THIEF RIVER FALLS, MINN.
More than a dozen sharp-tailed grouse glided across the frozen landscape, riding a frigid northwest wind beneath a dirt-gray sky that spit snow and threatened worse. The birds landed in grasslands and in a small tree a few hundred yards away.
“They’re everywhere!’’ exclaimed Matt Breuer, an avid sharpie hunter who grew up nearby. “There’s a ton of them by that patch of willows.’’
We were in luck. The birds had landed in a field that Breuer, 33, of Bemidji, had permission to hunt. So four of us pulled on hats, jackets and gloves, uncased our shotguns, released four eager dogs and headed into the field and bitter below-zero windchill, hoping to get close enough to drop a bird or two.
“At least we know they are there,’’ Breuer said.
By the time we hiked in, the sharpies had left the tree. Four flushed well ahead of us, then a few more, cackling as they flew off.
“There they go,’’ Breuer said. Our dogs scoured the grass and patches of willows, but we never found the other birds we had seen, and we fired no shots.
“Well, that didn’t work out,’’ Breuer said back at our vehicles. But we’d have many more chances, and eventually our guns did blaze hot on a very cold day.
Falling in love with sharpies
Sharp-tailed grouse once were the most populous game bird in the state. Legend has it that early pioneers reported that large flocks sometimes nearly blocked the sun. That changed fast as brushlands, savannas and lowlands were cleared and drained for agriculture. Wildfire suppression also cost sharpies habitat. Now the birds are mostly confined to portions of northwestern and north-central Minnesota.
Though not nearly as popular as their ruffed grouse relatives, sharpies have supporters like Breuer, an avid member of the Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society, who cherish the sight, sound and, yes, taste of the birds’ dark flesh — and the challenge of wingshooting them.
Not many hunt sharptails. Only a small part of the state is open to sharpie hunting. The DNR estimated 7,300 sharpie hunters went afield last year, the most in 11 years. That compares to 97,000 ruffed grouse hunters. Hunters have harvested about 12,000 sharpies each of the past two years, compared to 350,000 to 400,000 ruffed grouse.
So when Breuer invited Bob St. Pierre of Hugo, Pheasants Forever’s vice president for marketing, and KFAN outdoors radio host Billy Hildebrand of Champlin and me for a late-November sharptail hunt, we jumped at the chance. None of us had ever hunted sharpies in Minnesota.
Breuer grew up in Thief River Falls and now lives in Bemidji, where he works as a sleep specialist and runs a guide service (northcountryguides.com) for fish, black bears and even mushrooms. But sharptails are special, and he doesn’t guide for them, preferring to hunt them strictly for pleasure.
“They’re my favorite because of how they flush — they give you that cackle when they take off, like they are taunting you,’’ he said. “And there’s the spring mating dance — how do you watch that and not fall in love with them?’’
Not easy hunting
Hunting sharpies isn’t like hunting other upland birds, including pheasants or ruffed grouse.
“There’s always one bird acting as a sentry, watching for danger,” Breuer said. “It might sit in a tree or mound. If that bird flies, it’s over. The rest of the birds will fly, too.’’
Late-season hunting is even more difficult. The birds often gather in flocks, and they are wary from being hunted. Getting within shooting range can be difficult. We counted 60 to 70 sharpies on our daylong hunt, but most flushed wild, well out of shotgun range. Our four pointing dogs never could pin the birds down.
“They hold a lot tighter earlier in the season,’’ Breuer said.
And there’s the late-season weather. Temperatures hovered in the single digits most of the day, and with a 20-mile-per-hour wind, the windchill was 10 to 15 degrees below zero. An inch of fresh snow covered the landscape.
“Oh, it’s cold,’’ Breuer moaned as we hiked across another field.
Still, despite numb fingers, frosty faces and wild-flushing birds, we bagged five sharptails by sunset.
A helping hand
The downward spiral of the sharpie population changed when the federal Conservation Reserve Program arrived in the mid-1980s, offering landowners payments to set aside marginal farmland, which usually was planted with native grasses — perfect habitat for sharpies.
“Once CRP came — boom — the birds came back,’’ Breuer said. Now, with CRP on the decline, he and other wildlife supporters fear the worst.
Breuer is on the Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society’s board of directors, helping advocate for sharpies. The group, which has about 300 members, was formed in 1986 to keep sharptails from disappearing. Members raise money for habitat work, and the group partnered with Pheasants Forever and the Department of Natural Resources to add 3,000 acres of habitat in the north-central region over the past three years. Those lands are wildlife management areas, open to the public.
“These are upland birds we care about,’’ St. Pierre said. “Although our name says Pheasants Forever, our mission goes beyond that.’’
Meanwhile, Breuer’s reasons for helping boost sharptail habitat is simple.
“I love these birds. I want to see the population grow.’’
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org