Hunting The King Of The West: Sage Grouse
Everything about Sage Grouse is big. The birds themselves are super-sized versions of their woodland brethren whose flight characteristics have garnered them the nickname “Bombers” as in B52. The landscape they inhabit is big too; sweeping vistas of sagebrush seas that stretch to the horizon barely contained by mountain ranges. For the first timer hunting Sage Grouse can be a tiring and fruitless endeavor. Afterall, in such a vast landscape where does one even start?
What I’ve learned about the biological needs of these birds has upped my odds at taking home a few of these icons of the West each September.
The first thing I look for are variations in the terrain. Meadow complexes and basins with defined draws normally hold a bit of water in an otherwise arid environment. Sage Grouse do not need standing water to drink from as they absorb virtually all their moisture requirements from the food they eat. However, water sources grow the most nutrient dense and water infused forbes and grouse will actively seek these out. Flat, wide open sagebrush plains rarely hold many birds. While these grouse do in fact need enormous sagebrush landscapes to thrive, like fish, they will gravitate toward “structure”. Broken terrain offers the variation in habitat that Sage Grouse prefer.
As for the spot on the spot in this terrain? Look for a mosaic of sagebrush and grass or clumps of sage. Quite often these are found on the tops of benches and at the heads of draws. If sagebrush is too thick, too big or too mature the birds will not utilize it. It helps to think of sagebrush as a mini-forest; too old and nothing but “big trees” grows there, too thick and the grouse can’t escape predators in it. These are open country birds whose plumage allows them to hide in plain sight. They don’t need sagebrush to hide in as much as they need it for food and protection from the elements. These big birds do not mind the wind and will use it to their advantage to great effect. Do not shy away from windswept ridge tops. I find as many birds on top in the searing wind as I do tucked away in the lee sides. In fact, it seems to be 50/50 on windy days.
Now that we’ve identified the where it’s time to look at the how and that’s actually the simple part. Having a set of strong legs coupled with a weak mind is definitely an asset when it comes to hunting any “prairie grouse” as the miles can stack up quickly between flushes. Applying the high grading of cover methods I talked about in the previous paragraph will shorten the odds tremendously but keep in mind that even high grade covers can be hundreds of acres and you’ll need to walk to find the grouse.
Obviously a good dog helps tremendously as they will find more birds than you ever could. What type of dog is completely up to you. Big running pointing dogs are excellent choices as they are notorious for covering more ground than the University of Alabama’s offense. That said a close working breed, be it pointer or flusher will find just as many birds if you point them in the right direction and let their nose be the guide. I personally run Labradors for everything at this point in my life and have zero complaints. In fact, I prize the Lab’s marking and retrieving abilities more highly for Sage Grouse than a ground gobbling pointer’s range because every one of these grouse are precious and deserve to be brought to bag if you can knock them down and I’ve personally witnessed some lackluster game retrieval with the pointing breeds.
As for guns and ammo, you’ll be well served with the same rig you hunt pheasants with. While you can hunt these birds with the sub-gauges it’s a question of sportsmanship. Losing a Sage Grouse is heart wrenching and they are big, tough birds whose affinity for flushing at the edge of range and using the wind to put miles between you and them, makes stout 12 and 20 gauge loads like Federal Premium’s Prairie Storm my go to. Besides, they can be a lot of work to find and when the moment of truth arrives I don’t want to just drop a leg or pull some feathers, I want that bird dead.
A few other considerations for gearing up for Sage Grouse are: dressing in layers (it can be very hot and very cold in the same day), carry enough water for you and your dog (this can be a lot more than you think, at least a liter for each of you), comfortable boots (I walked over 20 miles in two and half days of hunting this week), last but not least… gas cans and good tires. You’ll often be 50-100 miles from services in some of the most remote country lower 48 bird hunters encounter. Running back to town isn’t an option without losing the better part of the day.
Why hunt these birds? It’s true that Sage Grouse are being targeted for an ESA listing by environmentalists and that their numbers are down and their habitat segmented and in disrepair BUT it’s been scientifically proven time and time again that controlled sport hunting has zero impact on overall bird populations, especially grouse. However, that alone isn’t the best reason to hunt them. As hunters our dollars support research and habitat projects that directly benefit Sage Grouse at a time when they need all the help they can get. We still have lots of grouse on the sagebrush landscapes of the West, especially in Wyoming, but we need hunters who are passionate about them to fly the flag of Sage Grouse conservation before our enemies push these birds onto the ESA, never to return. Afterall, we protect what we love and I for one love Sage Grouse and Sage Grouse hunting. North American hunters have restored populations of game birds in droves and it’s time we point our efforts at Sage Grouse and there’s no better way to appreciate such a grand bird than to go and hunt a few of them.
Sidebar: Eating Bombers! Yes, They’re Delicious - Todd Helms
Sage Grouse get a bad rap when it comes to their edibility. I can wholeheartedly testify that my mind has been changed about their suitability as table fare. I used to hold them in low regard but no longer and enjoying them is stunningly simple.
Breast the grouse and clean meat thoroughly, soak overnight in cold water if desired.
Heat a grille as hot as you can get it.
Brush grouse breasts in olive oil and season liberally with a favorite steak seasoning.
Cook breast for 1.5 minutes on each side (DO NOT COOK PAST MEDIUM RARE!)
Remove from the grille and serve like steak… yes, it’s mind blowingly good! IF you follow step 4.
This simple preparation is game changing for Sage Grouse and can also be used for any dark meat bird breasts like duck, goose, cranes, etc.