A guide to hunting grouse

Everything you need to know to have a successful hunt

By Ken BaileyKen Bailey

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Sharp-tailed grouse

Species: Tympanuchus phasianellus
Average length: 41-48 cm
Average wingspan: 53-64 cm
Average weight: 953 g
Variations: darker plumage north of the Prairies
Female: similar plumage to male
Song: chattering and soft coo; louder in mating season

Sharp-tailed grouse

Illustration by Dave Wysotski

Often erroneously referred to as the prairie chicken, which is a distinct and separate species, the sharp-tailed grouse is widely distributed across Canada, from northwestern Quebec to central B.C., and north through the Yukon and western Nunavut to the Mackenzie River delta. As a result, it has succesfully adapted to a variety of habitats, from prairie grasslands to wooded parkland. A favourite of hunters for their sporting qualities, sharpies still rank below the vaunted ruffed grouse when it comes to table fare.

If there’s one piece of advice that prospective sharptail hunters should heed, it is this: Be prepared to walk. And then walk some more. And some more after that. The reason? Sharp-tailed grouse live in large coveys, and finding a covey in large tracts of suitable cover can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. When you do find them, however, the action can be fast, furious and exhilarating.

In agricultural areas, hunt patches of pasture, windrows, native shrub cover or slough bottoms adjacent to cereal crops. Sharptails have learned to take advantage of the plentiful availability of spilled or waste grain, and they’re seldom far away when it is abundant in their home range.

Beyond cropland, the search for sharptails can be considerably more difficult. The best bet is to concentrate on areas with abundant food sources, such as grass or forb seeds and fruit-bearing shrubs. A particular favourite is chokecherries, which satisfy both the bird’s food and cover requirements.

Sharp-tailed grouse hunting is definitely best suited to the hunter who is accompanied by a dependable dog, particularly a pointing dog, which can save your soles some wear and tear by covering lots of ground, yet hold found birds until you drag your weary carcass into position. And given that sharptails are a covey bird, with normal group numbers ranging from eight to upwards of 40 birds, they are best hunted by two to four hunters working together.

Flushed sharptails seldom, if ever, rise as a unit, so a little pre-planning can markedly increase your success. Usually, these birds flush as singles, though often in rapid succession. You can bet the farm that there will always be some who hold after the first flush, however, so be prepared for late departures. Too often I’ve seen two hunters shoot at the same sharptail, leaving a pair of unloaded guns when a late-flushing bird rises well within range.

Once they know they are being pursued, sharp-tailed grouse are notorious for flushing at great distances from your position. And it only takes one spooked bird to flush all the birds in the covey. Since they typically occupy open habitat, at least you can usually see where they settle after being flushed-although it may be several hundred metres from where they first rose.

In this scenario, it can be a productive tactic to have one or two hunters circle wide around the settled birds’ location while another gunner approaches in a straight line. That way, when the birds flush again, even if they get up early, there is a good chance they’ll pass within range of one of the hunters.

Also remember that when a covey of sharp-tailed grouse initially flushes, it more often than not splits into smaller groups. Make a mental note of where each group lands, then pursue them one at a time. A divide-and-conquer mentality can often pay big dividends.

Unlike the unpredictable flushing patterns of ruffed and spruce grouse, sharptails generally get up and fly straight away-with a consistent flap, flap, flap, glide-from whatever has threatened them. As a result, inexperienced sharptail hunters have a habit of putting the bead right on the bird, leading to a clean miss below the disappearing target. Remember to hold slightly over them when they flush and your success rate will go up significantly.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2002

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