I awoke in eastern Montana, three days into a sharptail and Hungarian safari, and I knew I had different work to do this day. It was the final day of the new, more-restricted, sage grouse season in Montana. For most of us bird hunters, we don't make a living shooting sage grouse. The most birds I have shot in a season the past five years was two males, and that was only because I had seen three large flocks of the native birds that October day. But, now the dialogue has changed. Dramatically. In fact, Montana FWP had originally proposed canceling the season completely this fall before introducing a 30-day hunt, with hunting also limited to certain counties. (I will discuss the politics and biology topic of sage grouse hunting in a later post. In a nutshell, I agree with a conservative, very restrictive season (one or two birds annually???), but a complete closure is a knee-jerk, political response.)
So, my mission was obvious. I would head back west until I reached one of the counties that was open to greater sage grouse hunting. My MO when hunting the big "boomers" is pretty standard: find a large sage flat, with sage brush that is tall enough to hide birds, and partially hide the white setter dogs that are looking for them. Then I walk. And walk some more. Some folks feel they do better when hunting close to water or when sneaking on the birds in a coulee, amidst a flat. This parcel today contained both attributes, although they really didn't play a factor in the game plan.
The first point of the day, resulted in a meadowlark, which made me pause for a millisecond. But, just a few minutes later, the dogs were locked, and began to creep, which is typical for scenting running birds. I tried to hustle into place, but a dozen or so sage "hens" flushed wild. I was a bit disappointed in my lagging behind, but had an idea of the direction they flew. When the dogs became birdy again, I picked up my pace, but to no avail. They again flushed out of ethical gun range. Since I hadn't planned on hunting this majestic bird when I left home three days previous, I was content just packing my 28 gauge. So, while I had enough firepower for Huns and sharpies, the Ruger was a bit on the light side for 4 pound sage grouse.
The chase continued for another hour. In a straight line, into the wind. The day was cool and damp, with a light mist/rain, so scenting was perfect for the dogs. I could have done without the heavy gumbo accumulating on my boots, however.
Finally, on the fourth flush, I felt good about a shot on a straggler. It was still a 40-yard shot, but I connected and Abby was there to grab the bird before it was able to hide or walk away. It was such bittersweet event. I was very proud of my two, veteran female setters, who simply did their job perfectly. The hunt took place on public land and I never saw another human until I returned to the paved highway. Unfortunately, I knew that this might be my final sage grouse hunt forever. Forever. That is pretty powerful. As most of us would attest, we aren't players in this game for the shooting, the killing. We simply appreciate this part of our sporting legacy, of hunting a native bird, in big, open country, just as settlers did 200 years ago. I hope I am repeating this same story next fall, but if not, I will relive this final sage grouse hunt until eternity.