An Appointment with Sharptails

Taking Time to Smell the Wildflowers

“Sorry. I have an appointment with some sharptails at Loma.”

I had been in Havre covering the annual convention of the Montana Tavern Association and was having breakfast with Paul Tash of Butte, publisher of the association’s publication, Tavern Times. Though I had completed my last interviews and taken my last photo, Paul jokingly suggested I could stay for just one more meeting.

No. I had that other appointment, though I wondered whether the grouse had gotten the memo.

My destination for my hunt was a tract of public land on a high prairie ridge separating the Marias and Teton Rivers on one side and the Missouri River on the other. It’s an area rich in history. In June 1805 the Lewis & Clark expedition paused to stop and figure out which stream was the true Missouri.

Off in the distance is a kiosk on top of a hill marking the point where Meriwether Lewis stopped, after an eight-mile walk before breakfast, to look over the countryside and decide which way to go, finally deciding on the south fork.

Over succeeding years the area had an early trading post, one of the first railroad lines and an infamous battle in 1870 in which American soldiers attacked a band of Piegans huddled in winter camp along the Marias. 173 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed in the pre-dawn attack still remembered as the Marias Massacre.

Over the years, countless steamboats, keelboats and smaller craft passed through the area to and from Fort Benton, head of navigation on the Missouri. These days it’s a popular launching area for floating the Missouri River.

For several years we had taken annual trips here to hunt sharp-tailed grouse. The last time was in September 2001, just a few days after the terrorist attacks on the 11th. Looking back in my journals I’m reminded that the only grouse I saw were a few that flushed wild. I never fired a shot and the most memorable part of the trip was the silence in the skies, with all civilian air travel suspended.

That was nine years and one dog ago, though the difficult part of this day’s hunt was that Flicka, my faithful Labrador retriever, was home in Butte. If there were sharptails on this prairie, would I find them without the help of a dog’s nose?

The only guarantee, when you set off on a walk across the prairie, is that you’ll have a nice long walk and plenty of time to think, especially when not keeping track of a bird dog.

I’m struck by the abundant wildflowers, particularly black-eyed Susans, blooming in the grassland. At a series of long, brushy draws connecting the benchland prairie with the river bottoms, mule deer pop out of their beds in the brush patches. The mulies, some five in all, look fat and sassy after a summer of easy living. One of the deer sports an impressive spread of antlers.

By now, my saunter across the grassland has taken about two hours and the only birds I’ve seen are meadowlarks. “Where are the grouse?” I wonder. I’d better do some more back and forth walking to cover some more of the grassland.

My question is answered when a covey of about 20 grouse flush from a low spot. I pick a bird from the covey and swing my gun on it and shoot. The bird drops, and to my surprise a second bird also drops. I’ve gotten what’s called a “Scotch double” on the flush. I’m so surprised that I forget to try to pick off another bird from the rapidly disappearing covey, missing an opportunity for a rare triple (with a double-barrel shotgun) on a covey rise.

Fortunately the downed birds fall in thin cover and I retrieve them without difficulty and it’s just a ten-minute walk back to where I started the hunt. Even with the heft of the birds in the back of my vest I have a little extra bounce in my steps.

It meant a long walk across the prairie, but we’d kept our appointment.

The Not So Silent Prairie

When we think of prairies we usually think in terms of open vistas of rolling plains and grasslands. We don’t often dwell on the sounds of the prairie.

We took a springtime trip across Montana to Minot, North Dakota this past week to see our son, Kevin, and his family. While there, we went fishing, of course. It’s a good reason to go there in the spring.

Fishing, of course, doesn’t come with guarantees. All you can do is wet a line and hope for the best. Sometimes, spring trips produce a lot of fishing action but this wasn’t one of them. The end of April and beginning of May seemed unseasonably cold here in western Montana, and that was also the case in North Dakota. One of the things TV weathermen keep tabs on in North Dakota is soil temperature, and while we were there soil temperatures were dropping—which is bad news for farmers putting in their crops.

While fishing was slow, there was lots of activity going on all around us.

We spent one day fishing at Devils Lake, the massive eastern North Dakota lake complex that has, in the last 20 years, tripled in size. Kevin pointed out that a few years back he’d go there and marvel at fishing spots we went to back in the 1970s and 1980s that were no longer accessible, as they’re all under water. Now it seems to be a yearly thing. You look for a spot where you fished the year before, and now it’s gone. Farms are continually going under water—and it has nothing to do with the mortgage bust.

But birds are everywhere. There are incredible populations of waterfowl, with ducks of all kinds, giant Canada geese, and shorebirds everywhere. The Devils Lake area is a magnet for birdwatchers that come there just for the myriad shorebirds.

On another day I went to Lake Sakakawea, the big Missouri impoundment downstream from Montana. I fished along a shallow bay, hoping the sheltered waters would be warming a bit. It was a good plan, even if the fish didn’t go along with it. In recent years I’ve spent a lot more time hunting pheasants along the lakeshore than fishing, and it was hard not to think of pheasants on this pleasant spring day.

As the saying goes, in springtime a young man’s fancy turns to love, and that’s certainly the case with pheasants. Cock pheasants in springtime are a vocal group, presumably advertising to hen pheasants their availability for a good time, as well as letting other roosters know that the territory is already staked out.

A discordant note comes from an oil-drilling tower at the head of the bay I was fishing. Western North Dakota is a beehive of oil drilling, exploration and pumping, along with heavy truck traffic. In fact, it’s downright mind-boggling. A few weeks ago, the New York Times did a feature story on the difficulties oil patch workers have finding housing in Williston, the informal capitol of the western North Dakota oil fields. There are lots of jobs, but finding a place to live after work is tricky.

On another outing, this time to a small lake away from oil country, at the public access point I was greeted by a chorus of birds, including the usual ducks, geese and shorebirds, but also song birds of various kinds concentrated in a patch of trees and shrubs. There were dozens of bird songs happening all at once, with birds trying to out-do each other in making themselves heard above the crowds. And, again, pheasants were calling from their hangouts on the prairie hillsides.

While the prairie was full of sounds, tiny prairie wildflowers were in bloom, adding bits of color to the green shoots of grass and last year’s dried grasses.

At the end of the day, birds settle down, but there are new sounds. Stepping outside Kevin’s house one evening, frogs were talking from a nearby wetland and open field. “Those are western chorus frogs,” Kevin explained, as we enjoyed the sounds of the chilly evening.

The photo above is Kevin and our Labs in the Devils Lake area. A year ago, farmers were driving tractors and farm trucks down this road.