September 23, 2010
A flatlander and his Brittany head west to pursue the big ones
Phoebe, my Brittany, was working hard, making a tight sine wave across a football-field-wide, miles-long stretch of sagebrush that ran from a flat down into a draw and dead-ended at a watering hole. We were about an hour or so outside of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, and she worked the sage pretty much the same way she'd work a tall grass field had we been chasing pheasants back home in Michigan, acting for all the world as though she knew precisely what we were doing. Which was a good thing, as I was only guessing.
I'd made the 24-hour drive here to the Shirley Basin because I had an idea that I wanted to hunt sage grouse. I knew almost nothing about the largest of America's prairie grouse except that hunting them was something I wanted to do before I hung up my shotguns for good; and the window of opportunity seemed to be closing. It's not that I'm making reservations at the bird-hunters' retirement home; I'd like to think I still have a couple of decades of chasing upland birds still in me. But whether sage grouse hunting will be available in the years ahead is an open question.
Sage grouse hunting has come under attack in recent years, not so much from anti-hunters--they don't care any more or less about stopping sage grouse hunting than they do stopping hunting, period--but from environmentalists who want to stop energy development across the West. Oil and gas development has proceeded apace and what was once long undisturbed stretches of prairie are now crisscrossed with primitive roads leading to well heads. Habitat segmentation has caused sage grouse numbers to decline somewhat and the enviros have seized on that as a weapon in their campaign, petitioning the Department of Interior to put the large birds on the endangered species list.
Wildlife biologists acknowledge that sage grouse numbers have fallen--and wildlife officials have made some changes in seasons and areas open to hunting--but argue that there's no reason to stop hunting the birds, that populations are sound in many areas and that hunting has minimal impact on their numbers. Still, this argument is likely headed to court and once something gets in front of a judge€¦ well, who knows. So I figured it was now or never.
Phoebe, the author's Brittany, returns with a sage grouse. The big birds made a real mouthful for the little Brit.
I talked with the few guys I know who have hunted sage grouse, loaded the truck and headed west. I chose Wyoming because of the 11 states that have sage grouse in the U.S. -- 10 of which allow hunting -- Wyoming not only has the most sage hens, it has more public territory open to sage grouse hunting than anywhere else I could find.
I met up with a buddy and we camped out there the night before opening day. At daybreak, we started working across a long tract of low sagebrush, right outside the camper. Phoebe, who typically works close enough when pheasant hunting that if she accidentally bumps a bird, we can still get a poke at it, took the lead.
She was all business, getting birdy here or there--you know, tail wagging, doubling back, picking up the pace excitedly--but she never moved a feather. After about 90 minutes we got to the waterhole. She bounced in, enjoying a well-deserved drink, cooling her belly for a moment. Then she went right back to work.
In Wyoming the bag limit on sage grouse is two daily. Denver photographer George Kochaniec, the author's partner on this hunt, with their combined limit.
For the next half hour, the drill was the same as we went off through more low sage at a right angle to our original course. We met a hunter with a pair of a bigger-ranging Brits moving toward us. We stopped and chatted. He was a local guy who assured us that, although he hadn't moved any birds, either, we were in good country for sage grouse and hunting the right stuff.
"Just keep covering ground," he said.
So my partner, George Kochaniec, a Denver photographer, and I kept at it until it almost noon when the temp topped 80 degrees. All three of us--George, Phoebe and myself--were hot, tired, and more than a little frustrated.
I'd been forewarned that sage grouse, though plentiful enough, could be hard to find. And when you look at this country--expanses of sagebrush as far as you can see--you begin to understand why. What tips I'd been given --short sage early and late, tall sage midday, and check out any waterholes you can find--hadn't helped a bit. I heard a couple of shots in the distance and when we want back to camp, I saw the other hunter I'd met up sitting on the tailgate of his pickup.
He'd killed a pair of birds--his limit--he said, and pointed to a stretch of sagebrush where he'd found them that was indistinguishable from the rest of the cover we'd been hunting. We worked toward the area where the fellow said they'd lit, but nada.
That evening, we struck out on a two-track through an expanse of Bureau of Land Management territory toward a creek bottom we'd been pointed to by a biologist in the Wyoming Game and Fish office in Laramie. A few bumpy miles off the main road, my partner suddenly said, "Look, birds."
I slowed down and saw the heads of what looked like gray-colored turkey poults off in the distance. We got out of the truck and let Phoebe out. We walked across the grassy clay flats, Phoebe creeping ahead of us, and once we hit the sage, a handful of big birds got up maybe 30 yards away.
I swung and dispatched a hurried shot. I missed, but the shotgun report caused another bird to get up a bit closer to me. I dropped it. Then George killed another straggler that got up when I shot and we were both in the plus column. I marked the flock down as Phoebe brought my bird--a large, heavy adult male--back to me.
We struck off in the direction the flock had flown and a half mile or so later, Phoebe locked up on point. A bird got up right in front of my feet and at the shot I had my two-bird limit. But the next hour was unproductive; despite Phoebe getting intensely interested on several occasions, the rest of the flock had just flat disappeared.
Wyoming officials provide drop barrels so hunters can turn in grouse wings. Biologists age and sex the wings for harvest and population analysis.
As we looped back toward the truck, I noticed a vehicle with a Wyoming Game and Fish decal stopped just ahead of us. I walked up and introduced myself to Justin Binfet, the local wildlife biologist. He'd been watching us for a bit.
"I thought you were going to get a point there," he said, "a couple of times."
We chewed the fat about sage grouse for a while. Binfet aged and sexed our birds. They were all adult males; they tend to segregate by both age and sex, he said. He told me the same sort of thing I'd heard from others--waterholes are important, especially first thing in the morning, and the birds could be just about anywhere.
Then he made an observation about successful sage grouse hunters that I hadn't considered before I headed west: "Most guys just drive the two-tracks until they see some birds, then get out and hunt them."
We started heading toward camp when I noticed some unusual movement in the sage about 20 yards ahead. I backed up, got out of the truck, told my partner to load up and turned Phoebe loose. A few minutes later, a bird got up in front of us as Phoebe crept through the low sage. Kochaniec shot. Phoebe was on the downed bird like a Wall Street banker on a government bailout. My partner had his limit, too.
The next morning, we woke up with a couple of inches of snow on the ground. We killed one bird from a trio we'd spotted on our way down the two-track out of camp, then it started to rain€¦hard.
One thing I know about this clay country--you don't want to be on these roads when it's raining. With many of the roads running up or downhill at sharp angles and others hugging the edges of draws, you're risking a rollover. We decided to break camp and head elsewhere, as we had several other sporting endeavors on our to-do list for this trip.
I felt like I learned a fair amount about sage grouse in a very short period of time. I'd do it again, too, though I'd plan it as a one- or two-day part of an expedition that included blue grouse and maybe sharptails and ruffs, as well. (A grouse grand slam? Kind of has a ring to it, doesn't it?)
Ideally, I'd want to have a lot more dog power next time; a couple of big-running, wide-ranging, staunch-pointing setters or pointers, the kind the field trial guys have, would be ideal. And a horse wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
But ultimately, I'm satisfied that I was able to scratch the itch before the opportunity is no longer available. It was one of the more interesting bird-hunting trips I've made, especially since I knew so little about it when I started off.
The way I've got it figured, just about anybody could do this. Good dogs, good maps (you want to make sure you're on public ground) and a good pair of boots are about all that's needed for a bird hunter who has a hankering to add sage grouse to his game bag.
They're out there. You just have to find them.