By Andrew Johnson, Editor
A few years back, a friend of mine from Minnesota swung by the homestead to chase late-season roosters with me out near Woonsocket.
Around mid-afternoon on the second day of our hunt, our legs had long since grown tired of plowing through wind-hardened snow drifts and bent-over cattails. The two Labs we had along had also lost their desire to dive nose first into the winter cover (which is saying something), choosing instead to follow in our footsteps. With the relentless wind driving into our frozen faces, all four of us had our heads down, trying to find the path of least resistance.
When the covey of partridge broke from the last remaining clump of switchgrass still brave enough to stand its ground against winter, neither of us were prepared. The covey flitted south, riding the stiff wind’s current.
No shots were fired, no feathers cut. The dogs looked at us with a disappointing glare, and after the adrenaline rush of flushing birds faded, I turned north back into the wind toward the truck.
My friend, however, didn’t follow. He went south.
“Where are you going?” I yelled more than asked. “The truck is this way.”
“I’m going to go shoot my first Hun,” was his over-the-shoulder reply.
“Nonresidents,” I muttered, adding a shake of my head for good measure.
As a native South Dakotan, it’s easy to forget how lucky I am to benefit from not only great pheasant hunting, but also other opportunities to chase upland game on a regular basis.
Admittedly, a covey of partridge might not be an everyday occurrence even for resident hunters, but it still wasn’t enough to draw me back into the cold and cover that December day. However, for my out-of-state friend, it was all the motivation he needed to head halfway back across the drifted-over section.
The “other” species of upland game here in the Dakota — gray or Hungarian partridge (Huns), sharptail grouse (sharpies) and prairie chickens — may not be as popular or prevalent as the world-famous pheasant, but targeting these species can offer unforgettable experiences for even the most veteran wing shooter.
What’s more, hunting seasons for these other upland species typically open a month earlier than pheasant season, extending the window of time upland hunters can be in the field.
This year, South Dakota’s grouse and partridge seasons open Saturday and run through Jan. 6. Shooting hours are sunrise to sunset. The daily limit for grouse is three with a possession limit of 15. For partridge, it’s five daily with a possession of 15.
Physically, sharptail grouse and prairie chickens are similar in size and shape, and perhaps the easiest way to differentiate between the two in flight can be seen in the tail. Sharp-tailed grouse, as their name suggests, feature tail feathers that come to a point, while prairie chickens have a more-rounded or flat tail.
Another physical difference can be seen in the coloration of sharptails and prairie chickens. Barring on its feathers covers much of a prairie chicken’s body, differing from the predominantly brown, mottled coloration of a sharpie’s feathers.
Because sharptails lack the distinct barring characteristic of a prairie chicken, they’re often confused with flushing hen pheasants. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen and heard hunters call “hen!” when sharpies flush wild, and, in all honesty, I’m sure there’s been a time or two when I’ve made the same mistake.
Huns are smaller than grouse and pheasants, and they feature a white belly, gray flanks and a rust-colored head. They typically group together and flush in coveys in an attempt to confuse would-be predators, including hunters. Once in flight they typically only cover a couple hundred yards or so before landing.
Grouse and partridge are often picked up as bonus birds while chasing pheasants. However, if you want to target these species, especially prairie grouse, the more grassland you can find, the better.
In South Dakota, thousands of grouse hunters flock each year to the Fort Pierre National Grassland, which is managed with grouse in mind. In addition, there are plenty of large Game, Fish and Parks Department game-production areas and public walk-in areas in the central and western parts of South Dakota with enough grassland habitat to hold huntable populations of grouse.
Even in large expanses of grasslands, there are certain geographical features that also play into where you can find grouse. While it’s tempting to fall into a pheasant routine and head for the bottoms of long draws, grouse are more often found on ridge tops or the leeward side of the draw. Even better is if you can find an area where two ridges meet and offer protection from roaring Dakota winds.
“Grouse are not as easy to kill as a pheasant, where you can hop from patch to patch of heavy cover near agricultural fields,” said Travis Runia, GFP senior upland biologist in Huron. “Most prairie grouse hunting occurs on large tracts of grasslands. One overlooked area, though, is alfalfa, especially where there is new growth. Grouse key in on those fields as a food source. Grouse don’t rely on cropland as much as pheasants, but they will utilize it for food, and it’s something hunters should be aware of.”
As the acres of grassland habitat continue to decline, grouse have adapted by feeding on small grains much like a pheasant. Although they feed heavily on insects during the spring and summer months, grouse become primarily vegetarian during the fall and winter as they move almost entirely to a grain-based diet. In certain areas, they also feed on chokecherries and serviceberries, especially if waste grain or weed seeds are buried by snow or ice.
Like grouse, partridge prefer wide-open spaces with shorter grass and sparse cover that offer protection from the wind and other elements. Partridge are rarely found in wooded areas, cattails and other heavy cover, because their smaller build allows them to feel right at home in very little cover.
Huns are edge dwellers that tend to roost, loaf and feed near fence lines, field edges and other edge habitat. Because of this fact, they can literally be found anywhere, which means pinpointing exact locations to hunt them is exceptionally hard.
While pheasant is king of the Dakotas come fall, other upland opportunities are often forgotten. What’s worse, they’re sometimes taken for granted by fools like me. If you’ve only been fortunate enough to pick up a sharptail, chicken or partridge as a bonus bird while hunting pheasants, take some time off this fall from chasing ringnecks and hunt the short grass. It’s a lot of work, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
If You Go …
2018 prairie grouse forecast
Harvest surveys conducted by the state Game, Fish and Parks Department estimate that 9,348 hunters harvested 22,153 prairie grouse in 2017. Most of the prairie grouse harvest, which includes sharptail grouse and prairie chickens, occurred in central and western portions of the state.
Poor prairie grouse production can be tied directly to drought, which can deteriorate habitat conditions and reduce insect abundance, both of which can reduce chick survival. Last year, severe and extreme drought were common throughout most of the primary prairie grouse range, which likely contributed to the very poor production.
Fortunately, most of the state’s primary prairie grouse range was drought free during the 2018 prairie grouse nesting and brood-rearing season, and GFP wildlife officials expect prairie grouse hunting to improve in 2018.
Following back to back drought years, grassland habitat conditions look phenomenal in central and western South Dakota which should improve production. There could be some lingering impacts from the 2017 drought, however, as less than average residual cover was available going into the 2018 nesting season. Prairie grouse initiate nesting before new growth occurs and generally benefit when good residual grass is available.
South Dakota also experienced the second-coldest April on record, which coincides with the beginning of the prairie grouse nesting season. The cold temperatures delayed green-up on a landscape with less than ideal residual grassland.
However, according to GFP data, a very similar scenario occurred in 2013 when the third-coldest April on record occurred a year after severe drought. Prairie grouse production was average in 2013, and wildlife officials are hopeful 2018 will produce similar results.
Hunters are encouraged to visit with those in their traditional hunting areas as local population levels and habitat conditions can vary. Hunters who harvest grouse are encouraged to provide a wing from each bird which will be used to estimate reproductive success and refine future prairie grouse outlook.
For more information or to find wing-box locations, go to gfp.sd.gov/prairie-grouse/.