Sage Grouse

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One of the 1st trips I can remember where we drove some place to go hunting, besides the annual deer camp was a trip close to deer camp early in September in the mid-seventies to hunt sage grouse. We didn’t have any sage grouse on our ranch so I had never seen one. I had my single shot 410 and I was feeling pretty confident about getting a grouse. I did realize the limits of my 410 loaded with lighter loads. I figured that out the winter before when I put the creep on some Canadian geese that had landed near one of our stock ponds. I thought I was pretty close and when I shot one of the geese it just ruffled it feathers and they all flew off. Anyway I knew I would have to get close because my dad had said the sage grouse are real big and if I can shoot one on the ground that would be best, but I wanted to get one in flight. The strategy for finding them, which at the time I didn’t realize was to find a stock pond and start circling it until you find them. This worked well, but in looking back and knowing what I know now, I think the fact there were hundreds of birds, with many of flocks having a few dozen birds in the hunting area that made the hunting great. After missing a few flying shots I shot one on the ground, and then I got one in the air later in the day. I can still remember them looking like airplanes taking off.

For quite a few years one of the first hunts of the year was sage grouse. I can’t ever remember anyone taking a dog of any kind. Most of the time we just walked around until we found some grouse flushing in front of us and then we started shooting at them. Some years we walked a long ways before we found any birds, and I have no idea how many we walked with in a few feet of without them flushing. The seasons were never very long and for the most part we only saw sage grouse during the hunting season when we were actually looking specifically for them. We didn’t have any reason to go after them when it wasn’t sage grouse season. In the late seventies and early eighties southern Idaho had plenty of sage grouse. It was not uncommon to see maybe a hundred in a flock and see a few flocks a day. Since then the numbers in Idaho have gone down quite a bit and I have heard the west Nile virus has been real deadly to them in southwestern Idaho.

When I got Cruiser I got involved with the German Shorthair Pointer Club of Idaho. There was a bunch of good dog trainers that helped me out with my new GWP puppy, and I remember one telling me to get Cruiser in some sage grouse if possible. I was still doing a lot of big game hunting and August 15th was when archery antelope opened. The area I hunted antelope had some sage grouse and I thought maybe I could get Cruiser on some sage grouse out there if I could locate some while antelope hunting. His first hunting season I didn’t get an antelope until late in the season and on one of the trips out to the desert before I had taken an antelope I talked Jodi into going out and staying in the camper with me. We brought Cruiser of course and on the way out I jumped a flock of sage grouse on the dusty road and they landed nearby. They were in season so I got Cruiser out and brought him in downwind and he went on a solid point way out from where I thought the birds were sitting. Sure enough they were quite a ways out and when they flushed I looked for the smallest, (big old sage grouse are real rough to try to eat) and shot one. Cruiser was already almost underneath it when it hit the ground. He grabbed it and packed it around proudly for a few minutes, but didn’t want to bring it back. I just let him enjoy the experience. This was his first wild bird point, and my first wild bird point with a GWP, and the first time all the gears really lined up with Cruiser as a hunting dog. I can still remember the evening like it was yesterday even though I have witness who knows how many points since that first point.

When I got into field trial competitions I started training with a retired game warden and bird biologist from Utah who was quite successful in field trials with German Shorthairs. We also trained with another retired army colonel who was just getting started in the field trial game with his nice German Shorthairs. The game warden said he loved running on sage grouse in the summer in the northeast corner of Utah, and he wanted to know if I knew where we could find some in Idaho. I knew of many places and we all started spending time together training. The colonel had a nice motorhome and we would find places we could run right from the motorhome. We could run in the morning and evening, and do yard work training in the afternoons if we weren’t napping. The thing about the sage grouse for dog training is they seem to always smell. The dogs would find birds if they were in the area and if we didn’t push the birds they would stay in the general area. Usually the young birds were about seventy five percent grown when we were training and they flew pretty well. I remember one time three dogs all locked up pointing into a small ravine. We rode up and when I went into flush the sage grouse started boiling out and they were coming right over my head and over the dogs and the other guys on horses. None of the dogs held through all the birds flying right over their heads and with the exception of pheasants packed in cover this was the most birds I ever had come from such a small area. After all the excitement I noticed a small spring that ran maybe twenty yards and was gone into the dry dirt. These birds were getting water and we just found them at the right time. I know the sage grouse will fly a ways for water so that is always something to remember when hunting them.

