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How to Hunt Prairie Grouse in Nebraska

Nebraska prairie grouse provide an upland adventure for those who put in the work to find them.

How to Hunt Prairie Grouse in Nebraska
Prairie chickens puff up and dance like this on breeding grounds called Leks. (Photo by Michael Males | Dreamstine)

Ducking through the tent-flapped door, Gordy Krahn stalked past the pellet stove battling the early-morning October chill, approached the cook shack in back, and said, “Give me coffee and no one gets hurt.” Krahn had just let both his Brittany spaniels, 11-year-old Rebel and Riot, 3, out of their kennels in the back of his dusty black Toyota FJ Cruiser for their morning run.

We were camped in a sheltering grove in the Nebraska Sandhills, a canvas arc of White Duck Outdoors tents winged off either side of the main tent/cook shack central point. Once Krahn and everyone settled with coffee and breakfast, we devised a plan to hunt plains sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens where Scott Fink of Goose Creek Outfitters regularly sees them while doing ranch chores.

I’d hop in Fink’s pickup with writers/editors Drew Warden and Andrew McKean, and his yellow Lab, Nellie. Guide Matt Church, with his 18-month-old chocolate Lab, Yampy, would take another group, with Krahn following in his Toyota. The rig was outfitted as you’d expect of a longtime grouse-hunting outdoor writer: matched kennels riding on a deck with a slide-out drawers packed with hunting and dog accessories. Nellie clambered into the back of Fink’s pickup and settled happily among duck decoy bags which would figure in later.

Hunting Prairie Grouse in the West

Sharptails and prairie chickens provided sustenance for Native Americans in what would become Nebraska, as well as 18th and 19th century trappers and traders journeying to the fur-rich West. When pioneers and settlers followed, they too found sharptails and prairie chickens as abundant as “the sands of the seashore,” according to one account. Apparently as numerous as the great bison herds, prairie grouse—as sharptails and prairie chickens are grouped—seemed inexhaustible in number, but we know how that worked out for the bison.

Though not exterminated to the brink like the buffalo, prairie grouse numbers declined from habitat loss and exploitation, being shot, trapped, and shipped by the boxcar load to eastern commercial markets, plus the steady demand as victuals for settlers and travelers. Similar exploitation at this time led to the extinction of the heath hen, a prairie chicken subspecies.

Fortunately, settlement of Nebraska’s Sandhills in the northwest and north-central part of the state, then considered the Great American Desert, was slower and sparser than in heavily farmed areas, and vast areas of rolling grasslands remain relatively intact, providing habitat and sanctuary of sorts for prairie grouse.
Though agriculture and other development degrades and fragments grassland habitat, farming also provides prairie grouse with a dependable winter food source, said T.J.Walker of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Wildlife Division. Range maps show prairie chickens moved west over the past half-century, gaining western food sources as they lost nesting habitat in the east, but are becoming more abundant about everywhere in the Sandhills. Sharptail counts have declined in the southern and eastern Sandhills, and the population center has shifted north and west.

A good dog can make a great hunting partner and a great member of the family. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

Finding Prairie Grouse

For more than 30 years, Krahn has hunted prairie grouse in South Dakota grasslands and, more recently, has been hitting Nebraska pretty hard. He grew up in northern Minnesota, where his father got him started in the grouse game and he never looked back. There’s good sharptail hunting there too, and that was the springboard that started him traveling to other states—both the Dakotas, Montana, and Nebraska—for prairie grouse and other upland game with dogs, always with dogs.

“I’ve had dogs my entire life,” he said. “I can’t imagine hunting without one—or two. Not only is it much more efficient and productive, the companionship of hunting with a dog adds so much to the experience.”

In that long line have been Labs, setters, and springers. Rebel and Riot are his sixth and seventh Brittanys. “I love the breed,” he said. “They have so much enthusiasm and natural hunting ability. And their small size makes them easy to travel with and they’re great dogs in the house.”

Krahn’s dogs work only three months a year, so he wants more than a “hunting machine.” They are part of the family, he said, and living with them helps build bonds that translate to cooperation in the field.

In Nebraska, there is an overlap between the ranges of sharptails and prairie chickens, including the Sandhills near Elsmere where Fink ranches. Sharptails typically prefer more rugged areas and prairie chickens more rolling or flat terrain, Walker said, yet oddly farther west in the Nebraska Panhandle, sharptails use flat grasslands and prairie chickens seem to prefer more height and density of cover.

Finding grouse can seem like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, Krahn said. He doesn’t rush to be out at first light, rather waiting an hour or so to give birds a chance to get out to feed and move into grassy loafing areas—leaving scent as they go. “I’ve had luck hunting grassy edges of crop fields, mainly wheat, corn, sunflowers, and sorghum, early in the morning; then as the day progresses, I move farther into the grasslands.”

To successfully hunt them, think like them, Krahn says. “Walking helter-skelter across the landscape might prepare you for your next marathon but won’t necessarily put birds in the game bag.”

Forget what you know about other upland game birds, Krahn says. Prairie grouse are sight-oriented and shun the brush-choked draws and wooded river bottoms many novice grouse hunters gravitate toward. These birds are about wide-open country, but like most upland species, they’re edge dwellers, so look for subtle changes in cover, like where grasses meet slightly heavier cover. They want to maintain good visibility, but like heavier cover nearby to hunker down for protection or shade if necessary.

