In the vast Alberta prairie, your biggest challenge may simply be deciding which species to hunt.
by E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
Every day, the license plate on my truck reminds me that I live in Big Sky Country. But if A. B. Guthrie wanted to experience a real blast of high plains agoraphobia, he should have traveled a couple of hundred miles farther north, out of Montana and across the border into Alberta. I’ve never seen the sky look bigger than it does there, even on the open ocean. I’m not sure how to explain this phenomenon. Perhaps it derives from the way the terrain invites you to walk on and on toward a horizon you can never reach. Such temptations are hard to resist, especially when carrying a shotgun.
The first time I hunted birds on the southern Alberta prairie, the energy boom that began in the oil sands to the north had barely started to trickle down to that part of the province, occasional natural gas wells notwithstanding. And it is still grain and cattle country at heart, just like home. But despite—or more likely, because of—its isolation, I know few areas that offer so many of the things I like to do come hunting season. The coulees and river bottoms are home to big mule deer and whitetails. The reservoirs fill up with ducks and geese once the first hard freeze starts the waterfowl moving. But as much as I’ve enjoyed those wildlife resources, it’s the upland bird hunting that has left the most lasting impression. There’s no better way to come to terms with remote prairie habitat than walking seemingly endless coulees behind a dog, waiting for the next explosion of wings.
The first year I hunted the Alberta prairie, I met up with Edmonton resident Jeff Lander, an old bow-hunting partner, southeast of Calgary.We were driving back to camp after spending another morning proving that mule deer are smarter than we are, when a covey of Hungarian partridge rose from the roadside grass and sailed away down a brushy coulee. After three straight mornings of frustration involving longbows and mule deer, I suddenly realized how satisfying it would be to pursue a quarry I might actually catch up with and kill. Jeff evidently experienced the same epiphany. Before I could say a word, he was turning into the driveway that led to the nearest farmhouse.
“Do we know these folks?” I asked.
“No, but we’re about to,” he replied.
The huge, overall-clad man who answered our knock looked like just the guy you’d want on your side in a barroom-clearing brawl, but his weathered face still managed to appear friendly. After some preliminary introductions, we asked about hunting the coulee behind his barn. “Go right ahead,” he replied. “You fellas wouldn’t care to stay for a bite of lunch, would you?”
I felt a bitter pang of nostalgia as we politely declined, remembering when receptions like that were routine in my part of Montana, back before public wildlife became de facto private property. I could not escape the irony of having to cross an international border to rediscover the hospitality I had once enjoyed at home. It’s a long way between towns on the prairie, and there’s not much to those towns when you find them. That kind of social isolation will either turn you into a sociopath or enhance your appetite for human company. In a welcome display of common sense, most residents of Wild Rose Country have opted for the latter.
Fifteen minutes later, Rocky, then still a novice flushing Lab, finally got to leave his kennel in the back of my truck and do his job. Halfway to the draw where I’d marked the Huns, he nosed an entirely different covey from a tangled patch of grass and wild rose bushes. I’d taken only one shotgun with me on the trip, the long-range full-and-full I’d packed in anticipation of serious goose shooting. Now, this unlikely choice of upland guns proved ideal by serendipity. When the Huns flushed at the edge of shotgun range, I needed all the choke I had to reach out and drop a pair.
Despite my sentimental affection for native sharptails and sage grouse, few elements of the prairie upland experience stir me like the explosive racket a covey of Huns makes as it explodes from the grass. (Yes, Perdixperdix is properly known as the gray partridge, but I’ve never heard them called by that name anywhere other than the printed page. So Huns they shall remain.) Enthusiasts throughout the birds’ North American range owe a special measure of gratitude to the Alberta prairies. Sporadic introductions of Eurasian Huns took place at various locations throughout the American West around the time of our first pheasant releases in the 1880s. In contrast to the ringnecks, the Huns fared poorly, but for reasons that remain unclear, Hun releases in the Calgary area during the early 1900s proved successful. Most American Hun populations today derive from Alberta birds that wandered south across the border on their own accord.
Rocky and Trigger, Jeff ’s Lab, had found three more coveys for us by the time we circled back to the truck that morning, carrying enough Huns to feed our whole camp. Never mind the heavy-racked mule deer buck I’d unsuccessfully stalked earlier in the day. Bird hunting that good didn’t deserve to be considered a sidelight to anything, and I never thought of it that way again.
When I headed north again the following year, I carried a real bird gun in my truck. Almost unnecessarily, as it turned out—this time geese took up most of the slack between the mule deer. But then one morning our friend Murray Matthews mentioned that he’d seen sharptails flying into a shelterbelt some 10 miles north of camp. Late the following morning, Jeff and I set off to explore the grouse cover.
Like the ocean, prairie grasslands are seldom as homogenous as they seem. Any terrain feature that offers wildlife a bit of extra cover can concentrate game, including structures of human origin: windbreaks, old barns, stock ponds, and abandoned homesteads. As soon as I saw the rectangular shelterbelt rising from the sea of grass and grain stubble, I knew we were going to find birds there. Killing enough for dinner should have been easy, at least in comparison to all those long, agonizing stalks that ended just short of bow range from bedded mule deer. I should have known better.
We found the birds holding tight in the brush, and walking its margins while the dogs worked the cover seemed an obvious tactic. But the 12-foot- high bushes were too thick to see over or shoot through, and the birds proved remarkably adept at flushing on the wrong side of the cover. Jeff and I unwisely decided to hunt the shelterbelt from opposite directions, theoretically to push birds toward each other. In practice, driving grouse turns out to be a lot like herding cats; how they do it so effectively in Scotland baffles me. Neither of us ever pushed a bird within shotgun range of the other. Meanwhile, when I walked the inside of the shelterbelt, the birds that Rocky flushed escaped to the outside, and when I fought my way through the thorns and walked the outside . . . well, you get the idea. We heard a lot more chattering sharptails than barking shotguns, but there were so many birds that we still took a grouse dinner home for the camp.
