September 23, 2010
Combo hunts for upland gamebirds, waterfowl, antelope and deer on the western prairies.
"Hey, you've got to get out here. This place is just crawling with prairie grouse and rooster pheasants. And nobody hunts them. The birds are everywhere. There's long-tailed ringnecks in the sorghum stubble and out along the cattails next to the cattle ponds, and all over in any kind of weed patch, tall cover, or tree lines, but they're thickest in the CRP.
Every season more upland gamebird and waterfowl hunters are taking their pointing dogs and waterfowl retrievers along on big game hunts. In the western prairie states, deer and antelope roam in the same places as ringneck pheasants and sharptailed grouse, as well as mallard ducks and Canada honkers.
"The sharptails are spread out across the pastures, up on the hills, and down in the ravines. And they'll be easy to get because they've never seen a hunting dog or heard a shotgun out here. "Be sure to bring your dogs, because dogs are the only way to find live birds and to fetch dead ones since the cover out here is so heavy."
This invitation, with the glowing description of grouse and pheasant numbers and the clear request "to bring your dogs," came late last November from western South Dakota.
There, 225 miles from my home in the east-central part of the state, my dogless friend was on a "West River" deer hunt€¦a hunt so good that he had filled his deer tag on the first morning of the season.
Now, with three days left in his trip, he had a choice. Walk "gunless" to help his two hunting partners find their deer, or, with the help of my dogs, hunt the upland gamebirds that supposedly overflowed across the prairie landscape.
"Bring the dogs," my friend repeated over the phone, a phrase that sort of told the real story behind his invitation to the bird hunt. His own dog, a big black Labrador, was at home recovering from hip surgery. My two German shorthaired pointers, however, were at the peak of condition for hunting prairie grouse and ringneck roosters.
Some big game hunters will bring upland gamebird hunters with them so that they can use their gun dogs and shotguns for prairie grouse and pheasants.
And because neither of my dogs has a driver's license, I too was invited as their chauffeur to carry them the couple hundred miles to this grouse and pheasant haven.
On arrival, I discovered there'd been no exaggeration about the bird population numbers.
Prairie grouse and pheasant "were everywhere," just as my friend had claimed. The sharptails, however, were spooky, something to be expected that late in the season no matter what degree the hunting pressure. On each walk across the open pastures and down the long deep ravines, we ran into lots of sharpies that too often flushed in big flocks way ahead of us.
But in the two days we hunted, enough singles and small bunches flew up close enough so that we ended up with five apiece for our efforts. Best of all, these were trophy birds--big, full-feathered and perfect specimens for a taxidermist.
The pheasants, though plentiful, sure weren't stupid. Though they may not have been hunted much, they were still "wild" pheasants, plenty smart about how to stay alive out on the South Dakota prairie. Full of surprises, the roosters would sometimes run to the outer edges of any cover way ahead of my shorthairs, then they would flush a hundred yards beyond the frustrated dogs and the equally frustrated hunters. At the end of the first day, we had three birds each, but each one was earned by lots of effort.
Toward the last half of the second day, with a prairie wind roaring at 30 miles an hour, we each had one rooster in our gamebags after missing several others that were just too hard to hit in the windy conditions. As we came over a hill, we saw a cattle dugout 10 feet by 10 feet in size, holding about 10 gallons of water, and surrounded by a little rim of cattails.
You can guess the rest of the story. The dogs went on point and six hen pheasants flew up in our faces. Then three long-tailed roosters flushed so close we had to let them fly out a ways so as not to mangle them when we dropped the trio.
"Boy, do I love deer hunting," my partner said with a huge grin as he slipped the last rooster into his game bag.
Hunting Antelope and Sharptails In North Dakota
"Antelope and prairie grouse recently have become a combination hunt growing in popularity in western North Dakota, with the big game and small game often inhabiting the exact same cover," reports Rod McMann, a big game and gamebird hunter from Fargo.
"The problem often is seeing sharptails while carrying a rifle for antelope and vice versa.
The solution is to keep the dogs and shotgun close by and keep an eye on where the grouse fly when flushed while stalking antelope. Keeping track of the location of antelope and prairie grouse isn't all that difficult once a mind-set is developed for the relationship between the two," McMann says.
"I went to western North Dakota for antelope for several years and ran into a half-dozen flocks of sharptails every morning of the big game hunt before I finally decided to bring my English setter along," McMann recalls.
"So, two years ago I crated the dog in the back of the Suburban and worked her two to three hours each day on the prairie grouse between scouting for and hunting for the prairie goats," McMann says. "My two buddies had so much fun one brought his Brittany and the other his yellow Lab the next year. Now this 'combo hunt' has become a regular thing for us, maybe even a tradition."
"There's nothing hard about doing this. We just remember to keep the dogs in the shade and give them plenty of water when we're not hunting them. They get lots of rest when we're chasing after antelope. Then when we hunt for sharptails the dogs are charged up and ready to go because they haven't been hunting for the whole day."
