On August 27th, Susan, the dogs and I left our home in New Hampshire with Montana our goal. This was our sixth trip to prairie bird Mecca. For us, it’s a 39-hour drive which takes us through ten states. Although we have typically made the drive in three days, we stopped in Ohio to visit family so this trip we took four days to reach our destination, Plentywood, Montana.
Our last trip was in 2016. Bird numbers were down significantly in 2016 so we have been hesitant to make the trip again. However, after summer discussions with Montana farmer friends, bird numbers were looking better for this season so we decided to revisit the prairies.
Since we go for either opening week or the following week, by “bird numbers” we mean sharptail grouse or Hungarian partridge. Pheasants are no yet in season. Our favorite is the sharptail grouse. If you go early, before the sharptail has see pressure, they hold very well for the point. For Susan and me, the most important ingredient in this trip is giving our dogs an opportunity for bird work. Especially the younger dogs. There is nothing like wild birds on the prairie to strengthen the point and allow your pup to gain more bird sense.
The number one problem Montana is having in the Northeast corner of the state is loss of habitat for the sharptail grouse. Just in the past few years, thousands of acres of native prairie grasslands have been lost to the plow. The non-native birds, ring-necked pheasant and Hungarian partridge, have adapted to agriculture. The native sharptailed grouse, has not.
Montana has a program titled Block Management. The Block Management initiative allows hunters to hunt on private land. The private land owners are compensated, by the state, for allowing hunters access to their property. There are sign-in boxes at each Block Management property. I commend Montana for this program. It guarantees an out-of-state hunter access to good habitat. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks publishes a booklet titled Hunting Access Guide. It contains Block Management maps for each region of the state. It gives you the species of game available in the individual block properties. At the sign-in box, the state provides a more detailed map of that individual property. We always pick-up the new booklet (published annually) at the local sporting goods store. However, you can order directly from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Go to fwp.mt.gov and search for Block Management. Go to Frequently Ask Questions. Under a map of the regions, you’ll see Order Access Guide.
We had an eight-day hunt planned. We have a rule for long distance hunts. Always hunt at least the same number of travel days. Opening day was September 1st. We spent August 31st scouting several of the Block Management properties we’ve hunted previously. They all looked good so we selected a property we’ve had good luck in the past. Unfortunately, the dogs did not locate a single bird on opening day. Days two through eight, however, we’re much different. We had multiple sharptail finds interspersed with Hun covey finds every day. Although we could have shot more, Susan and I usually limited ourselves to only 1 or 2 birds per sharptail covey. Sharptail grouse flush in a staggered pattern. If one or two flush, expect several more to follow. This flushing pattern is different than the Hun. Huns are much more hyper than the sharptail. For huns, the entire covey flushes simultaneously. And, the hun flushes with just a wink from your dog. Early season sharptails are much more forgiving. After a few days of pressure, all the birds either flush quickly or run for the next county.
Here are a few tips for a trip to the prairies. Going early will give your dogs the best opportunity for good bird work. The down side of going early is the potential for warm days. If it’s warm, you’re limited to morning hunts only. That means plenty of water for both dogs and humans. For dogs, plan on three 12-oz bottles of water per hour. Two bottles for humans. Also, for early hunting, be sure to have bug repellant. In the prairies, if you walk one mile, your dogs have done five. Also, always have a telephone number for a veterinarian. Barbed wire is plentiful in the prairies.
Every upland hunter should have a trip to the prairies on their bucket list. The prairies are beautiful and a young dog can transform to an old pro in a week of training on prairie wild birds.
Copyright 2019 Paul Fuller