I'm kind of a short guy. At 5 foot 7 inches, my stumps called legs struggle against the cattails of Minnesota's best late season pheasant habitat. I pretty much always get a Charlie Horse in the field, during the car ride home, or while sleeping after any December pheasant hunt. In recent years, I've found a morning banana to be a good preventative measure for the cramping, but it has done nothing to bolster any enthusiasm for pounding cattails.
Instead, I favor the long walks of an endurance runner. Show me a grassy prairie or a two-track logging trail, and I'll show you my dusty heels. I think that's also part of my affinity to pointers. They succeed in the same environs.
Perhaps that’s why I found the walk last Friday across Fort Pierre's National Grasslands in search of greater prairie chickens such a treat. At 2:30 in the afternoon, a group of four hunters and their dogs each selected a different cardinal point and set off in search of chickens with an agreement to return by 5. None of us had ever hunted chickens before, let alone bagged one, so the adventure was embraced by us all. I headed west with my big running shorthair.
It turns out I selected the best direction for sheer beauty. I crested the first hill to find a sea of rolling grasses, canyons and valleys before me. Aesthetically, it was one of the three best hunting backdrops I can ever remember. I walked unencumbered through the ankle high grasses favored by prairie chickens as my mind wandered and my eyes devoured the pomegranate sun, the golden grasses, and the shadowy hillsides.
Even a porcupine encounter delivering 12 quills to my pup's muzzle couldn't remove the sense of contentment this prairie chicken walk had delivered me. After sitting atop a peak to watch two groups of mule deer disappear into the valley below, I retreated back toward the direction of my truck.
During my return, I emptied my Beretta over/under at a distant chicken only to have dozens of chickens and pheasants explode around me and disappear over the canyon before my barrels were reloaded. In my euphoria, I had wandered to the edge of a harvested corn field adjacent to a pasture and bordered by a sweet clover field with a thick grassy ravine cutting the middle. It was the perfect blend of cover for roosting chickens or pheasants, and I had wandered right into the middle just minutes after the porcupine threw my pup off her game.
In the end, I returned with an empty game vest, while my partners each bagged a single bird - Anthony a rooster, Matt a sharpie, and "Captain" Billy with the lone chicken for the day. It was a 2 1/2 hour hunt I cannot wait to revisit. In fact, I'm even contemplating a return this weekend if the weather and my wife allow. Yes, it was that much fun.
Greater Prairie Chicken Basics for the Beginning Chicken Walker
o They are easier to hunt early in the season. By late season, they are tough to get close to and virtually always flush wild.
o Be careful to not mistake them for hen pheasants. Chickens have a similar brown appearance, but have a square tail, are a little whiter, make a chuckling sound when flushed, and have a unique wing beat gliding in between. They are also virtually indiscernible from a sharp-tailed grouse in flight.
o Focus in on the calf high grasses that are a bit thinner than you'd expect to find a pheasant hiding within. Chickens like to see you coming and also avoid all vertical structures - like trees.
o Learn more about prairie chickens and Pheasants Forever's efforts to help create more grassland habitat through the Prairie Grouse Partners.
o Join the North American Grouse Partnership at the special Pheasants Forever discounted rate.