Pursuing Grouse, Huns and Phe
asant On a Big Game Hunt in Montana
"I wish I had brought along my bird dog," the big game hunter said for about the tenth time that morning as we watched a flock of sharptailed grouse flush about 20 yards away out on the Montana prairie. "I hear this sort of lament every year while we're hunting sharptails and Huns," says Ben Williams, the famous prairie bird hunter from Livingston, Montana.
In the early season in several prairie states, gun dogs can be used to hunt prairie grouse during breaks in an antelope hunt. Shoot one antelope and the big game hunt is over. If you have your gun dog along, three prairie grouse can be shot every day until a 12- to 15- bird possession limit is reached.
"Though I don't hunt big game, I often come across hunters who have driven a couple thousand miles just for antelope, elk or deer. They fill their tags then kick themselves for not bringing their bird dogs to go after sharptails, Huns, or pheasants," Williams notes.
"Big game hunters with retrievers also reach the same conclusions about waterfowl hunting out here where they see all the ducks and geese in this state€¦ducks and geese that hardly ever get hunted in many places because Montana is usually identified as exclusively 'big game' country," Williams adds.
Bring Your Waterfowl Dogs When Hunting Nebraska For Big Game
"If you're going deer hunting, why are you taking a dog trailer full of Labradors?" I wondered once many years ago when one of my friends came by to borrow a rifle.
"Ducks and geese," he answered. "They're all over the ranch where we hunt in western Nebraska. First time we went there, we shot mallards and Canadas. But we had a terrible time trying to retrieve the birds out of the deep water in the stock dams and out of the cattails in the sloughs. That won't happen this time with four Labrador retrievers.
"Out in that part of the country, hardly anyone hunts waterfowl, especially during the big game season," he added. "Where have I heard this before?" I thought to myself, knowing that these combination hunts are often possible but not much realized in many upper-Midwestern states, maybe in lots of other places all the way across the country.
Dangers In Hunting Birds During the Big Game Season
Danger and safety factors, of course, have to be considered when taking any gun dog into the field, across the prairie, or through heavy cover during any kind of big game season.
"There's no way I'll put a dog in the woods during deer season," says Curt Shreve, a Large Munsterlander owner from Prior Lake, Minnesota.
"With nearly a half-million rifle-toting hunters in the fields and trees, there's too big a chance that someone will shoot a dog for looking like a deer or a coyote," Shreve worries. "I'll hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock before and after, but not during the deer season."
This same degree of caution naturally should apply anywhere gun dogs are used for hunting upland birds or waterfowl during any big game season. Public property with unrestricted access in most places is probably going to be a poor choice for running bird dogs or retrievers if big game hunters are in the vicinity.
Even on private property, there's no telling who might be out there with rifles and poor judgment in choosing targets. And, of course, to be on the safe side, all gun dog owners at the very least should have blaze-orange fluorescent collars on their dogs all the time and, during the big game season, put blaze-orange vests on them. Anything to make a gun dog more visible as a gun dog is better than nothing.
Regulations On Using Gun Dogs During Big Game Hunts
In most states, hunting big game with dogs is illegal. Most bird dog or retriever owners work hard anyhow to stop their canines from chasing antelope, deer, elk, or moose. The restrictions on using gun dogs to find live big game animals are well founded and to be observed for obvious and good reasons.
But there are usually no rules against gun dogs finding "dead" big game if they do so while hunting gamebirds. About every other year, while upland bird or waterfowl hunting in my home state of South Dakota, my shorthairs come across a shot deer lying dead out in a CRP field, tree belt, or cattail slough. The dogs will either point the animal if it's fresh or sniff it out if it's not so fresh.
If newly killed, the dead critter is reported to the local conservation officer who can pick up the animal and give it to some needy person or to a charitable institution. This saves wasting the meat and certainly gives someone a wild game treat not otherwise available.
Places To Go For Combination Gamebird and Big Game Hunts
In paging through the classified sections of many hunting magazines, you will find ads for big game hunting in many states and provinces of Canada, where all sorts of upland gamebirds and waterfowl share the habitat with all kinds of antelope and deer or, in some places, elk and moose. Some of the guides and outfitters, having caught on to the connection, now offer hunts for gamebirds and big game with special package deals for the mixed species.
But few outfitters in their advertising say much about potential clients bringing their gun dogs. And even fewer found so far mention the availability of their own hunting dogs for either upland birds or waterfowl. Doesn't this seem like a potentially great chance for a big game hunter with a gun dog?
One outfitter in Wyoming said in a phone conversation that he had plenty of sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge and even substantial numbers of ducks and geese on the multi-thousand acres that made up his big game hunting operation. "You're one of the few people who ask about birds," he assured me.
"If you know how to get those prairie birds and how to hunt the waterfowl, bring your dogs and come on out here. If you want to, I'll put you to work all season as a guide for some of my big game clients who fill their tags early in their trip and would love to shoot some grouse or mallards.
"And if you don't want to be a guide, come on out anyway," he added. "There's plenty of places for you and your dogs to go when you're not big game hunting."
Sounds like a golden opportunity, doesn't it?
Anyone who hunts the western prairie for deer and antelope will find ringneck pheasants and sharptailed grouse in the same sort of habitat as the big game animals. So bring your gun dog on a big game hunt to hunt