Wild Country, Wilder Birds

Hunting sharptails on the Crow Reservation.

[by Terry Wieland]

Sharp-tailed grouse are not the toughest birds in the world. They don’t fly like red grouse, nor are they hard to put down like a cock pheasant. They don’t stop your heart like ruffed grouse, or turn you into a gibbering idiot like a wild bobwhite. None of that. But easy they are not, and they inhabit country to make your mouth water.

The sharptail is a bird of the high plains, of grasslands that stretch away to the horizon, of rolling hills that are higher and steeper than they look. Setting out of a misty morning to search for sharptails, a hunter can gaze across the plains and imagine it as one endless haystack, with its total sharptail population little more than a few scattered needles.

All of that is the negative side. Now for the positive. When you do finally come upon some sharptails lurking in the stubble, they fly straight, the way you wish ruffed grouse or quail would fly but seldom do, and when you center one in a cloud of shot, it falls straight to earth and waits to be picked up. At least that’s my impression of them. Dogs love them, because there are few runners if they’re well hit. Finally, like every member of the grouse tribe, sharptails are very, very good to eat.

Of all the grouse, the sharptail of the American West may be the most gentlemanly. Still, the key is finding them on that endless, endless plain.

Dinny and Harry Flashman, the English setter, work a sprawling expanse of Montana’s Crow Indian reservation.

LOOKING BACK, I remember hunting sharptails for the first time in the early 1990s. I was chasing antelope in Eastern Montana and took a shotgun along. My guide was the local rancher. When I told him I’d like to see if I could bag a sharptail or two, we piled into his pickup, drove over hill and dale, and came to a stop above a brushy draw. “Take a walk down there,” he said, pointing to the high edge. “There’s usually a few around.”

“There is just no substitute for local knowledge when it comes to sharptails. If you don’t have it, you can wander for miles and get a lot of good and healthful exercise, but never see a bird.”

I followed orders, and sure enough: I hadn’t walked 50 yards when a bird flushed, and then another. I got one, picked it up, took a few more steps, and two more went up. Again, I collected one. That was it for that draw, so we took our brace of sharptails and headed home. If nothing else, it illustrates the value of a good guide.

A couple of years later, I undertook a meandering trip west with a pal and his two dogs. We hunted on different ranches across northeast Montana, making our own way. As I recall, we did consistently well on sage grouse and picked up some prairie chickens in Nebraska, but our record on sharptails was less than stellar. Several times, we set out into what looked like good country, only to come up empty. The dogs, a pair of enthusiastic Labradors, were pretty disgusted. In their eyes, our standing as strategists took a beating.

There is just no substitute for local knowledge when it comes to sharptails. If you don’t have it, you can wander for miles and get a lot of good and healthful exercise, but never see a bird.

The more rolling, grassy country south of the interstate is one very large haystack, in which to find a few very small needles.

There are some general rules, of course. The hills and plains are cut by winding draws that are generally choked with brush, and sharptails love them. They feed out in the grass, then take cover in the brush from hawks, coyotes, and similar ruffians. Two hunters, working together, can flank a draw, one on each side, while a dog works his way through the brush. If there are birds in residence, this can work very well.

Therein lies the problem, however: Exactly what makes one such draw a magnet for sharptails, while a seemingly identical one a half mile away is as empty as a poorhouse stew pot? That question has driven sharptail hunters (me, at least) to the brink of despair. When you multiply the number of square miles by 10 and the number of draws by 100, you see how sharptail hunting might turn into little more than an exercise in . . . well . . . exercise.

A few years ago, I hunted black bears on the Crow Indian Reservation near the Little Bighorn. In spite of snow and general bad weather, we saw a goodly number of sharptails. Our guide, Willie Peters, has lived and hunted on the Crow for more than 40 years. He and I hit it off, and the next year I went back to hunt pronghorns with him. My birdhunting friends Mark and Dinny came, too. We saw so many sharptails on that expedition that we just had to come back, and promptly booked him for five days in the fall of 2016.

The reservation itself covers almost 3,600 square miles (2,300,000 acres) and has a resident population of fewer than 8,000 Crow Indians. Most of these people are concentrated around Crow Agency and a few other settlements. There are bits and pieces of three mountain ranges, and several rivers flowing through, including the Little Bighorn.

Mark, Dinny, and Harry Flashman awaiting a grouse that never came. But it’s a pretty picture.

Altogether, there is nothing if not wide open space, which leaves room for an awful lot of winding, brushy draws. A lad could wander for months out here, trying to find which ones harbor the elusive sharptail, and never see so much as a feather. Months, I tell you. But worry not. We had Willie.