Out of Bounds

Fall for Real

A little cool, a little flat ground for easy walking and a willing pup eager to stretch her legs. I can’t wait.

By Rob Breeding

Things are always better once Sept. 1 arrives. The start of bird hunting season doesn’t fix everything that ails ya, but it will patch over quite a few dings in the drywall.

I considered a sharptail trip Labor Day weekend, but the weather made such a move prohibitive. It was a furnace out on the prairies where I hoped to find grouse.

Then, early this week, the weather turned and I thought conditions might be right. I checked the weather app on my phone and high temperatures in the mid-60s to 70 were forecast through the weekend. Not ideal, but cool enough. Especially if we got an early start.

Then, just as quickly, the weather bust a u-ie and temps shot back up into the 80s. Now there’s rain forecast for Sunday. Maybe we’ll catch a break in the downpour and find a window in which to enjoy temperatures that won’t kill my dog.

It’s been some time since I visited sharpies. My old boy, Jack, and I used to hunt them every year over on the Sweet Grass Hills. It was the start of the season and kept us occupied until pheasant opened and Nine Pipes became our preferred destination. 

Jack was something of a sharptail specialist. He learned to hunt on Columbian sharptail in southeast Idaho. After a few foibles our first season, he pretty much mastered those birds. Not that sharpies are the hardest bird to hunt, but he had them down solid.

Doll hunted the Sweet Grass Hills for a season or two before we moved away and sadly, we haven’t been back. We’ve hunted prairie grouse a little in Nebraska, but the first thing to go for Doll was her ability to tolerate heat. And heat is often an issue with early season hunts.

Once she was 10 years old, 70 degrees was too hot. Too hot for hunting. Too hot for walking. Too hot for doing much other than napping in a cool place.

My latest English setter recruit, Jade, isn’t fazed by 70 so if we get a break in the rain we’ll go. She’s paid the biggest price around here for my broken leg (after my leg, of course). It’s been five months of pretty limited activity for such a young dog. I’m thankful she didn’t return to her destructive, velociraptor ways — which she’d barely grown out of — during all this downtime. Normally, she’d be jogging with me in the mornings to keep herself fit. 

At least I’m able to walk her now, though it’s been a summer of low-aerobic leash strolls. I haven’t figured out a way to keep bloodsuckers off her in this tick-infested country. Back in July I let her run loose in a grassy field and she returned home with more than a dozen ticks.

So sharptails will be a good tune up for both of us. They hold nicely for pointing dogs and the flat prairie is awfully accommodating for my healing leg.

As far as eating goes, sharptail don’t have the greatest culinary reputation. Still, I’ve had good luck roasting young-of-the-year birds — so long as I take them off the heat well shy of medium. Dark grouse meat needs to be rosy pink in the center, and if there’s a bloody bit or two all the better. If that sort of thing offends you, eat around it.

I consider older birds good candidates for confit. Of course you’re not going to have a pot of grouse schmaltz to cook them in, but there are plenty of replacement lipids. Inexpensive olive oil works for me. And you can buy duck fat by the jar in decent grocery stores these days. If I get a bruiser I might give that a try.

So a little cool, a little flat ground for easy walking and a willing pup eager to stretch her legs. I can’t wait.