"Why don't we hunt sharpies?" My friend Chris Niskanen made the suggestion after I told him when I'd be in the Midwest again. Last year we hunted ruffed grouse and had a great time, but this year I'd be in the Great Plains several weeks earlier—before ruffed grouse can really be hunted. Where to go? "North Dakota. I have a spot in mind," he said.
Sharpies, better known as sharptail grouse, are to the prairie what ruffed grouse are to the mixed forest. Grouse, in all their forms, are America's very own chicken. Nearly every state has at least one kind of grouse, and many states—California, for example—are home to many. For the most part, they are smaller than the chicken we know and love, but they are hardier in life and are far more interesting at the table.
Thus we hatched our master plan: The Grand Slam of Grouse. Every year Chris and I would hunt and eat at least one species of North America's grouse: ruffed, sharptail, spruce, dusky, ptarmigan—even the mighty sage grouse, which can reach eight pounds. This year would be sharpies.
So, with my friend Jim in tow—Jim and I were headed to Manitoba to hunt ducks and geese—we drove to NoDak. You heard me. Yeah, we drove. More than 1,800 miles. One-way. Pretty grueling to be sure, but still better than flying: cheaper, for one, and it allowed us to carry more stuff, like guns, camping gear, food, and coolers, as well as all our duck hunting gear.
Chris had it all planned out. We'd camp on the prairie, closer to the birds, and I'd cook some sharpies for dinner. Camping ... I'm not much of a camper, to be honest. I like beds. And showers. But I trusted Chris, and he didn't let me down.
I called it "Little Camp on the Prairie," and while I slept only one night in the Winnebago (the other night was in a tent), I could not have asked for more. We had a grill, lots of Grain Belt beer, wine both Jim and I had made, a giant propane burner Chris brought—even two pink camp chairs. Chris said they belonged to his wife, Diana. We think he's just inordinately fond of pink.
We set out in search of the wily sharpie at once. Now if you have never hunted sharptail grouse, and chances are most of you haven't, you need to know this is a pursuit that involves a lot of walking. Holly went on her first sharpie hunt just a week before (I know, why can't we align our schedules?) and said she walked her tail off. I was a little nervous about this, as I am still recovering from my torn Achilles tendon. I knew I could walk some, but wasn't so sure about the six to eight miles a day Chris had mentioned. Still, I took a deep breath and vowed to soldier on.
A sharptail hunt goes like this: You drive around until you see a likely field. "Hmm ... that spot looks grousy." It'll be either native prairie or fallow ground, with medium-height grass, lots of buffaloberries, hawthorn, goldenrod, and echinacea. It'll also be huntable, which normally isn't a problem because in North Dakota, any land not posted with a "no hunting" sign can be hunted. You then release the hounds. Chris has two: the venerable Finn, who, at 11 years old is probably in her last full hunting season, and the younger Morty, whom Chris recently acquired from his father-in-law, Art. While you don't necessarily need a dog to hunt sharpies, it sure helps.
And then, you walk. And walk. And walk. Up hills, down hills, through thick buck brush and over easy fields of goldenrod and prairie grass. Sometimes it's wet, sometimes it's impossibly windy. Along the way I noticed lots of red berries among the flora: rose hips! I ate a few, but the frost had made them mealy. More on them later.
As I was chewing, I had the distinct sensation that at any moment a sharpie would burst out of somewhere, giving me a heart attack and catching me with my gun down. This sensation lingered, making an otherwise leisurely walk in the prairie more like a patrol in Vietnam: You're on edge, never knowing when something could jump out at you, and while grouse don't normally carry AK-47s, you are keenly aware that this one flush might be the only bird you see all day.
My first sharpie flushed wild, which means too far away for a shot. Shotguns only shoot maybe 50 yards—and that's pushing it—so anything longer than counts as "wild." I was cresting a hill when the bird took off in a fury of burring wingbeats, chanting "er er er er er er er!" all the way.
My next sharpie was with friends. I was on the top of a hill, and they flushed right at my feet, stopping my heart for a long moment. I shot twice, but was so flustered I missed with both barrels. I knew Chris was walking the valley below me, so I shouted, "Coming to you!" I heard Chris shoot all three shells, and saw a grouse drop.
We ran over to it, but Finn got there first. She dutifully dropped the bird and I got my first look at a sharptail grouse.
Gorgeous bird. Understated, like a Savile Row suit, yet mesmerizing. Definitely chicken-like, and far heavier than the ruffed grouse we'd shot in Minnesota the previous year.
Chris put the bird in his hunting vest. "Let's get some more," he said.
But it was not to be. After that first flush I never got another chance that day. Sure, I took a few long shots, invoking Theodore Roosevelt's maxim: "So long as there is lead in the air, there is hope." Chris, on the other hand, shot his limit of three birds.
Enough for dinner that night. I'd be serving our crew, plus the owner of the stretch of prairie we'd be sleeping in as well as some of his friends, and Chris suggested I make something memorable. I had a grouse risotto on my mind from the start, and, once I saw how huge the sharpies' hearts were (bigger than a chicken's) I decided to make a sharpie risotto with chopped hearts and livers, plus the tenderloins from the breasts, black olives, red wine, some of my venison landjaeger salami, lemon juice, and native California black sage.
I'd never made a grouse risotto on an open burner, stinking like a linebacker after walking six miles, with a Grain Belt in my hand, in the middle of the prairie. You oughta try it.