It was a flock of sage grouse that taught me a little more about how far a dog can point game. I could write an entire book on what I have observed and what I think about how scent must travel and how dogs pick it up. Anyway a buddy and I had Harry a large liver male who loved the cold weather out looking for some huns in an area close to home in Idaho.  It had snowed about six inches the night before and we were hunting down a long fairly flat canyon with a slight breeze right in our faces. We hadn’t gone too far when Harry locks up. He always stood very tall with an intense stylish point. He was pointing right out into an open area with no cover for at least 150 yards. I told my buddy some huns must be hunkered down out in the field and we just can’t see them. We walked about 50 yards out from Harry and nothing flushed. I looked back at Harry and he was still very intense. My buddy and I didn’t believe he had anything and I tried to call him, but he didn’t even blink. After looking around somewhat confused I looked down the draw a little further and I thought I could see a sage grouse in a small sage brush area. We walked that way and sure enough there was a small flock of grouse in the brush 150 yards from Harry. The conditions were pretty much perfect and Harry had a phenomenal nose, but I still couldn’t believe he pointed birds that far out at first. I’m sure the birds smell more than others, but I also think the slight breeze had pushed the smell slowly up the draw and filled it with scent over a long period of time. I have noticed this in big canyons at the right time of the day the hot air will bring scent from a long ways down the canyon up the canyon for other game like deer, but sage grouse seem to be the biggest stinkers when it comes to birds.

After I realize the sage grouse were the perfect bird to work broke dogs on I started thinking of the many places I knew where they lived. I would take trained dogs out and work sage grouse with a blank gun. The dogs would always point them quite a ways out and the dogs really wanted to break when the big boomers took off. I was getting used to having all the different nearby flocks of sage grouse to work dogs on and then we decide to move to South Dakota. South Dakota does actually have some sage grouse in the northwest corner, but not many. When I was living there they had a season of two days in the middle of the week on public lands only. During those two days every game warden in the state was there monitoring the hunts. They wanted to take a little tissue sample from each harvested bird to send back to the lab for testing. We always went up for the hunt since it was in a good area for huns and sharp tails as well. The main area they lived in was actually quite small but had a good population. I did find some other small populations in South Dakota, but nothing like Idaho. The sage grouse are very dependent on sage brush. They will feed in alfalfa fields and on other crop lands, but most of their diet is sage brush which explains the bad taste of old birds.

One year on our two day South Dakota hunt me, my brother and a buddy took off early to arrive at the sage grouse spot. It was almost like a store opening its doors for a special sale. People from all over the state were lined up along the road waiting for legal shooting hours to embark on the area. We knew exactly when the legal shooting started, and with a herd of game wardens watching we weren’t about to shoot one early. I had Cruiser who was in the prime of his life at the time and we decided to turn him loose a few minutes early to go find some. I knew he would hold point for a long time if needed and if the birds were out away from the road a few hundred yards we would arrive at Cruiser about perfect. Well that was a good plan if the birds were a long ways out. I turned Cruiser loose and in less than a minute he was standing like a statue not very far away. We then noticed some sage grouse walking around out in front of Cruiser. One of the game wardens came over and asked me how long will that dog stay on point. I said for a long time, and he replied that’s good because legal shooting isn’t for a while yet. The grouse actually just flew off for no reason over the road to some other area after a few minutes. Cruiser was still just standing there until I walked out to released him. Cruiser ended up running a long ways before we found any more, but we all got one for the research team.

When we moved to Wyoming I learned sage grouse was a word that sparked a lot of debate between coal, gas, oil people, ranchers, hunters, and environmentalist. The oil and gas field operations are in prime sage grouse areas and sage grouse don’t adapt to intruders as well as some species. Needless to say in the eastern half of Wyoming the sage grouse hunting is not too good mainly because it’s mostly private lands, and the birds are getting lots of pressure from the coal, and gas fields.  If you want to hunt private lands there is some good numbers, but not much on public lands. In the western part, especially the southwestern part of Wyoming the sage grouse are still doing pretty well. I have a few places I know where they live. I have taken young hunters out sage grouse hunting to get them experience with bird hunting and with GWP’s. The season here is very short so the sage grouse usually aren’t real wild and will hold well while a dog is pointing them. It takes a few times getting flushed for them to get educated.

I have a couple great places to go hunt them now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in my lifetime they became endangered and we won’t be able to watch a GWP lock up on point. If you have a chance to get your GWP on a sage grouse you better do it soon.

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