Among the pantheon of prairie upland birds, I have always been partial to the sharptail grouse, a.k.a.“hairy- footed bird” among many plains tribes in recognition of the ptarmigan-like feathered feet that help both species walk across snow during the long northern winter. Sharptails are quicker on the wing and more rewarding on the table than sage grouse, and in contrast to the admirable but non-native Hungarian partridge and ringneck pheasant, it belongs to the prairie in a way only thousands of generations of natural selection can fit any given species into a particular habitat niche. While I have certainly shot plenty of sharptails on our own high plains, their distribution can be erratic and prone to inscrutable lo- cal fluctuations from season to season. I know no better place to find sharptails consistently than the southern Alberta prairie. Its oases of cover attract and concentrate birds from vast swaths of habitat rich in foods as diverse as leftover grain, grasshoppers, and the fruit of the wild roses that give the country its name.
Food and cover . . . food and cover. This is the place to see Aldo Leopold’s mantra played out in nearly infinite scope and variation.
Dawn is the finest hour to appreciate the magnitude of the open prairie, from no vantage point better than the middle of an open field studded with goose decoys. Viewed from such a position on a recent autumn expedition to Wild Rose Country, the stars seemed inadequate to fill the enormous sky as we lay supine in our blinds, shivering and waiting for the birds. To the east, sight and sound awoke together as daylight spilled slowly across the long horizon, and the groundswell of noise from the geese on the distant reservoir built toward a crescendo. With nothing to do but wait, I talked to the dog and tried to visualize myself as seen from above—a tiny speck in an ocean of grass and stubble. Hopefully, inbound geese would find me as insignificant a part of the landscape as I felt. Finally, gabbling from the reservoir made a qualitative leap in pitch and volume, announcing that the birds were taking to the air. The first waves to crest the end of the stubble field were white-fronted geese, or “specklebellies,” and when the leading flock began to descend slowly to- ward our spread, my muscles tightened in anticipation of a tricky shot at a favorite quarry.Their approach to the decoys seemed to take place in slow motion, but they finally crossed an invisible threshold beyond which they could not escape without offering a shot. When one of the birds got wise and began to flare, we lurched forward in our coffin blinds and fired, and for a moment the sky seemed to rain geese.
An hour later, we were still a few birds shy of Alberta’s generous goose limits. But I was raised in a family that considers skinning waterfowl a crime, and we had all the geese I felt like plucking. As Rocky and Trigger rounded the field, picking up the last of the long falls, Jeff, Lori, and I began wrestling a small mountain of decoys out of the stubble and back into the trailer behind Jeff ’s truck. The scope of the landscape and the undertaking left an even more vivid impression than the bag or the furious pace of the shooting.
It’s Saturday night in the little farming hamlet just inside the Saskatchewan border, where we traditionally headquarter on our forays into Wild Rose Country. Nearly a dozen pickups stand parked outside the town’s single, bare-bones watering hole, instead of the usual two or three on weeknights. Covered in dirt and studded with cactus thorns from the morning’s deer hunt, and sprinkled with blood and feathers after a quick afternoon limit of Huns, Lori, Jeff, Murray, and I troop in for a cold beer and the final innings of a World Series game that might as well be playing on another planet. We didn’t even discuss wasting time by heading home to clean up first. It’s not that kind of place, not that kind of town, not that kind of world.
Granted, the landscape has changed here over the last decade. Those vast reaches of grain and grass have turned out to overlie equally vast reserves of natural gas. Rig traffic rattles down new networks of gravel roads, and so many wellheads have sprouted like mushrooms that it’s hard to avoid the impression of a visit to an OPEC nation. But to their credit, the Canadians have done it right, and the net impact to the habitat seems remarkably small. The game is certainly thriving; we have proved that already today.
Alberta allows no Sunday big game hunting, so tomorrow will be all about birds, which is fine by me. It’s even finer by Rocky, who has remained patiently kenneled far longer than he might have liked. We have every intention of addressing that complaint tomorrow by hunting near the northern limits of the ringneck’s New World range.
In fact, I’ve never killed a rooster here. But Murray and Jeff have located a creek bottom full of them and obtained permission to hunt it. Pheasants are a novel quarry for them and hence an official Big Deal on the same order as wild turkeys or Himalayan snow cocks. Lori and I, on the other hand, have already enjoyed two weeks of Montana pheasant season and have a freezer full of roosters back at home. So I’m trying to reconcile the gentle- manly obligation to indulge my friends with my own interest in the waves of geese I saw pouring into a pea field an hour after sunrise that morning. It takes a late-inning pitching duel and a second round of Molson for us to arrive upon a remarkably simple solution: We’ll set up for geese in the morning, hunt pheasants in the afternoon, and hope we have time to heal up again by Monday.
The country lends itself well to such ambitious agendas. Some bird hunting expeditions wind up being all about the shooting, others about the dogs, others still about the company or the quarry. But hunting the prairie here is always about the landscape and the Space the latter spelled large for the same reason Melville scholar Charles Olson spelled it large at the beginning of Call Me Ishmael. More than distinctions of language, history, or culture, open space is what makes us different from the French or the Japanese, and you’re not really a citizen of North America until you’ve looked it in the eye and felt it make you blink.
There’s no better place to do that than Wild Rose Country, and no better excuse to be there than having a shotgun in your hand and an eager dog leading the way up yet another endless coulee.
Don Thomas and his wife, Lori, now divide their time between homes in Montana and Arizona. Since he last hunted Alberta regularly, Don has rediscovered his pointing dog roots and now reserves his Labs for the duck blind.