With the approaching prairie grouse opener on Sept. 21 and generally good numbers from this spring’s lek counts and anticipated improvement in the birds’ populations this summer in many areas, getting on early sharptails will be a prerogative for many hunters.
Coming with the opener are thoughts of warm (but not too hot) days walking with a late September sun shining on a switchbacking field dog, the crackle of drying autumn grasses underfoot and the gurgling laughter of a flushing covey of grouse blurring across the blue-and-gold autumn horizon.
It isn’t hard to make the most of these afternoons spent wandering the prairie expanses in search of sharpies, but a few helpful tips will make each one more successful.
Sharptailed grouse are birds of the open plains, and in times of good conditions are often found in areas where they not only have good line of sight to approaching danger, but also the ability to escape to similar places a distance off. For this reason, targeting grassy stretches of Conservation Reserve Program grasses that are large and expansive provides a good starting point for sharpie hunters.
Add in a series of hills or rises and falls in the terrain, so that the birds can use the angle to see and feel secure, and a grassy stretch becomes a greater prospect in searching for sharpies. In areas with some farming mixed in with the habitat, explore the edge of CRP or grassland that abuts alfalfa and small grain fields, as this is where young grouse, which make up a good portion of the coveys, will get much of their nutrients including protein from the last of the year’s grasshopper crop and moisture from the leaves of such plants.
In challenging weather or just after it, look for sharptails to take shelter in tree and brush plantings, or those that naturally occur on the landscape, with lower and denser options like pines, cedars and dogwoods being a better draw. Draws with dense buckbrush at their upper ends, or clumps of buffaloberry bushes on hillsides will provide targets on the prairie to walk to and around in search of sharpies. As conditions improve, and the sun comes out to dry things off, expect to find birds moving out of these areas of cover but to still be somewhat nearby.
Scout It Out
Sharptailed grouse are like perch, and not just because they often play second fiddle to pheasants in the mind of hunters the way the panfish do for hardcore walleye anglers. Rather like perch, if one grouse is encountered, there are often more around in the area.
Many times, a solitary grouse can be seen sitting on a haybale, the top of a bush or other elevated position. These sentinels serve as the scouts for the larger group of birds, which are often nearby, or scattered throughout a given area.
Even if these observers flush early, make it a point to keep moving in their direction, especially in the early portion of the season, as other birds may hold tighter and a few often remain, providing for surprising opportunities, when it seems like most of the grouse had taken flight ahead of a dog and hunter arriving on the scene.
In known grouse territories, watch for dogs to get on scent, and that cue can be very strong as the birds often hunker down in large groups in late summer and early fall, keeping a continuous concentrated source of scent.
Watch for wind-checking by a bird dog and stay on its tail as it picks up and gets going on a solid trail. Be ready as birds may flush ahead, to the side and behind an area of thick scent and be sure to mark the position of downed birds in the middle of the chaos that often comes with eight, ten or a dozen sharpies flushing, and remember – pick one bird and shoot, then move on to the next one – resist the natural urge to just let pellets fly when a group gets up in unison. Target those on either side of a flushing group, and then move to the next bird for best success.
Like their woodland cousins, the ruffed grouse, sharpies require some walking to find the best pockets of hunting. Being a species that enjoys wide open grasslands, sharptails make hunters meet them on their turf and on their terms. Be prepared with a good pair of boots to put the miles on through the autumn grasses and some sturdy field pants to explore those hills, draws, brushlines and edges where grouse are likely to hold, with some sharp cover a hallmark of these hunts.
Watch for both far- and near-flushing grouse and monitor their movement on the horizon for a likely landing spot. Head in that direction and sometimes a second opportunity will present itself. With the approaching opener just days away and a better population available for hunters to pursue this autumn, knowing the habitat, habits and how to get after sharptails will make for a memorable time afield and put these birds at the forefront of some great hunting experiences.