This was really my first year going after sage grouse. They had always been on my list but in Utah it is rare to draw out for them so I just never pursued them. Add in the fact that although it is legal to hunt sage grouse, numbers have been steadily declining since about the mid sixties when we started studying them, and some wonder if we should hunt them.

Everyone cites declining habitat as the reason the numbers are falling and though I believe we have converted a lot of the natural prairies into agriculture, towns etc. The sagebrush prairies are still so incredibly expansive out here in the West. Yet numbers are still falling anyway. I think we need to look deeper at what is going on because we are clearly missing something right in front of us.

Because of their elaborate mating rituals we have not been successful at breeding them in captivity and likely never will be. It is therefore important that we figure out how to help their wild populations thrive.

So aside from all of that I decided this year to try for them in Montana and Wyoming both.

I read everything I could and watched so many videos online. I listened to any advice anyone would give me about their ranges and habits etc. and I set off to find them.

The first surprise I came across was that Everyone who has experience with these magnificent birds has had a different experience. There is no one size fits all approach to finding them or pursuing them. I have now seen them in all kinds of cover and elevations. Mixed with Sharp tail grouse or Huns or all by themselves.

One particularly cold stormy and very windy morning I thought to myself they must be in the thick cover out of the wind. That is where I would be. Do you know what I found in the thick cover? Shelter from the wind for the dogs and I which I was graceful for, but no birds. Those stupid birds instead were up on the ridges standing out in the cold wind with no cover. Why? One friend remarked probably just so they could see me coming. Which they did.

But here are some things I think I learned anyway after perhaps nearly 100 miles hiking chasing these birds. That might be an exaggeration, but not by much if I consult my step counter. (I just checked 30.5 miles in Montana over three days Then in Wyoming 47 miles over 6 days. I don’t think I can ever walk that far again in my life!)

First the birds can really be about anywhere. They do move around throughout the day going to and from water etc.

They are birds with incredible range. When you put them in the air, although they are a slow flyer getting started they really do sometimes fly for miles before touching back down, so you usually only get one chance at them.

Though most everyone told me they are birds that hold tight and will flush right under you so take a small bore gun… Well I never found that to be the case. All of them wild flushed when I saw them and nearly all of them out of range.

I think I decided that the only way a dog can help you besides the retrieve is if you have a seasoned and smart dog that stops and points from more than 50 yards away so the birds don’t spook. When I had dogs on the ground that would range and cover more ground I saw many more birds but all of them wild flushing out of range. When I had close working dogs we had fewer encounters by far as I had to cover the ground, but the birds were closer when they wild flushed.

So how do you get the long ranging dog that stops before bumping them? I guess hiking hundreds of miles until that dog understands these birds so well and having a dog with great obedience and control…

The other thing I learned is this is a hunt that favors the young and agile. If you are able to cover ground quickly and nimbly especially in the steep canyons you will be in better position for the birds every time.

Lastly luck has so much to do with it. I have hunted alongside others who got all the birds while I just watched it happen and I was right there with my dogs as well I just went to the left when the birds were on the right or visa versa.

It was a frustrating but rewarding pursuit. I made a lot of new friends 4 legged and two legged and although I don’t think I am up for it ever again, I still want to try…