The author’s lab locks up on a hillside scent pocket where sharptailed grouse had been holding earlier in the morning. Simonson Photo.
By Nick Simonson
Ah, the old F150. It’s where most everything in my life has ended up at one point or another. Baseball gloves under the seat, my youngest’s left sandal that was missing for a week, overdue library books, juice boxes, even a writing check or two in the slot between the passenger seat and the console have all found a resting place (or a hiding place) in the pickup. If you ever wondered where that one sock goes when it doesn’t make its way out of your washer and dryer, you may want to check my truck, as I’m sure it’s the end of the wormhole where those articles of clothing go during a laundry session.
So it was this weekend, as I stomped through the humid grasses of a large piece of public access land for sharptailed grouse with my lab Ole. As we made our way to the south fenceline with no flushes of the laughing gray birds and met the herd of cattle grazing on the other side, we turned into the rays of the eastern sun coming over the cloud bank which delayed full daylight by an hour or so and kept the morning cool. Up the hill the two of us went, me beginning to sweat in the day’s oncoming warmth, and Ole leisurely scanning the knee-high grasses for scent that had eluded him thus far. As we reached the halfway point of the rise bounded by the fence and the border of the public access land, I glanced up the hill to see a perfect silhouette of a large bird resting on a white rock near the apex of the hill, craning his neck to get a better view of our approach.
Sure enough it was a sharptailed grouse warily watching our progression. Ole caught scent of where the birds had likely previously been resting in the grasses around the fenceline brush, but it quickly became evident they had made their way up the hill to a more open area to dry off from the dew in the morning grass. Quickly, a few other heads popped up around the sentry and it wasn’t a few seconds more before the entire covey of about 20 birds took flight up to our north, scattering out around the hillside that would be the final stretch of our walk. I watched as many of them as I could keep track of as some drifted off onto the private land to our east, and others vanished north over the gravel road onto the adjacent public access parcel.
“Well, we know they’re here, and we know where they went,” I said optimistically to my lab, “let’s go get ‘em.”
We walked down the hill and across the slight drain of the property and crossed an old fenceline, the single wire laying mostly in the grass along the ground. The perspiration was flowing as the morning warmed and I lifted my orange hunting hat and wiped my brow, picking out a couple of the brushy landmarks I used to pinpoint where I thought the grouse had landed. Winding our way through the clumps of buckbrush and buffaloberry bushes, we flushed only a small group of young pheasants, all looking like hens until a couple of the birds gave out the ragged cackles of roosters just finding their field voices. Reaching the northeast corner of the property, my lab and I exited the southern parcel and entered the north one.
As we made the turn back toward the truck, hitting the brushiest and best-looking portions of the sister section, a trio of grouse zipped over the road in front of us and off to the west, well out of shooting range as they continued on their glide path to safety beyond the approach where my truck awaited our arrival for the trip home. Pleased with the sightings of all the birds which confirmed the uptick in grouse counts released this summer, I gave Ole the last shot of water in the bottle and we closed in on the vehicle, but I wondered aloud where the rest of the birds we had flushed from the far hill had ended up. When we got there, I popped the yellow shells out of my 20 gauge and reached for the silver handle of the passenger side door to pour my pup a bigger bowl of water and begin packing for the trip home while he rested and rehydrated.
As the handle clicked and the door became ajar, the laughter began as more than a dozen sharptailed grouse broke from the thin cover not fifteen yards out from the front bumper of my parked truck I watched them through the window glass of the open door, and much like their first rise from the far hill, they scattered out over the parcel of brush and rolling grass, many heading back in the direction of where they were resting earlier in the morning. It was all I could do to laugh along with them as they zoomed off, and I smiled at the realization that despite where it seemed these birds should have been and where I thought they went, they ended up back at the truck, a magnet for all things lost and found in my daily life and apparently too…in our outdoors.