Finding sharp-tailed grouse to hunt can change from season to season based on cover, water and food
As we stare down the barrel of the upland bird season, thoughts of long days in the field following our favorite hunting partner come to mind. Right now my time is spent working dogs on wild birds and getting them acclimated to the ground and temperature as well as in the physical condition required to start an upland season. I like to wait until August to run dogs on wild birds, making sure the birds are plenty old enough to escape the vigorous drive of a dog wanting to capture its prey.
In typical fashion I target areas in Montana that I know hold birds and show good habitat for both sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse. These particular areas have good cover consisting of sage and natural grasses. The grass growing up into the sagebrush looking very old, and straw in color, as well as some new growth, green in color.
The first area I targeted was a state section consisting of roughly 640 acres. Along the outskirts of the state section was private land in production of wheat and alfalfa. In the early season sage grouse love to be around leafy greens, such as alfalfa. Hungarian partridge and sharptails love wheat but I have found them in other crops as well.
My hopes for this season haven’t been real high. I spotted very few birds along the roads during my summer scouting. Sharp-tailed grouse habitat was on the increase, the right crops were in the right areas, and we had a wet year providing plenty of water.
Many times you’ve heard me say I don’t worry too much about looking for water when looking for new bird areas. They can find a puddle somewhere that will be plenty to sustain them. Water is an essential part of a bird’s survival, but it does not take a lot for them to be satisfied. When you find water, use it to your advantage.
My plan was to walk about 50-100 yards off the border of the state and public land. The fields had just been cut so I knew the birds would be wanting to take to the cover for security during the day, then look to the production fields for food during the morning and evening. So that I did, walk the border of the section—all four miles of it—and found no birds. My suspicions of another low year were coming to light. In my 29 years of hunting upland birds, 2018 was the lowest number of birds I’d ever seen. Even with the great cover and conditions, I wondered if there just were not enough residual birds to produce a good hatch this year.
Feeling slightly down, I started to wonder what it would take to find them. My pup needed to get into birds this year. He’s a very promising young dog but we all know it takes birds to make a bird dog. A short distance before I returned to the truck I took notice of a view I’d been watching all day. Grasshoppers (hoppers) cleared my path in droves. I noticed they were mostly hanging out on the voluntary alfalfa. The hoppers were there so why not the birds, I asked. Then it settled in: water.
That is what I was missing. If the hoppers were so plentiful the birds would not need to rely on the farmers’ crops. All they needed were the hoppers and some water and they were set. They didn’t need to venture too far from the water to find food. It was everywhere.
As I mentioned before, this had been a wet year but the hot weather hit fast in July and started to dry things up quickly. Looking over the land I tried to figure out where there might be some water. I changed course and headed to the deeper draws. Still consisting of the same cover I had been focusing on, I went from one draw to another. Soon my old male came back to me with a revived look on his face. I knew that look; he had found water, so I headed in the direction he came from.
About midway down the next draw I saw some green and a few cattails. Now that I’d found the water it was time to find where the birds would be settling for the day. It didn’t take long and was not very hard. The dogs and I found good numbers of birds, in fact a great number of birds. Within a short period of time we’d put up four very large broods of birds. A couple nice points took place, and a little more chaos from the pup. The scenting conditions were getting hard on the dogs so it was time to get back to the truck.
My outlook of the upcoming sharp-tailed grouse season had changed dramatically. Follow-up trips to different areas revealed the same results. Had I not ventured outside my normal thought patterns, this day would have been a lot different, and most likely a good part of my preseason training would have resulted in more exercise.
As you make your trips out West, look at different approaches to your hunt if you’re not finding the number of birds you would like. Have you ever wondered just how close you were to the birds you didn’t find? On this day I was less than half a mile from the difference between seeing no birds and seeing a satisfying number of birds. Sometimes thinking outside the norm, on a not normal year, will make or break your hunt, and even for some, your season.
Brandon Moss's life motto is, "I don't care what I'm doing as long as I have two straps over my shoulders." He is a 4th generation hunter who can't spend enough time in the field. Born and raised in Montana he has nurtured an addition to following American Brittany's out on the prairies. Brandon hopes by telling his story it will inspire others to head to the field and experience, what he has come to love, for themselves.