If and when the chickens and grouse are forced to make a last stand, Lord forbid, the Sandhills of Nebraska will hold their monument.

–          James B. Kellogg, American Field magazine, December 5, 1959

It was us versus the 19,000 square miles of the Nebraska Sandhills, with their wily prairie chickens and sharptail grouse Labor Day weekend.  Charles and I arrived at base camp midday Friday, made some quick sandwiches from our cooler provisions, made sure the dogs were fed and watered after their long ride, then headed out into the dunes in search of birds.

It was probably around 80 degrees when we finally unloaded and geared up for the field.  Then the march began.  It never fails that around an hour and a half into the up and down, hot, heavy breathing, heart pumping afternoon that we get our first sight of them.  It was two lone sharpies in front of me and on my worst shot, the “going away over the hill”.  Of course, I missed.  We continued for what seemed like a long time, but it probably wasn’t.  The dogs were starting to feel the heat of the day, so we had turned our walk towards the truck, still looking for birds.  There was a shadowy figure in the distance standing on top of a dune.  It didn’t move for a long time, but finally started to come our way.  It was a fellow hunter, of the older generation.

“I flushed a group of about fifteen right up there and they must have landed just north of where you just walked through, I was surprised when you didn’t come through them,” he reported.

Thus began a big loop, starting straight towards the east, then circling north.  As we completed the loop, heading south right in front of this old hunter, a lone sharpie jumped up and we both shot our two shells, with Charles making the hit.  We were busy admiring Sam’s retrieve and failed to reload…only to have six to eight more birds flush up around us, with their cackling “caw-caw-caw-caw-caw” heckling us.  Charles was able to load some shells in time to get one more, but I stood there dumbfounded.  I’m sure the old man was laughing to himself, but he never shared that with us.  Sam had his mouth full of bird already, so Sue was finally able to get in on a retrieve.  Once the two birds were in the bag, he asked if we could take our dogs through an area that he thought he had put a bird down earlier.  There was not a bird to be found, but I was out of water and headed back to the truck.  Charles and the old timer continued to walk the field for another hour or so before calling it a day around 6 PM.

Sue, BB, Sam and Charles with their two Friday sharptails

It was storming at base camp around daybreak Saturday morning, so we lingered longer than we usually would.  Our old friend and fellow hunter, Ryan Tompkins, joined us that morning for a cool, but windy walk.  We worked a valley, starting on the southern dunefield side of it.  The north wind was very strong, so we pushed our way farther south into the dunes, expecting the birds to be sitting out of the wind.  As we reached the far east end of the valley, we turned into the north wind to cross the valley’s flat, when a sharptail jumped up in front of me, trying to fly away into the wind.  The wind launched the airborne bird straight above my head and I took a shot, seeing the feathers fly.  The bird went down and as soon as Sam got on top of it for the retrieve, it popped up again, catching the wind and floated to the south, over the hill.  I mismarked the bird and headed to the next hill over, but lucky Charles and Sam headed to the right spot.  Charles flagged me down from my fruitless search with my bird in his hand.

We continued our push across the flat of the valley, up into the northern dunefield, working our way into a break where Charles had taken birds a number of times before.  There are often times 100-200 yards between hunters and the dogs typically stay with Charles, so it isn’t unheard of for a hunter to bump into a flock that we have to chase down.  As we worked our way back west into the northern dunefield, Ryan flushed up a group of six grouse.  I was pretty confident that they had just popped over to the southern side of the hill, so we headed in that direction.  Sure enough, we got into the flock again and Ryan nailed a bird.  We called in the dogs to retrieve and were very proud when our six month old BB found and marked the bird.  She’s still a little wary of having big birds in her mouth, so it wasn’t a retrieve, but finding the bird in the vastness of the Sandhills, before her field-hardened compatriots Sam and Sue, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

We again had pushed the flock westward and again we marched them down.  It was only 200 yards away when we found them again and Charles took his bird, with Sam on retrieve.  Our search continued westward: up, down and around the high chop of the dunes, seeing nothing additional, and we pushed through the yuccas to the truck for a midday break.  After our long, well-deserved lunch, we pushed for an hour and a half through the sand bluestem, poison ivy and wild rose bushes with no luck.  By 3 PM, we voted for a switch to dove hunting.

Charles sets up dove decoys on a windmill

Our favorite windmill was occupied by other hunters, but we moved on to another choice spot, which later seemed to be the better choice, considering that it had shade and our first choice did not.  We keep the dogs boxed up during the shooting of the doves and only bring them out for retrieving assistance.

BB's first retrieve on a dove, just small enough for her little mouth

...to the hand!

Charles took the day on doves with a total of ten, combining sitting around the windmill with the decoys and pushing the weedy outer rim of the blowout for flushes.  Ryan and I split the remaining four doves on the fourteen dove total, with me spending the majority of my time sitting over decoys and Ryan splitting his time between flushes and sitting.  7 PM rolled around quickly and the local steakhouse was calling our names, so we packed it in for the night.

