Hunting Sharptail Grouse

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Chris Niskanen hunting sharptail grouse
Photo by Hank Shaw

“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 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, 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.

Grouse camp in North Dakota
Photo by Hank Shaw

I called it “Little Camp on the Prairie,” and while I only slept 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 were his wife Diana’s. 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 6-8 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. “Hmmm… 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 burrring 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.

Sharp-tailed grouse in the field

Gorgeous bird. Understated, like a Saville 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.

grouse risotto ingredients
Photo by Hank Shaw

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.

Stirring the grouse risotto.
Photo by Chris Niskanen

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.

Camping in the North Dakota prairie.
Photo by Hank Shaw

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 it 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…

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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21 Comments

  1. Awesome read. Sharptail are so fun, and so much work. I like how you noticed that most of your birds flushed on hilltops. I have found sharpies all over the landscape but usually on a high ridgeline above brushy draws. Where I am in Wyoming, very few people hunt sharpies, but they are my favorite quarry. Smart, fast, and delicious.

  2. Hank – great story. My first sharptail experience was a triple — one of the only upland triples of my life. I walked into a group much like you did at about 10 yards. For as large as the birds are, they don’t fly as fast nor are they as armored as huns, chuckars, pheasants.

  3. Hank….heard you this morning (10/16/10) on KFGO in Fargo, ND. I have hunted pheasants & sharptail grouse in this state for 50 yrs. It truly is the “last of the best”. I enjoyed reading the story!! Do you publish a cookbook of your own?

  4. Matt: Come on down and I’ll feed you a grouse!

    Nate: Keep me posted on your season. I might come out for it next year…

    Adam: The more I hear, the more Nebraska sounds pretty damn excellent for bird hunting – I really want to hunt cranes there, and sharpies sound good, too. As for the prairie chicken, I’ve heard they are the tastiest of the grouse species.

  5. Loved the story and the pictures (scenery)!

    If you want to do some real grouse hunting swing down to Nebraska. We have two species: sharp tailed and prairie chicken. I’ve never hunted the prairie chicken as it’s mainly in the eastern part of the state, but there are sharp tailed everywhere in the Sandhills region of the state. I’d recommend coming to Valentine, NE (it’s really an outdoorsman’s paradise). Great hunting on public land in that area. There is more information here: https://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/hunting/guides/upland_game/grouse.asp

  6. Great story, Hank. Grouse and timberdoodle season is nearly on us here in Gloucester, MA. My dog has been putting up 1 or 2 woodcock on our excursions into Dogtown, and she bumped a pair of grouse a few weeks back. I am looking forward to shooting some birds over her this year. I also found a sweet woodduck honey hole about 10 minutes from our place. Looking forward to the start of the season and some fresh wild meat on the grill.

    Best,
    Nate Grace

  7. been a long time since I have had grouse! LOVE the story mate, and heck that might just be the best camp food I have ever heard..

  8. Phillip: Let’s do it! Caribou, ptarmigan and arctic hares have been on my bucket list for a long time….

    Kevin: Yep. Both Finn and Morty are black Labs. Great dogs.

    E: I will get one from Chris. I plan to post the recipe for the risotto this week.

    Oldfatslow: Can’t you hunt quail in Florida? I know you hammer the snipe down there…

    Kevin: I need to get to Calgary next time. Canada is just so effing BIG. You hunting moose again this year?

    Tamar: Actually, that feeling you are describing? It’s called jealousy. 😉

    Fishguy: That truffled grouse turned out to be genius – lucky decision to pair two complementary funky aromas on one plate…

  9. Love the post, Hank.
    The large majority of reading I do these days is scientific (for work) or cookbooks (for fun). While I still hunt and fish I do not make the time to read the old sporting articles and books that I used to. You have certainly turned me around. I truly enjoy reading your material and can’t wait for the book. Thank you so much for taking us to the prairie with you (I could almost taste that truffled grouse!).

  10. There ought to be a specific name for the feeling you get when your partner is succeeding and you’re not. I haven’t experienced it hunting (yet — this will be my first season), but when we went out for false albacore the other day my husband got four and I got none. While I was delighted he was catching fish, I really really really wanted to catch one too. It’s something like the opposite of schadenfreude.

    I’m very glad you triumphed in the end. Nice hunt. Nice post.

  11. I’m even more jealous of the trip after reading that. And if I’m not mistaken, is that a Black Lab you were hunting behind in the pictures?

  12. Thank you for a wonderful read Hank. Only thing that would’ve made this post even better is a shot of the fisnished grouse risotto dish! Good luck in Canada.
    I enjoy reading your posts so much that I would buy your book even if I was not planning on cooking a single recipe from it, but of course I am. Looking forward to that.

  13. Welcome home, Hank!

    I’m not much of a bird hunter, but you do make it sound like a fun hunt in a very cool place. Maybe I’ll tag a bird hunt on the tail of a big game hunt some day… maybe ptarmigan after a caribou, or some such.

  14. I agree. The Prairie totally rocks. What a fun trip and hunt. Congrats on your sharptails. Sounds like you ran into good numbers of birds.