An Early Start

An Early Start
Illustration by Gordon Allen
By Tom Huggler

I was struck by the oil-painter’s light: a mellow glow that saturated the timeless land to sky’s end. A flock of sharp-tailed grouse, heads above the cropped wheat, regarded my truck and the dust funnel behind it with suspicion. The sun was slipping behind clouds of magenta and a full moon was rising over the Badlands as I turned into the drive of the abandoned ranch. As though on cue, a knot of Hungarian partridge burst into flight and disappeared into the creek-bottom cottonwoods.

Western North Dakota was full of game, and my bird dogs and I were here for four days. Long gone were months of planning and those hot summer days spent trying to get in shape—so important if you’re going to take on plains grouse and Huns during September’s early seasons.

I had driven from my Michigan home—a two-day trek past huge fields of dried sunflowers bowing their heads like rusted tanning lamps. A peak into the forlorn and empty farmhouse prompted me to sleep in the truck with my dogs for company.

As arranged, early the next morning my friend Mike, who had invited me here, showed up with breakfast. Knowing the day would be hot, an early start was imperative. An hour later we were hunting a mile-long draw stuffed with bullberry bushes when sharptails began exiting like pigeons spilling from a grain silo, their queer clucking sounds floating over the prairie. I headshot the first bird at 20 yards, and Mike’s Lab, Bullet, made the retrieve. The other grouse flew 200 yards, and we marked them down in a seam of dark grass.

Mike shot the next bird on a point over my setter, establishing the morning’s pattern of my turn, his turn. By draw’s end we had limits. The midday heat of Indian summer shimmered over the prairie, and the antelope that stared back at us gave the surreal impression that we were on the African plains. Back in the coolness of the ranch house we had lunch and a nap, and then it was time for Hun fun.

Gray partridge have long fascinated me. Often hard to find and tough to hit, they offer a great challenge. That afternoon, shortly after fording the Little Missouri River, I spotted a covey in wheat stubble. Leaving the dogs in the truck, Mike and I sneaked along a drainage slope, hoping to surprise them. They came up at once, as Huns in family units often do, and blew away on fast wings amidst a flurry of rust and gray and squeaking chatter. We marked them down, unloaded the dogs and jumped them again about 500 yards away. But they flushed out of range, and we never saw them again.

We found others, though, in the days that followed, and I was glad my dogs and I were conditioned for the miles-long walkathons we experienced. Because Plains States temperatures can hit 100 degrees in September, carrying water and staying hydrated is critical.

For me, hunting these states during the early season has a way of shrinking a thousand miles of road to nothing. And a limit of birds in the gamebag has a way of pinning back the shoulders, helping a man walk straighter. I tend to do that when happy.

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