The upland game hunting season opened in North Dakota last weekend. It was once a much anticipated date on the hunting calendar. For many families and hunting companions it was a date set aside solely to get back in the field again, to share memories of hunts past and to eagerly anticipate the first flush of the season.
While some still carry on that treasured tradition today, they are fewer in number each year. The hunting weekend that used to be rivaled only by the opening of deer season now passes without much fanfare. It has been a gradual change over several seasons. For a few seasons less hunters meant less competition in the field. Now it may mean much more than that. It may be an irreversible trend, a vanishing tradition.
While change throughout life is inevitable, change is not always for the better. When things change some things are undeniably lost. Sometimes what is lost leaves a void that can never be replaced. North Dakota still boasts sharptailed grouse and, to a lesser extent, Hungarian partridge, from border to border. Each year though, more and more huntable land is lost to profitable agricultural practices or, as has been the case throughout western North Dakota, to energy development.
Dogs work hard while in the field. Their endless enthusiasm for the hunt can mislead handlers about the physical condition of their dogs. Hunters should take precautions against overworking their dogs during the hunting season, particularly when temperatures are unusually warm.
To those older upland game hunters who carried their first shotgun across native grasses in the hopes of raising a covey or two of sharptails, the changing landscape today hits like a solid blow to the stomach. There are still places to hunt, but many favorite areas of long-time hunters have undergone dramatic change.
Places in the western part of the state that were preferred destinations, remote tracts of land that promised solitude and presented perfect settings for long walks behind enthusiastic bird dogs, have become engulfed in what is becoming this country's most prolific oil boom. Today's young hunters may never know anything else. They cannot be expected to fully understand what their predecessors appreciated, perhaps now more than ever.
Thoughts from the prairie
I knew I'd be in the field for opening day of grouse season, and I was. Even if I had entertained any thoughts of skipping the opener, there was no way the dogs would let me do so. Their encouragement wasn't needed.
It was a good feeling to breathe the fresh air, slide a pair of No. 6s into the double-barrel and put a pair of dogs on the ground. It was windy, perhaps too windy for good grouse hunting, but it was opening day.
As I began the walk over ground that I'd hunted since I could first carry a shotgun, I reminded myself that I was stepping on some of the finest sharptailed grouse habitat anywhere in North America. I knew too that the dogs would tire quickly and I would have to watch closely for signs of stress. The temperature was agreeable, in the low 50s, but would warm quickly.
Wind limits a sharptail's keen ability to hear. It makes them more wary. Under such conditions sharptails will often sit in the open where they have a good view of their surroundings. Approaching them is difficult, but it is part of the challenge of the hunt.
It felt good to walk unbroken prairie again. With each footstep I wondered who else had walked there 100 or 150 years ago. Thoughts like that are an important part of the hunt. So too is good dog work, even though mistakes can be expected opening day. On this day the dogs worked surprisingly well. I paired my oldest dog with one who was beginning his fourth hunting season. It proved to be a good combination.
The duo ranged as I hoped they would, covering ground methodically in search of birds. They always knew where each other was and checked with me often for a wave that would signal a change of direction. While they covered terrain somewhat independently to my front, both left and right, they systematically converged on what they knew were the most likely hangouts for sharptails.
They approached hilltops with great caution - stopping, moving and scenting. They had remembered the lessons of the past taught to them by wary sharptails. On one
small knoll the lead dog went on a solid point. The older dog saw what was happening and moved in several yards behind and stopped. She held her head high to inhale scent carried on the gusty wind. After a pause she moved a few small steps. The lead dog held firm.
The movement of the second dog told me she didn't really believe the first dog had a bird but, in the strong wind that could cause bird scent to come and go in an instant, her experience told her that she should not be too hasty in making a final judgment. She was right.
I transferred my shotgun from my left arm to my right where proper mount would be quicker. I shoot righthanded but have always had the bad habit of carrying my shotgun on the left. Now confident in my carry, I began to approach the dogs from the front where they could see exactly what I was doing. It is my job to flush the birds. This time I had no luck in doing so.
Unable to find anything, I gave the dogs a verbal command to release. They didn't move. They knew better. They had solid scent. They were telling me to look a little harder. I expanded my search area and, sure enough, flushed a bird. I raised my shotgun. As I began to cover the bird I realized it was a hen pheasant, not a sharptail. It was an unusual flush from native prairie where I had expected only sharptails.
A short distance away was Dandy's Knoll, a small hilltop upon which I had spread the ashes of a favorite bird dog several years ago. It was a good spot to take a rest, water my dogs and take in the view of the countryside. Oil activity could be seen in every direction. It made we wonder if Dandy's Knoll, and the native prairie around it, would soon give way to drilling rigs or storage tanks.
On the way back to the vehicle the dogs slowed noticeably. They had already consumed the two bottles of water I was carrying. I chose a path where the vegetation was very short. It was the path of least resistance, not necessarily the best bird cover. That was okay. There was no reason to ask the dogs to do more. It was just the start of a long hunting season.
I could see my vehicle, perhaps a mile away. Ahead of me the dogs reached a round haybale and took a well-deserved break in the shade. I knew they'd wait for me. I also thought how funny it is that feet seem more sore, legs more heavy and the steps more burdensome when birds are not being found.
As I stopped my vehicle at the edge of the area I had chosen for my second walk of opening day, I rolled down the window to feel the breeze. A single sharptail flushed about 30 yards away. Odd I thought, a single sharptail in an area where I've often encountered multiple coveys. I wondered why just one?
I began the walk with two fresh dogs, one of mine and one borrowed from a flooded homeowner who recently seeded his lawn. They were more than eager to go. I was too. A few steps into the walk my thoughts turned to my grandfather, father and oldest brother. I used to hunt the same ground with them. All have passed on now, but I could still recall their smiling faces, feel the sting of their sarcastic but friendly barbs, and see their worn out boots. It is what hunting is, I thought, and what it should be. I wondered who else experiences the same thoughts and if future hunters will have the same opportunities.
I was in the field again, but it had a different feel to it. Bird populations where I was have always experienced ups and downs, but the landscape was undergoing permanent changes. I could hear the voice of my grandfather telling me to "enjoy it while you can." I wondered if those words were coming true. In my small portion of the world, it seemed so.