I had an opportunity to join four others on a hunt to the west, the Montana prairies. We set up camp and targeted sharp-tailed grouse for eight days straight. It all started when I met two of the four guys this spring at a 16-Gauge shoot here in the Twin Cities area. We were all shooting A.H. Fox shotguns and ended up being paired together.
We kept in touch over the summer and the conversation always turned to the upcoming hunting season. Their group has been going on the annual trip for a number of years and I was elated when I got an invite to join them.
We loaded up two trucks with gas, gear, guns, dogs, food, water, and beer. The end of the drive sure was interesting; it was raining for two straight days when we arrived and we drove about 20 miles on “gumbo”, needless to say, I was white-knuckled.
While at camp, we spent most of our time in the camper. It’s great to have a spot to get out of the elements, warm up, dry out, eat food, and of course, enjoy a few beverages.
At the end of the night, I snuck out to sleep in my 2-man tent and when I woke, I got to take in some breathtaking sunrises.
Throughout the trip, we experienced varying weather. We started off with cool, wet conditions that transitioned into near perfect hunting conditions, with enough moisture for good scenting but not too much heat to cause issues for the dogs. By the end of the hunt, we had hot, dry conditions making it difficult for both hunters and dogs. We had five hunters and nine dogs. I brought three shorthairs that included Stella, Surly, and Max, my sister’s dog that my dad bred. This is Stella’s sixth hunting season and she is no stranger to the prairie, so I knew I could count on her to produce. Surly is my up and comer and this was his first sharpie trip. As for Max, he was five months old and on his first real hunting trip.
The other six dogs were owned by three of the other guys and were a combination of Springer Spaniels and English Cocker Spaniels.
For the first few days of the hunt, we weren’t brave enough to drive out of camp due to the road conditions. Luckily we had some great spots to hunt within walking distance. We primarily split up the day into a morning and an afternoon hunt which resulted in a rendezvoused back at the camper for lunch and the swapping of dogs.
Stella is my go-to retriever. I put her through a trained retrieve program and she’s got a nice, soft mouth.
If you aren’t familiar with the term “gumbo” this is what it is.
It sticks to literally, everything. My boots doubled, if not tripled in weight. Regarding boots, I learned some valuable lessons. It’s definitely important to bring multiple pairs along. I brought three different pairs but none seemed to be exactly what I needed. What I was lacking was support. I personally logged over 90 miles in eight days of hunting.
Midway through the trip, we decided to hop in the trucks to test the road conditions and hunt new cover. The tread on my truck tires was completely consumed by the gumbo and it seems as if you are driving on ice that is covered in six inches of heavy snow. You float and drift and you better not hit the brakes or else who knows where you’ll end up.
The country is vast and you need to figure out what type of cover is likely to hold birds or else you’ll be wasting your time.
For the first two days, I ran Surly on his own and paired up Stella with the rookie, Max. This gave Surly some great exposure and really allowed him to learn to hunt cover on the prairie. Max started off by running after Stella which ended up getting him some of his first wild bird contacts. He quickly began searching to find his own birds. You can see both Stella and Max on point in the picture below.
I tried my best to rotate dogs but I had to put Stella and Surly down together at least once.
I tracked miles covered and speed of the dogs on my Garmin Alpha collar. Surly consistently covered about 50% more miles than Stella and generally ranged out further. Max was typically on pace with Stella. Looking back on the hunt, I wish I would have started resting a dog each day beginning on day two. I started on day three which resulted in Surly hunting four days straight. In those first four days, Surly covered nearly 120 miles. For the next two days he barely wanted to get out of his kennel to eat and drink. He rested for those two days and was recovered to hunt the last two. Anyway you slice and dice it, you need plenty of dog power when hunting multiple days in a row.
Max got some great exposure on his first trip. He pointed, honored and got his first couple of birds. He did exactly how one would hope. He learned a lot of lessons and you could see his natural ability at work. Max is the spitting image of his mother when he’s on point.
Here I am walking up on Max’s point.
I connected and as a result, Max got his first retrieve!
Surly had some highs and lows on the trip. He started off on a high note pointing a couple of coveys and we shot some birds over him. One morning we were working a ridge line and Surly was making 200+ yard casts. We were working with the wind so it was great to see him cast out and work his way back to me and into the wind. He was about 150 yards out and locked up. It was picture perfect. I approached and was able to walk straight to him. When I was 10 yards out, a covey exploded and I missed with both barrels. After that, the wheels came off. He would find birds, flash point, and then rip them right out. It is unfortunate when these things happen but he needed to learn and the best way for him to do so was by doing exactly what we were doing, running on wild birds. He had flashes of positive here and there and really came into his own towards the end of the hunt.
The second to last day, I had Surly down and he started off by bumping a number of birds. Then he started pointing, only it wasn’t birds. First it was a porcupine and then a fawn mule deer. Shortly after that, Surly put on a clinic. Over the next hour or two, he pointed and handled half a dozen birds and ended with a limit.
Surly continued to show progression and I put him down for the last hunt of the trip. He did a great job and I was able to shoot three birds over him before heading home.
We were fortunate to see some amazing sunsets during the week.
This is the only group shot we took; I wish we would have taken more.
I can’t forget to share a couple of pictures of guns with birds.
This is Finn, Phil’s English Cocker on a nice retrieve.
The prairie will always have a special place in my heart. The scenery and terrain are so much different from what I’m used to at home in Minnesota. I am more than thankful that I had the opportunity to join the group on the hunt and hope the friendships I made will last a lifetime. The group has spent years refining their trip, making it easy for me to grab my gear and join them. Planning for a trip of this magnitude is no small task including obtaining land access, packing gear, food, and water for nearly ten days. I hope to return someday soon.