Early Birds - Plains Grouse

South Dakota and Nebraska

Sharptail Grouse and Prairie Chickens
South Dakota and Nebraska

Locals around Pierre, South Dakota, call it a popcorn flush. You step into a flock of prairie grouse, and a bird blasts out of the grass in front of you, two more flush off to the side, and five jump up somewhere else, in random, discombobulating order. You might fill your limit in a few seconds; you might just empty your gun.

Hunters who walk the grasslands for sharptails and chickens, the two species of prairie grouse, pay a high price for their birds in sweat and boot leather. Yet, they come here in increasing numbers every September, lured by the spellbinding vastness and the chance to follow their dogs across the wide open spaces.

The Place The Fort Pierre National Grasslands just south of Pierre cover 160,000 acres and have become perhaps the nation's premier destination for prairie grouse hunters. Recent management changes geared to multiple use instead of just grazing have improved the area's bird cover. State lands, Corps of Engineers ground, and private acres leased under South Dakota's walk-in program also offer open access to hunters.

Unfortunately, dry weather in 2001 and 2002 hurt prairie grouse production. At press time, the prairies were cool and wet again, but South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks biologist Tony Leif says hunters should keep their fingers crossed. "Conditions looked better this spring, but a lot can happen between July and September 20."

While South Dakota has become the most popular prairie grouse destination, Nebraska rates a close second, especially if you're interested in a mixed bag of chickens and sharptails. In northwest Nebraska, there's no shortage of federally owned grasslands open to hunting. Try the 90,000-acre Nebraska National Forest near Halsey; the 115,000-acre McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine; parts of the 71,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the 40,000-acre Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Garden County.

The Hunt As you evaluate prairie grouse cover, look for land that hasn't been grazed too heavily. Leif sums up good habitat this way: "The grass has to be tall enough for them to hide in, but short enough for them to see out of and allow them to run or flush." Sharptails and chickens prefer slightly different habitat. "Chickens are more of a pure grassland bird," Leif says. "You'll find them out in the open, while sharptails are more often associated with draws and shrubby hillsides."

Typically, sharptails roost on ridge tops, then move down along the hillsides to feed in the morning, often spending the heat of the day seeking shade in clumps of bushes. Hot weather often finds birds reluctant to flush and usually makes for the best pointing dog work of the season.

September days can reach 80 degrees or more in South Dakota. Start early in the cool of the morning, and be ready to take a break at midday. Carry plenty of water for the dogs to prevent overheating, and plan your hunt as a series of one-hour circles back to the vehicles so you can refill and switch to fresh dogs if you have them.

Whenever you find and flush birds, try to mark them if you don't get a shot. Early in the season they may only fly a couple hundred yards before they pitch back into the grass. If you're able to scatter a covey, you may find the singles sitting tight and waiting for you to walk them up.

Last tip: Bring a fishing rod. The classic Pierre cast-and-blast consists of hunting sharptails all day, then fishing for walleyes below the Lake Oahe dam in the evening.

Resources An expedition on horseback with Bob Tinker (605-224-5414; www.tinkerkennels.com) is definitely the gentleman's way to hunt the wide open spaces around Pierre. In Nebraska, try Delten Rhodes Sandhill Adventures, 308-547-2450; www.sandhills-adventures.com.

South Dakota Department of Game, Fish aand Parks, 605-773-3485; www.state.sd.us/gfp. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 402-471-0641; www.ngpc.state.ne.us.