Trip Report: North Dakota Grouse Odyssey

Thursday

I hit the road a little after 6:00 a.m. Fargo was my first real stop, for a PLOTS Guide and hunting license. Then it was a matter of winding through the countryside on the smaller roads, surveying some public parcels with the PLOTS Guide pages showing me the way.  

If you’re not familiar with it, you’ll be glad to know that little booklet is a tremendous resource to the out-of-state hunter (not to mention free). The entire state is broken up into about 45 different maps, with non-private lands color coded. The PLOTS lands (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) are the flagship feature (yellow), but WMAs (red), WPAs (green), School Trust (baby blue), and many others punctuate each page. 

The booming metropolis of New Rockford was my goal, where I’d scoped out a municipal campground. It has about a dozen park-on-the-grass sites. Nothing fancy. But they include electricity, water, and hot showers, if you can bear to part with $12. Once I’d set up camp, registered, and changed clothes, there was nothing left to do but hunt. I aimed my little Escape toward more yellow and blue boxes on the map and hit the gas. 

My at-home scouting helped narrow the search before the trip, and soon more parcels were excluded due to overgrazing or an abundance of cattails. My little buddy and I managed to explore a couple PLOTS parcels before the end of the day. We didn’t get close enough to birds in order to fire any shots, but things looked good for the morning. 

Friday

A half-section of grass with cattailed potholes was our first priority. Harvested wheat and sunflower fields on three sides led me to believe sharp-tailed grouse would be using it in their downtime. They were, and I managed to take two birds with one shot over a point from my young English setter, Custer. It was thrilling, but I’d hoped the day’s hunt would draw out a big longer. 

Only one bird shy of the daily limit, we went back to one PLOTS area we’d covered the night before. Before things even got started, it seemed, we found and bagged the last grouse. Just 150 yards into that field, and we were already done. Since Hungarian partridge were also on the menu, we covered the entire parcel. No “huns” showed, but we did encounter several more sharptails, giving my buddy valuable experience handling birds. I took pictures at the car, and we headed back to camp to pack up. 

With most of the day ahead of me, I drove past more public lands on my way to the deer shack, where I would meet up with my brother, his Gordon setter Kina, and our dad the bowhunter. If we needed more places to hunt before going home, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little scouting under my belt. 

Saturday

We spent the morning hoofing it around northwestern Grand Forks County, picking apart nearby CRP and alfalfa fields. As fate would have it, our game bags would not be graced by fresh feathers. But some wild flushes— ranging from a single bird to a covey of approximately 15– reassured us we weren’t wasting our time. At lunch we formulated a new plan that, as it turns out, would put us in the birds. 

There was a pasture we could remember with sharptails scattered throughout when we last hunted in that area three years ago, and we wanted to find it again. Our youngest brother was along for the fun that time, but opted to take a nap in the car while we pushed the birds around. I always wondered whether he felt like he missed out, but he does like his naps. Anyway, we pinpointed an area in the PLOTS book that looked likely and headed out to survey it. 

One PLOTS parcel looked too swampy. A school trust quarter-section seemed overgrazed. Another PLOTS tract seemed to have that “Goldilocks” factor, with minimal swampiness and some picked grain fields nearby. It wasn’t long before Custer gave a convincing point, and I walked up to flush a single grouse. I shot it, and others started popping up all over- mostly just over the hill. 

Another grouse gave us a close encounter a little while later. It was a crossing shot for me, and I took it into possession. Those right-to-left crossing shots go in my favor most of the time; I seem to get just enough of those every season to keep me from feeling like a total wingshooting failure. We finished up that field and set out for the next yellow rectangle on the map. 

When we got to “Baird’s Nap Spot,” we recognized it right away. I marked it on the map as such so we wouldn’t lose track of it for future years. It wasn’t the extravaganza we’d previously experienced, but picking up one more bird was definitely worth our time. Even more worth our time was a few more miles out in the sun on a glorious fall day. 

Sunday

Long before we embarked on this year’s adventure, we’d mentioned the possibility of pursuing North Dakota’s ruffed grouse. Yes, you read that right. 

And yes, we come from Minnesota, a major ruffed grouse state— perhaps the ruffed grouse state. Most people who know even a little about it would probably wonder a) why we would bother leaving Minnesota for ruffed grouse, and b) why we think there are any at all in North Dakota. 

Well, there are. And they live in the Pembina Hills, a modest drive north of the deer shack. For over 15 years, we’ve heard about the hills with their elk, grouse, and most unusual topography (for North Dakota, anyway). This seemed to be the right year to finally see what that was all about. How novel it would be, we thought, to find ruffs in such an unlikely place. 

