"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.
The risotto was a hit, and I followed up with a simple sharpie dish that had a secret weapon. I grilled the breasts simply, then hit them with fleur de sel and some Oregon white truffle oil I got from Jack Czarnecki at a conference earlier this year. The funky aroma from the truffle oil complemented the slightly funky nature of the grouse so well I thought everyone's eyes were going to roll back in their head. Jim looked downcast when the last piece disappeared. So did I.
After dinner we settled into a night of serious whiskey drinking, with rain pouring down around us. We didn't care. We'd hunted well, ate well, laughed a lot, and were getting ready to do it all again the next morning. Still, it nagged me that I hadn't shot a grouse yet.
Dawn on the prairie. Our second and last day hunting sharpies. After the long walk the previous day, I was worried I'd be crippled for today—but, miraculously, I wasn't. I felt, well, a little sore, but nothing major. That in itself was a victory. A few stretches, some coffee, and we were ready to rock.
Jim's knee was hurting him, so this hunt would be just Chris and me. We set off with Morty the dog in search of Mr. Sharpie again. It was a weird morning. After nearly four miles of walking, Chris had shot a pair—a nice double, again on the top of a hill—but all I'd had was one wild flush. Nerves were setting in. Could I say I'd really done the Grouse Grand Slam if I did not kill a sharpie? Would I need to return next year to actually shoot one?
Another flush at the top of a hill. Again, I got flustered and shot at the group, not at one bird. A booming voice in my head—it might have been God—said, "Thou Shalt Not Flock Shoot!" Sigh. I also learned something else about sharpies: I'd shot my two shells, but did not reload immediately. I second later, several more sharpies flushed, easily within range—if I'd reloaded. Shit.
Soon after, Chris shot his third grouse, his limit. We walked on.
Yet one more hill. I began mentally chanting to myself: Find one bird, shoot that one bird. Remember to reload. Find one bird, shoot that one bird. Remember to reload. I gripped the stock of my shotgun as I neared the hill's crest. Are you there, grousie grouse? I've come to see you....
BRRRRRRRRR! A grouse flushed 10 yards away. Without thought, I lifted the gun and dropped the bird in one shot. BRRRRRRRRR! A second grouse took off, only a little farther away. I leaned into the shot, slapped the trigger, and willed the second grouse down. A double! My first ever sharptail grouse was a double! I never shoot doubles!
And just like that, I was a fully fledged sharptail grouse hunter. I felt warm and cool and electric, all at the same time. If you've ever tried and tried at something, failing all the while, and then, in an instant, put everything together and gotten yourself back in the game, you know what I was feeling.
I had one more grouse to go to shoot my limit, and this last one would show me just how exciting sharptail hunting can be. I was, of course, at the top of a hill again, and this time a covey of about six sharpies flushed. I held my composure and shot one, watching it sail down into a hawthorn seedling.
I made a beeline for the bird. Morty the dog was behind me, coming up fast. I was sure I'd broken the sharpie's wing. I reached the bush, saw the bird. I bent down to pick it up. My finger just barely touched its back. BRRRRRRRRR! The grouse flew off! I was frozen in that split second when it flushed—I'd expected Morty to pick up a grouse with a broken wing. But this grouse didn't have a broken wing. And there it was zooming off! I took a shot at it, missed and shot again. Click.
I'd forgotten to reload. The grouse got away.
No matter; I had two to bring home. Chris gave me two more so I could play with them in the kitchen later. I'd also managed to walk all day for two straight days and not suffer because of it. Finally! After 10 months, I felt strong again.
In a bigger sense it really did not matter how many grouse I shot, though. Sure, I wanted to succeed, and sharptail grouse is absolutely delicious. But upland game bird hunting is not about filling the freezer. It's about having fun with Chris and Jim, watching the dogs work, and seeing—really seeing—the open prairie, a place alien to someone who grew up around the deep forests of Watchung in New Jersey.
Too many of us who live on the coasts denigrate the middle of our nation as "flyover country." Maybe they don't have arugula at the supermarket in Tuttle, North Dakota. But they don't have sharptail grouse in New York or California. Nor do those states have wild echinacea. Or open prairies that stretch to the horizon like the sea. And let me tell you, those things are every bit as special as our great cities.
Our grouse hunt was over. Time for Jim and I to pack up and head to Canada. Ducks, geese, and maybe something else awaited us. More on that later....