Bringing in grouse with handcrafted fakes
By Garhart Stephenson
Sharp-tailed grouse are a leisurely delight to pursue during the first month of the season, when they possess some semblance of good manners. By the late season, however, birds have grouped up and have long forgotten such manners. These grouse now are devoting many eyes to spotting danger and exhibit the trait of flushing long before hunters are able to get within reasonable range. Even the stragglers seem to have gotten the memo.
Understandably, wild-flush frustration often sets in, and many hunters look for different quarry. Those of us who stay at it must temper our efforts with great patience and strategy. For years I continued hiking long miles in hopes of finding those few birds that had not paid attention in class, and my persistence was rewarded, if only occasionally. During those forays I couldn’t help wondering if there was another way.
A sentinel bird perched in a tree will give the rest of the flock confidence that the coast is clear. The key with decoys is to make sure they’re visible from a distance. Author’s photographs.
For decades I observed sharptails and their gregarious habits. I watched grouse arrive to feed in fields of cut grain. I watched as birds winged to roadsides for gravel. I watched as grouse glided into tree rows. Sharptails behave much like doves, ducks and geese, with the first arrivals landing at a particular location, often posting a sentry in a visible spot, and then being joined by other groups during the next 10 to 20 minutes. I always wondered whether these birds could be drawn to decoys, and my curiosity grew until I decided to do something about it.
In December 2019 I traveled to visit friends in North Dakota. I did not have decoys yet, but I did have materials and a plan. Over the course of two evenings I used a 40-grit sanding disc to carve a pair of life-size sharptail bodies from Styrofoam. I then used a jigsaw to cut tail inserts and head blanks from scrap pine lumber and finished shaping the heads with the sanding disc. Cutting a slot with my fillet knife at the tail end of each body provided recesses for the tail inserts. I then drilled a half-inch-diameter hole in the base of each head and a matching hole in each body before using quick-cure epoxy to glue a half-inch-diameter dowel in each head. The head dowels and tail inserts were then glued into the Styrofoam bodies. Another evening was spent gluing clothespins to the decoys so they could be attached to perches and then painting. The final touch was a pair of real sharptail wings glued to each decoy. Now the big question remained: Would the decoys actually attract grouse?
The next evening I took the decoys for a test run. The selected location was somewhat in question, as I had not scouted it recently. In the past I had observed grouse activity fairly often in the spot, with birds using it as a daytime loafing area and an evening roost, so it seemed promising.
After a quarter-mile hike to the shelterbelt, I clipped two decoys to buffaloberry limbs and found a place to hide. I fussed around taking a few photos, to make the best of my wait. I really wanted photos of grouse coming to the decoys before I actually shot any. Only one small flock of sharptails appeared that afternoon, but about 150 yards out they veered directly to the dekes. I captured a good photo, and then grabbed the gun. Unfortunately, all of my motion convinced the birds to move on, and I didn’t get a shot. But I had received all the encouragement I needed. During the next few days I set decoys at flight times in the morning, midday and evening and had a lot of fun confirming things and learning others.
When roosting, loafing or feeding, a flock of sharptails has many eyes to spot danger. Bogus birds clipped to a makeshift “tree” can help focus flight lines in a known travel route. Author’s photographs.
First and foremost, I learned that proper scouting is essential. Sharptails are somewhat reliable in their habits and general flight lines when they visit agricultural fields. That is one requirement for decoys to be viable: birds feeding at a location they will fly into from roosting or loafing sites (typically grasslands or shelterbelts) and then out of after they finish, much like ducks and geese. Any type of grain stubble can attract feeding sharptails, and they can be decoyed arriving at feeding fields or at loafing/ roosting sites when they return. Where I have hunted far from agriculture, I have been unable to detect any reliable patterns.
The times that grouse fly into a field are fairly consistent. They typically go to feed around sunrise and again sometime during the afternoon. Once the arrival times are determined, they don’t vary much. How long the birds stay and feed varies, depending on weather and if they are spooked by predators—human or otherwise. As a result, the times when the coveys fly back to roosting or resting spots are not etched in stone. Grouse also will go to gravel early in the morning, late in the evening and sometimes at midday. I am not sure whether they prefer to gravel before or after feeding, as I have observed both. What I have noticed is large groups utilizing the same graveling locations at predictable times. When I see this, I am sure to note the places and times.
One large covey I observed gathered at a gravel road at about 8 am for several mornings to fill their crops with grit. When I returned to that country about a month later the birds still were graveling at that location. You can bet that I will be devising an easier means to attach decoys to fenceposts so that I can cash in on such opportunities in the future.
Roosting and loafing locations are fairly reliable, as well, particularly when they have brush and/or shelterbelts. These spots offer viable midday and evening opportunities. Keep in mind, however, that disturbances by hunters may prompt birds to choose different sites for several days.
When feeding, sharptails often exhibit a marked preference for specific locations within a field. To date, my best results came when I placed decoys in the corner of a cut wheatfield where I had noticed sharpies feeding for several days when I’d passed en route to favored pheasant habitat. Because there were no trees nearby, I placed a jumble of limbs on a knoll along the flight path very close to the landing zone, then clipped my imposters to the top of it, ensuring that low-flying grouse would spot the decoys easily. A nearby grassy ditch provided concealment and would offer close shots.