Almost until we got to the hills, there were no signs that anything was about to change. Then, just north of the town of Mountain, Jake saw magpies flying up out of the ditch and spied a roadkill moose just before we passed it (I was too busy flapping my gums to notice). A field approach offered the next place to stop, and there was parked the main suspect in the aforementioned manslaughter, or…mooseslaughter. It seemed neither party was fit to carry on after that collision, which appeared to have happened the night before. 

A colorful character stopped to look over that moose and we exchanged some words. Most I couldn’t make out over the sound of his engine, but Jake and I will never forget the story about how his father some years before had gotten a moose “way up in Canada” (only about 20 miles distant there) and had made an ashtray with the hooves. 

What an image. I can’t help but think such a furnishing would be closer to a coffee table, but I’m no interior designer. We also both got a charge out of the way he said “ashtray” (almost rhymes with “wash-tree”). Too bad that word doesn’t come up in conversation much anymore; I’m pretty sure that with precise placement, I could get Jake to spit water through his nose. 

After circling some possible entry points into the large Wildlife Management Area at the base of the hills, we picked one to start our ruffed grouse quest. We suited up our dogs, put on our vests, and Jake pulled out his gun. Mine was nowhere to be found. After a couple tense moments, I realized that in trying to ensure I had everything Custer would need, I forgot my most important piece of equipment. A phone call and quick trip south to meet my dad, and I was back for action. 

Thanks, Dad, I owe you one. Well, another one, I suppose. 

Jake and Kina were off to the east somewhere, so I crossed the road and headed northward. The woods looked inviting, but I was soon stymied by the hazelnut bushes, which are tipped over in every direction. A guy can hardly take four uninterrupted steps in a row there. A howling wind made things even tougher, as I had trouble hearing Custer’s bell. It would have been a good day to pull a bigger one out of his bag. 

While Custer was off to my right somewhere, I happened to look left and saw a grouse take off. Not knowing how many opportunities I’d get that day, I took the shot. It wasn’t a large specimen, but being my first North Dakota ruffed grouse, it was already a trophy. 

Back at the car, Jake reported having only one bird contact. I felt a little guilty showing him my grouse; after all, I’d barely been in the woods 20 minutes at that point. It certainly didn’t feel like I’d earned it. 

Bird hunting seems that way more often than not- one hunter is given way more shots than the other. It certainly has nothing to do with skill, only luck. If his attitude is anything like mine, Jake probably doesn’t mind much and knows the pendulum will swing his way again. Lord knows I’ve watched him bag a lot of pheasants while my barrels remained cold. 

After a few bites to eat, Custer and I headed south from the car. We skimmed around a few potholes tucked back in the woods, hoping grouse would be there looking for something green to eat. They weren’t. 

After most of a mile, the woods opened up a bit. We found ourselves in a place where patches of aspen alternated with openings of prairie grasses. I began to notice elk sign and hoped that signaled enough change in the habitat to attract grouse. 

Sure enough, as Custer ran past me on one hillside, he stopped to point over his shoulder. A grouse flushed immediately, angling in my direction and trying hard to get above the hazelnut bushes. As I could have predicted from my armchair at home, that grouse made efficient use of some nearby aspen trunks and I never got a shot off. Nor did I the next two times we caught up with it. 

They call ruffed grouse “The King of Gamebirds.” That might be true, but nobody ever accused The King of having manners. 

I steered Custer back in the direction of the first flush in order to pick up where we left off. One more grouse made itself known similarly just a few minutes later, but proved to be more Fool than King. I bested it with a couple of sixes. 

After that, the miles, the sun, and the best leaves of autumn were icing on the cake. Jake and Kina never did get into any birds, despite a good effort and my encouraging him to try the elk haunt. Custer and I hadn’t touched a third of it, and I had high hopes there would be more birds waiting for them. I suspect that all day long we encountered more birds than we knew, but could never be certain on account of the noise from the treetops and jumpy birds. 

We can only know if we go back. 

Monday

The last day of the trip is almost always dedicated to the drive home. If I hadn’t been trying to make it back for a Boy Scout meeting, it might have been different this time. But it wasn’t, so we stopped by one good-sized Waterfowl Production Area between the deer shack and the interstate to let the dogs stretch their legs one last time.

There were picked grain fields along the east side, which seemed like a point in our favor. And the shelterbelts around the perimeter tempered the wind at ground level to a significant degree, which I thought would make the grasslands there attractive to loafing sharptails. 

Although Kina and Custer acted a few times like we might get a glimpse of some sharptails, we never did. The setting looked good, but grouse do what they do and it’s largely a mystery to us. 

In the moment, mystery frustrates and tempts us to think we’re wasting our time. With the benefit of hindsight, however, mystery is what makes us want to go back. It’s seductive and compelling. Bird hunting at its core is about searching and unraveling mysteries- with a heavy dose of hope. 

Right now, I hope next year’s trip can be half as good. 

 

 


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All content copyright NAGC and Roy Heilman, 2018