Saturday's bird total from Ryan Tompkins, Charity and Charles Upchurch, Sue, BB and Sam

After a long day on Saturday, we rolled out of bed a little late once again and headed into some territory that we haven’t normally worked.  The dunes were very steep and rugged on our westward push, giving us a serious challenge even in a cool and still morning.  When we stopped to take water an hour and a half into the hunt, I told the guys that the grouse were going to show up soon for sure, because I was getting angry.  Lo and behold, not fifteen minutes later, Ryan bumps a flock of eight up and over the hill towards the north.  We both thought for sure they had cut towards the west when they went over that hill.  The complex that they had landed in had two sets of north-south running dunes, with a valley in between, so, we chose to push the valley and the western set of hills, spending a good hour or so finding nothing, first working our way north, then back south.  The eastern dunefield was the only place left for them to be hiding and we swept it from the south going again back north.  Dipping down into a low spot not much longer after our northward hike began, I pushed the flock over the hill, taking a shot at my dreaded “up and over the hill”.  I thought I had a decent enough aim on one particular bird that I should have put a few pellets in it, but it didn’t go down.  I saw Ryan hit one hard and sent the dogs after it, with Sam taking the retrieve once again.  The three of us regrouped and continued north to where we thought the rest of the flock had headed.

Out of nowhere, Ryan shouts at me, “Hey, here’s another one flapping!”

I whistled for dogs for a minute or two with no response, as Charles had marched west looking for some other stragglers of the flock.  Sure enough, I had peppered the bird and we were just lucky enough that Ryan came up on it while it was still flapping.  He bagged it and we continued on, unable to see Charles and the dogs working the singletons to the west.  When we all met back up fifteen or so minutes later, he sure enough had his bird.

It was midday Sunday and once again we each had one bird in the bag.  Both the dogs and people needed water and a rest, so a windmill was calling our name, but we just didn’t know which one.  We picked one at random, with a stock tank full of wayward toads and box turtles.  I think Charles and Ryan spent twenty minutes pulling drowning toads and turtles out of the tank.

Toads in need of rescue hitch a ride on the box turtle's back in a stock tank

But daylight was burning and we wanted to get back to town in time to cook dinner, so we once again geared up for the field, expecting another long march, which would probably end fruitless with the limited time that we had given ourselves.

Sam puts on his "A" game

Yet this spot surprised us, with a family group busting up only a half-hour into the hunt.  They were slow to rise, with Ryan taking a double and myself shooting one bird in the first flush of five or six.  As Charles was busy taking retrieves from Sue and Sam, the remaining eight birds flushed as we all screamed profanity with unloaded guns and the distraction of retrieves.  With so many birds in the field and being satisfied with two birds down (and being relatively close to the truck), I decided to switch my gun for the camera.

Ryan Tompkins hunts the open spaces of the Sandhills

Sue, Sam, BB and Charles covering terrain

We continued to move towards the direction where we saw the first group flush, thinking that we would find them broken up, only to have Ryan get into another tight group of thirteen.  Ryan hit one to finish out his limit and everyone could tell that Charles was out of guiding mode, ready to turn on the juice.

Sam retrieving Ryan's last bird, with Sue backing him up

Charles taking Sam's retrieve to hand

Charles kicks it into gear in the high country

I followed along taking pictures for another half-hour, but struggled to maintain the ramped up pace after a long few days.  I headed back to the truck while Ryan walked with Charles and the dogs as he finished out his limit, which only took forty-five minutes with as many birds as we had encountered within a relatively close area.

Hunters, dogs and Sunday's birds

Driving home, we discussed all of the different recipes we would be trying with our bird meats upon our return home, ranging from pastas to curries.  The final nightly ritual of dinner and bird cleaning stretched later than it should have, with long drives ahead of us in the morning.

The Sunday sharptail grouse lineup in the dark, prior to cleaning

The older hunter that we spent time with on Friday was the only other grouse hunter we saw the whole weekend, which is part of the reason that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has extended the season earlier to Labor Day weekend, from its prior September 15th-ish start date.  There just aren’t that many people willing to put in the hard-trodding hours that it takes to get grouse.  It isn’t easy anymore, not like when there were market hunters at the turn of the last century shooting 500+ birds a day to sell back east.  Grouse in the Sandhills is the hardest, hottest hunting that we do all year, but despite the sweat and sunburns, we come back every year for the challenge and camaraderie.

Thank you to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for giving us more time to have our fun!

If you want to know more about the history of grouse hunting in Nebraska, check out the following links:

A cool slideshow of old-time Sandhills grouse hunts: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ngpc/sets/72157627193902108/show/

The full “History of Grouse Hunting” article from Nebraskaland by Jon Farrar (which I credit with my opening quote and some of the facts in the conclusion):