Grousing About the Prairie

Out on the sagebrush plains, grouse fit into the landscape like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle

By Rob Breeding

Early October is my lull before the storm.

Fishing is on the downswing, while bird hunting is just nudging in the opposite direction. My prime time birds of fall — pheasant and quail — roll out later in the month.

There are birds to hunt. Chukars in Wyoming are underrated and often overlooked in that big-game-crazed state. Bird hunters can find chukars in Montana, in the border badlands south of Bridger, but those birds are scarce. Wyoming and Idaho are better bets.

I consider chukars sort of honorary members of the native North American game bird fraternity. Years ago, a photographer friend showed me photos of chukars in Wyoming. I contemplated the landscape, as well as that of the bird’s native habitat in Pakistan, where chukars are the national bird, and decided they fit right in with the West’s barren, rocky, windswept and steep landscapes.

Pheasant make no sense. They seem obviously alien to me, no matter how naturalized they’ve become in the U.S. They’re just not really birds of the West’s natural places. Ditch parrots are fond of agricultural lands so they fit in with working landscapes. I’ve flushed a few in the sage, but they tend to linger around crops.

The early season mainstays for bird hunters across the northern states are grouse. And unlike most of the upland game birds of the north, grouse are natives. Native matters to me. Grouse and quail reflect the natural environment where they live.

Out on the sagebrush plains, grouse fit into the landscape like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I fell for sage grouse, hard, decades ago. I was still pretty much a naive city kid from Southern California when I joined a friend and outdoor writer one frigid spring morning as he bellied his way through the sagebrush to photograph dancing birds on the lek.

Those grouse danced in Long Valley on California’s eastern Sierra, in a sagebrush plain that filled an ancient caldera in the shadow of Mammoth Mountain, an adjacent lava dome. We got close enough for photos, barely, but I don’t remember much about the blurry images I recorded. What I do remember was the sound the birds made as they expelled air from large yellow sacs that hung from their necks.

The booming pops sounded like some sort of intergalactic ping-pong tournament echoing off the granite wall of the Sierra. Despite my long lasting love for these big bombers, I’ve never hunted sage grouse. They are a bucket list bird for a lot of hunters, but I’m happy to occasionally flush them while I’m out on the prairie chasing sharp-tailed grouse.

I’ve hunted sharptail in Montana, Idaho and Nebraska. In Idaho I hunted the Columbian sharptail subspecies on the Curlew National Grassland in the southeast corner of that state. That’s where my first bird dog, Jack, and I really learned to hunt together.

Grouse are somewhat maligned as table fare. I consider sharpies delicious, especially the young-of-the-year birds easily identified by lingering pin feathers. Those tender youngsters are delicious seared in a hot skillet accompanied by a sauce made deglazing the pan with bourbon. A little flambé goes a long way.

The key for any game bird is to cook them hot and fast. Get grouse off the fire while still rare, or no more than medium rare. Carry over heat will push them beyond ideal if you cook them too long.

Or go long and slow. Sharptail confit is nearly as tasty as duck. Olive oil is my lipid of choice.

I’ve never cooked sage grouse, which have a rep for being especially inedible. They eat sagebrush after all, though some swear by them.

I swear at them when their bombastic flushes startle me on the plains. But I just let them fly.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.