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Public Land Prairie Paradise

Big Sky country is the perfect place to expose your dogs to an abundance of wild birds.

Public Land Prairie Paradise

Montana proves to be an optimal playground for optimistic opening day hunters and an eager band of bird dogs. (Seth Bynum photo)

Choked by a thick layer of smashed grasshoppers, the dim pickup headlights struggled to illuminate our gravel path through the lush alfalfa and prairie grass ahead. We pulled over and gathered together in the dirt to hash out a plan, realizing that in our enthusiasm for opening morning we had arrived nearly an hour before legal light. With new time zones and the anticipation of the season’s first hunt, none of us had slept much anyway.

Kirk and Andrew Schlarbaum—a father-son team of Iowa-based shorthair breeders and avid upland hunters—joined their buddy Bill Schultz from Minnesota at this roadside strategy meeting. Around them, a summer symphony of crickets and transient raindrops ensued, accompanied by the coo of a precocious mourning dove roused from his roost by the headlights and commotion. I took a sip of coffee, welcoming in its warmth on a surprisingly chilly August morning as we listened to their short serenade.  

The impromptu roadside conversation was cut short by howls of protest from two trailers full of hunting dogs, many of whom would soon get their first whiffs of wild birds during this Montana prairie summer camp. Who could blame them? They, too, had endured a thousand miles on the road and seven long months of the off-season.

There’s no more enthusiastic being in all the world than a bird dog who is ready to hunt. They quickly learn to associate the sound of loose gravel and closing truck doors with the opportunity to practice their craft. Adding to their frenzy, hunting dogs feed on the excitement betrayed in our body language and learn to decipher the complex olfactory vernacular of pheromones secreted in fervent anticipation of something fun.

German shorthaired pointer running through field
A mix of cover types ranging from short agricultural fields to sideline stubble to deep brushy draws offer no shortage of potential bird-holding capacity. (Seth Bynum photo)

The young campers in this prairie summer camp consisted of nearly 20 dogs—mostly German shorthairs—ranging in experience from greenhorn to seasoned veteran. I brought Shine, my four-year-old shorthair, hoping to shed the cobwebs of a long off-season and prime her body for the five months of hunting adventures that lay ahead. Perhaps a little time in the field with some wide-ranging brace mates would encourage her to venture out beyond her comfort zone of 50 to 100 yards. In turn, the rookies could absorb her fondness for the retrieve and unwavering commitment to a downed bird. With a new upland season unfolding, it felt as if anything was possible.

As darkness faded, we looked out on the horizon. In every direction we gazed upon unlimited opportunity nestled in a hundred upland seasons’ worth of public land. With good luck and good dogs, we hoped to find an abundance of young, naive prairie birds there as well. A convoy of combines roared into service in a nearby field. As they passed, we collared a brace of three dogs and turned them loose to set the fertile soil aflame.

A Public Land Playground  

The prairie has a long history playing host to field trialers, dog trainers, and upland enthusiasts eager to soak in the first moments of the open bird season. Public land abounds along its rolling hills and deep brushy coulees, and this unique resource offers plenty of bird contact as soon as the nesting quarantine concludes at the beginning of August. Over the week-long adventure we saw no shortage of horse trailers—many with all age dogs in tow—taking advantage of near perfect field trial simulations with Mother Nature in charge of rearing and planting the birds. We smiled and nodded as they passed, comfortable in the fact there was plenty of elbow room for us all.

While prepping for horseback championships wasn’t among our objectives, we hoped the prairie would share her bounty for the sake of developing some inexperienced young pups. If the adage “it takes birds to make a bird dog” holds true, we planned to discover what a few dozen contacts per day offered in fostering their primary education.

Two sharp-tailed grouse flying
These rolling hills yield many opportunities for young dogs to make countless contacts with wild sharptails and Huns. (Seth Bynum photo)

Young sharpies hold remarkably well for pointing dogs, and they generally fly manageable distances to predictable shelter after the flush. This behavior allows for numerous opportunities for bird contact and offers a welcomed element of control for the handler during what is normally an unpredictable scenario. As a hunter who has spent years hunting the prairie in late fall, I found the simplicity of their unrefined self-preservation strategy refreshing. By contrast, later in the season, adult sharp-tailed grouse routinely flush wild from considerable distances and touch down somewhere in the adjacent county.

Scouting for Habitat  

A wet spring and mild summer had fostered healthy broods of sharptails and Hungarian partridge, along with a bumper crop of rosehips, chokecherries, and invertebrates that would fuel their development into fall and winter. Scouting for this type of habitat was helpful, but upon inspection of the crop contents of our first few sporadic juvenile grouse, we pivoted our focus exclusively on the hoppers drawn to nearby agriculture. By channeling our efforts towards alfalfa fields planted adjacent to shelter belts, we were rewarded with plenty of birds. After the annual wheat harvest—which was still in its infancy on this early outing—the grouses’ cover preference shifts towards stubble and waste grain enshrouded by native cover.

Limits—or at least limit opportunities—were so readily abundant that I quickly implemented a self-imposed, one-shot-per-flush handicap to extend the hunt and provide as many opportunities as possible for the dogs. We also discovered that the knee-high cover and dry conditions made recovery of wounded birds difficult for even our most seasoned retrievers. Avoiding double or triple marks kept game loss to a bare minimum.

