September Sharptails in Montana


Written by: Paul Fersen

Standing on the ridge I looked across a sea of grass with mountain islands here and there, and the distance defined only by the last jagged range in the distance.

“How far are those?”

“ About 120 miles.”

“Damn.”

I was hunting sharptails in Montana near Great Falls, where next-door neighbors are calculated in miles. The land looks flat, but it’s not. It rolls and dips and rises like ocean swells and not until you get out of the truck and immerse yourself in it, do you discover the detail, the variations of terrain and vegetation, the places where sharptails find cover.

Sharptail hunting is about covering ground. It is a place where the perfectly fit and broken–in hunting boot is king. Anything less is an invitation to misery.

“When a client shows up and is pulling a new pair of boots out of the box, I know it’s not going to end well,” said Simon who guides for PRO Outfitters. Not only does he guide, but he is somewhat the resident podiatrist, repairing and comforting the blistered feet of those not properly prepared for endless walks across the prairie.

What myriad miles the hunter’s cover, the dogs cover tenfold. A close working dog is a beautiful thing in a New England grouse covert, but for sharptail grouse, the dogs are often mere white specks in the distance, crisscrossing the grassland in pairs, until one freezes. Honoring may entail the other dog freezing a hundred yards away. It is a remarkable display of genetics and training, but then it is up to the hunter to get there.

Walking up to honor the point may involve a brisk two hundred yards. If it is uphill, so be it. An English pointer named Fern seemed to have a reputation for finding birds the farthest away as possible and for some reason always uphill. The result could be a chest-heaving hunter trying to settle himself for the impending flush. The standing joke was the hunter had been “Ferned.”

It occurred to me that oddly enough, hunting sharptails in Montana was like fishing for striped bass off Cape Cod. There is an endless sea, be it grass or water, but the quarry must be found. The dogs are no different than the gulls. Dogs find birds, birds find fish. In either case I would be unsuccessful without them.

Sharptails are big birds, almost the size of pheasants, but unlike the pheasant they are covey birds and the resulting explosion is shocking the first time. There is so much biomass in the air at once, the tendency is to simply shoot into the fray, or flock shoot as it were. The result is generally failure. My first two flushes were embarrassing failures, but I soon settled in. The sharptail explodes and then instantly turns to catch the wind and hurtle above the grass for great distances, but there is time. The key is to see one bird and one bird only, and let instinct take over. I found singles to be easier than coveys.

At day’s end when the trucks return to the cabin and dogs, guides, and hunters congregate, there is a tangible sense of why this appeals to us so. We are in a place where one can still see things as they once were, a place where the only sound is your own, devoid of the intrusiveness of civilization’s decibels. The guides and hunters are men and women of similar tastes and there is ease in the familiarity. And there are the dogs – twenty to thirty dogs at any one time milling across the gravel in something akin to an English hunt scene. Working dogs, dogs with purpose and in a time when microchips determine our daily destinies, there is something reassuring in the ancient partnership of dog and man, and for the moment we are as we once were.

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