Knowing that walking up prairie birds typically means longer shots in December, I had journeyed to North Dakota with tight-choked guns. What I hadn’t considered is that decoying grouse come in low and fast, and the first five sharptails to approach my setup zipped by overhead before I even saw them. I could have snagged them with a long-handled net . . . . Of course, when they saw my startled movements, they aborted their landing near the decoys and powered on for safer territory.
I immediately relocated to a spot offering a better view, to give me advance warning. Sure enough, I spotted the next covey of seven fairly far off and watched it approach for a half-mile. While flying up the gradual slope, the grouse spotted the dekes from 200 yards out and turned directly toward them. These birds also came in close—right-down-the-middle, across-home-plate, part-my-hair close! My heart raced as I watched their approach. When they were almost on me, I snapped my gun to my shoulder, pointed and promptly missed the far side of the covey with both barrels at 10 yards. Ouch! It was an agonizing start, indeed.
Round bales serve not only as great places to set decoys but also as makeshift “blinds.” Author’s photographs.
Several minutes later I repeated the performance on a single. Then a group of 20 bested me as it skimmed by close enough to again use a landing net. I should have let birds land and taken them on the flush. The decoys were doing their job, narrowing the landing area from a 50- to 100-yard zone to one of about five to 10 yards—similar to what I experience decoying early season ducks. I resolved to take my next shot farther out, and this paid off with a well-struck bird at 35 yards. My Border collie, Rusty, retrieved the bird with ease. From this experience and others a game plan evolved.
While scouting, it is important to check out options for decoy placement and concealment. It goes without saying that this is not a time to wear orange or any other bold-colored clothing. Decoying grouse is much like decoying waterfowl, doves or crows. If the birds see you, they’ll avoid you.
Sharptails are not choosy about potential perches. Fencelines, ditches, tree rows, round bales and even old farm equipment all serve well—and therefore are excellent places to set decoys. They also happen to be superb hiding spots. One day I noticed a sentry perched on a big red combine. I really like fields with round bales, which provide numerous convenient “blinds” and double as places to clip decoys. Such fields are usually slam-dunks.
As suggested, placing decoys where grouse can spot them easily really helps. Any position that elevates the dekes is good. The hardest part I have experienced is getting the decoys to look natural and not lean over. A design change that is coming to my decoys is the means to set them on tall stakes, to allow additional options. Since grouse are not picky as to what they land on, there is no need to go to major effort constructing realistic or natural-looking “perches.” Grouse sitting on combines are prime examples.
Major changes in weather also can create opportunities. During snowstorms, sharptails show an affinity for Russian olive trees and may flock to their thorny food-laden branches in surprising numbers. It seems that the birds prefer to hang out in, around and under rows of shrubbery once snow deepens as well. These locations may provide good gunning at times. The challenge is to get the decoys as high and visible as possible. I may start taking a folding ladder for this, like I do when decoying crows and doves.
Earlier I mentioned my poor choice in weaponry. Decoying grouse is the polar opposite of walking up birds during the late season, at least in terms of gun selection. From now on I intend to use open-choked guns. I have a couple 16-gauge doubles that are well suited to the task as well as a sleek little 28 choked Skeet & Improved Modified (the second barrel a bit tighter than needed) that certainly will get called into duty. Light charges of No. 7½, 6 or 5 lead are more than adequate, since shooting distances range from just off the end of the barrel to about 30 yards. Decoys work that well. I see no reason to go tighter than Improved Cylinder, and true Cylinder is probably a better choice. Basically the same guns often favored for ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail are mighty fine choices.
There are a few luxury items that a person can enjoy, too, since this is not a hunt that involves much hiking. I treat hunting decoyed sharptails like I do decoyed doves and shallow-water ducks. I take a five- or six-gallon bucket to sit on until the birds arrive. In the bucket I carry my decoys, ammunition, coffee, snacks and any other small tidbits that make the wait more enjoyable. A burlap sack covers the bucket for camouflage, and when birds come, I just crouch down next to it. While feeding flight times are usually consistent, I want to be in position about a half-hour in advance, just in case birds stir early for some reason. Once the flight begins, it usually lasts 15 to 30 minutes. Flights returning to loafing or roosting areas are less precise and may involve longer waits.
Few experiences in life satisfy like trying something new, especially when it is an idea you have never tested. For me, all of the labor involved in making a pair of decoys proved more than a craft project; it resulted in a whole new way to hunt. I may have gone well beyond what was necessary by building full-body decoys, since silhouettes probably would have done the job just fine (considering the fact that approach lanes are fairly well defined and two-dimensional decoys can be placed perpendicular to them, yielding proper profiles). Still, pride of workmanship is its own reward, and my decoys look good sitting there, waiting to entice grouse.
When chilly late-season mornings remind me that opening day is long past, I look forward to sharptails gliding gracefully into my spread of two. I just hope they don’t spot my uncontrollable grin as I hunker down, eagerly clutching an open-choked gun.