If you follow a few of these basic tips, you will not have to party hunt or become a road warrior (someone who loves to drive and spot birds off the road). Sharptail hunting can offer you early season enjoyment and excellent fieldwork for you and your retrievers prior to the October pheasant opener.
- During windy weather (which is probably 90 percent of the time in North Dakota), walk only the leeward side of the field contours.
- As the wind calms, walk the ridges or tops of field contours.
- Hot, dry weather will bunch the ridges or tops of field contours.
- Find the highest hill in the area. And observe bird movement at sunrise and sunset.
- Walk brushy pastures and gullies during wet weather or the midday doldrums.
- If the ground is wet, look for bare patches; grouse do not like to get wet.
- As you walk a heavy covered field, look for breaks of sparse cover on small ridges. Sharptails like the visibility offered on these areas as they leisurely eat grasshoppers, seeds and berries.
- If the birds are a late hatch, they will hold extremely tight, so make your dog work over a scented area in detail.
- As the season progresses and sharptails become wary, keep all talk, dog commands, and whistle noise to a minimum. Learn to handle your dogs with hand signals.
- Sharptails will not leave a running scent trail like pheasants. Expect spot-scented areas. Keep close to your dog and always walk into the wind when possible.
- Open the feed sack of the first few grouse you shoot. Identify the types of food and look for these locations.
- Once you have found birds in a certain location, practice catch/release, that is, flush and release. You can shoot birds in a good habitat area year after year if you leave a few birds for seed.