German shorthaired pointer with hunter
Young sharpies hold well for pointing-dogs and flush at manageable distances. (Seth Bynum photo)

We quickly learned to steer clear of pheasant habitat whenever possible. The young broods of ringnecks we encountered regularly held up in cattails and creek bottoms. In September, they still appear hopelessly vulnerable, poorly flighted, and their drab plumage nearly indistinguishable on the wing to the Huns that share the landscape. Porcupines—a frequent character in cautionary tales of bird dog disaster—also inhabit this same cover. Since the pheasant season wasn’t open for six more weeks, we deemed that sticking to the high country was the safest way to avoid an inadvertent take or a quill-pulling session.

Weather Considerations  

Even in late summer, the Montana prairie can dole out inhospitable weather at any moment. However, warm conditions prevailed and usually dictated early morning starts and mid-afternoon curfews. The raucous beginning of each hunt quickly transitioned to the quiet hum of 20 sleeping bird dogs, even with an hour each of time on the ground. Count on at least some encounter with biblical winds (an ever-present feature on the prairie) and impromptu showers that quickly turn the area’s brittle, arid soil to impassible gumbo.

Summer storm on the Montana prairie
Keep an eye to the Big Sky as sweltry summer weather can generate spontaneous afternoon storms. (Seth Bynum photo)

The short days dictated by climbing temperatures or full game bags left plenty of time to relive the adventures of the hunt. My hosts have spent two generations honing the craft of breeding exceptional hunting dogs, and as we consumed late afternoon beers and cafe burgers, I aimed to soak up as much of their collective bird dog expertise as I possibly could. I probed them for the family recipe that combines the right amount of drive, style, and temperament as we rehashed those moments from the field that morning when these traits emerged simultaneously in their pups. I quickly assumed my role as camp veterinarian, a task that I performed dutifully in hopes of securing an invitation next season. As the trip wore on, having someone around to help troubleshoot a variety of canine ailments proved useful.

Dog Safety and First Aid

Three common medical issues cropped up in our team of Shorthairs as a direct consequence of travel stress, new terrain, and warm ambient temperatures. Nearly a third of the canine crew developed loose stool by the second or third day. While the diarrhea was more of an inconvenience for their handler than a life-threatening illness, timely intervention kept the mess to a minimum and protected the dogs from fluid loss.  

Dogs internalize stress through their gut, and the consistency of their stool offers us a barometer as to the amount of stress they may be experiencing. While these dogs no doubt live to hunt, changes in routine, prolonged excitement or the trauma of watching from the bench as their kennel mate enters the game can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the colon. Additionally, the dogs consumed enough ruminant scat, rodents, and stagnant pond water on the prairie to challenge even the most bomb-proof of gastrointestinal tracts. A regime of probiotics (Purina’s Fortiflora is my go-to) and a healthy dose of metronidazole obtained from your vet will keep these symptoms at bay on the road.

Sore feet plagued several dogs as well, with open ulcers on the outside of pads from the rough and occasionally rocky terrain of the prairie. This ailment most likely resulted from softer pads conditioned in the humid summer air of the Midwest than anything unique about the prairie terrain. My dog did not suffer from foot problems despite a similar amount of pre-season conditioning, a scenario I attributed to the arid climate of our native Idaho. Dog pads heal remarkably fast, and with a few days’ rest (not without protest) these pups returned to the rotation without any noticeable hiccup in their stride. While boots and wraps may have helped prevent a serious issue, rest is best and practically the only reliable treatment for pad injuries.

German shorthaired pointer drinking water
Beat the summer heat with proper hydration and nutrition. (Seth Bynum photo)

The hunters relied on frequent water breaks to combat the rising temperatures and radiant warmth of Big Sky country. As elite athletes, these dogs are driven to hunt hard, and occasionally a few among the team required forced intervention when stopping for water was too much of an imposition in their thirst for bird finding. Fortunately, these dogs had been successfully conditioned to the squeeze bottle, which allowed their handlers the opportunity to supply them with critical hydration when they’d rather keep hunting.

One female shorthair developed severe muscle cramping after a hunt, a likely result of electrolyte depletion through panting and intense physical activity. With a meal and a hearty drink of water baited with Fortiflora (a light broth works, too), she recovered quickly, but her story served as a reminder to consider packing a concentrated electrolyte supplement with us next season.

A Prairie Delicacy  

Understandably, my enthusiasm for the exquisite gastronomical experience offered by the rich, dark meat of prairie grouse was met with some skepticism from the group. The birds’ reputation as second-class table fare, while unjustified, arises as a result of improper preparation. Discard any notion that these tender young birds fall under the category of poultry. Instead, focus your culinary efforts around pan searing and simple ingredients. The transformation of a tailgate to a three-star Michelin restaurant requires little more than salt, pepper, fat, and heat.

Utilize hot coals or a cheap propane flame paired with a splash of oil or melted butter to bring the birds to medium rare. When cooked properly, I’d choose the thigh and drumstick combo from a young sharpie over a lamb lollipop any day—even with the occasional intrusion of a morsel of 71⁄2 shot in my teeth. If you strive for creative expression in your cooking, add peanut sauce and Thai spices to the leg meat of a young Hungarian partridge for a flavorful upgrade to traditional chicken satay.

At week’s end, we took stock of a pile of dirty laundry and boots and loaded our possession limits in coolers for the long drive home. Our skin looked ruddy from the constant exposure to summer sun and prairie wind. The veteran dogs watched the commotion quietly from their travel kennels, mentally and physically satisfied. The puppies slept soundly, presumably from an anthropomorphic zen-like state one might experience when discovering their true calling in life. Before our pickups pulled away from summer camp—mine towards the mountains and theirs towards the Midwest—we consecrated our mutual appreciation of new friends and fine dogs with a handshake and a plan to return next summer.

German shorthaired pointer drinking water
The prairie offers up its reward for those who are prepared to adapt and adjust to adversities. (Seth Bynum photo)
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