“Grouse hunters are a determined lot who aren’t afraid to walk to the horizon and back for a single flush,” Krahn said. “For those who aren’t so inclined, there are pheasants. I think prairie grouse appeal more to the hardcore wingshooter who’s looking for more than a social hunt with his buddies.”

tents set up for a hunting camp
A Nebraska prairie grouse camp. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

How to Hunt prairie Grouse

In camp, my grandson, Cogan, and Fink’s son, Braydon, both 7, were fascinated when McKean, illustrating his impromptu lesson on prairie grouse, opened a sharptail’s crop, revealing a dozen rosehips. Both boys were reluctantly suspicious when McKean said they all should eat one of the intact rosehips, and wide-eyed when he did. Walker said a study showed sharptail diet was 64 percent cultivated crops, especially corn, oats, and wheat; the remainder being green vegetation, seeds, buds, and insects.

Grouse feed shortly after coming off the roost in the morning, Krahn said, then spend the majority of the day loafing in light cover before feeding again later in the day. During the loafing period, look for birds adjacent to crop- lands, especially on the lee side of hills where they can get out of the wind—and keep a lookout for predators. Wind is not necessarily a bad thing, he said. In fact, wind direction and intensity will, to a degree, help determine where birds are likely to be, the lee side of hills. And hunt into the wind to give dogs a better chance of picking up scent, plus birds will be slower getting up into the wind.

“Don’t think like a pheasant hunter,” Walker agreed, but he recommends keeping wind at your back. “Prairie grouse sit in places where they can see predators, which work into the wind, and typically flush long before the predator gets close,” he said. Many hunters working into the wind have crested a hill only to watch prairie grouse flush from the downwind side of the next ridge and fly out of sight.

Coming over ridges with the wind at your back or working crosswind may get you good shooting opportunities. If a group flushes at a distance, head to where they flushed in case stragglers are still there. Always check spots that look different, he said, weedy patches, shrubs, bowls, and swales. After a long up-and-down hike that circled back toward the pickup, I looked to my right at the sound of a shot where Nellie had kicked up a sharptail that turned with the wind and streaked between McKean and me, splitting the hundred or so yards between us. Walked this far, I’m shooting, I thought, swinging my Franchi over/under and firing one, then two shots probably well behind. Crap. I broke open the shotgun and looked back in time to see another sharptail launch out of the grass, turn with the wind and fly past in range during the few seconds I reloaded; well out of range when I shut the barrels. Double crap. Fortunately, McKean had scored on his first shot and we were, as they say, on the board. On Day 2, Fink drove McKean and me, with Krahn following, to another expansive rolling pasture. We set out on a sweeping circular route that would take us over and around a sweep of hills and end at a windmill. The second hill was dotted with bright red rosehips, and I went on high alert.

Nothing flushed on that sweep, which covered a little over a mile, but the dogs took advantage of a cattle tank under the windmill before we started our next leg.

“Early in the season it can be extremely hot, and you really have to take extra care with your dogs,” Krahn said. “I’ve seen hunters run their couch-potato dogs into the ground. Use your head. Keep your dogs hydrated and take frequent breaks.”

However, Krahn steers clear of ponds and mud holes. At one point, we approached one of the many lakes dotting the Sandhills. Krahn had asked Fink if the ponds held milfoil, which can be toxic to dogs, then out of caution held back, watering his dogs by the pickup.

Finding Public Land to Hunt Prairie Grouse in Nebraska

Most public-land hunting of prairie grouse in Nebraska occurs at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, McKelvie National Forest and the Bessey Unit of the Nebraska National Forest, according to T.J. Walker of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Also, large tracts of private land are enrolled in the Open Fields and Waters Program which provides public access to prairie grouse opportunities. Walker recommends contacting NGPC district offices to plan your hunt with updated information.

Prairie grouse are an under-utilized game species in Nebraska, Walker said, ranking fourth in terms of harvest and hunter participation, behind pheasant, quail, and dove. “We’ve puzzled as to why that is,” he said. Among possible reasons is the perception of gamey meat flavor and difficulty of the Sandhills terrain to find them.

Flavor should not be considered a negative, according to grouse guru, Gordy Krahn. Prairie grouse meat is darker, like waterfowl, he said, but the key is not to overcook it. “It should be slightly pink in the center,” he said.

In any case, the appeal of prairie grouse hunting outweighs any perceived negatives, Walker said. Unique landscapes of the Sandhills and native grasslands, native game species, unique experiences, and opportunities to harvest species that some hunters haven’t shot yet, plus there’s a long season, from September 1 to January 31.

a hunter and his dog walking along a hill in Nebraska.
Prairie grouse country is big and vast, but the birds are worth the effort. (Photo courtesy of Joe Arterburn)

Hunting in the Sandhills of Nebraska

“Grouse country is big country and a hunter on foot can barely scratch the surface,” Krahn said. “I let my dogs range fairly far, because they are always in sight. They look like a couple Hoover vacuum cleaners out there, trying to get a nose full of grouse. If the cover is good, grouse hold pretty tight for an honest dog, allowing you to get up on them before they flush. Labs, and other flushing dogs, of course, have to work within effective shotgun range, again preferably into the wind.

Dogs really pay off in finding downed birds. “Grouse blend in so well with the prairie cover and they can be very difficult to find, even if they’re stone dead,” Krahn said. “A dog with a good nose will make quick work of it.”

Evenings were reserved for duck hunting. We split to sneak and jump shoot ponds, one group distant from but in sight of the other, then throw out decoys, and work ducks as they flew from one spot to the other, or new ducks winged in as the sun set. But that’s another Nebraska Sandhills story.

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