Hunting the ruffed grouse has been a traditional thing with hunters in the Becker County area. And waterfowl hunting is returning big-time today.
The return of the ringneck pheasants in huntable numbers is also very pleasing. Although many went westward into North Dakota, some to South Dakota for ringnecks, there have been two upland game birds that have been largely ignored by many of us. Of course we mean the sharptail grouse and the less known Hungarian partridge. The sharptail is a native bird and he is encountered when hunting pheasants on the grasslands. All too often, hunters will miss easy opportunities to take a sharpie, mistakenly allowing the bird to escape believing he flushed a hen pheasant. Most hunters learn quickly, and if the opportunity is there a second time, the result will be another bird in the game bag. The sharptail grouse was able to adapt when the prairie lands were overturned by the pioneer's plow. The prairie chicken was largely unable to do this, finding the nesting quality of the new grass less to his liking. So the chickens diminished, and are now largely confined to a relatively small area in western Nebraska. Minnesota has very few, with a short, limited season, established by a permit-draw system.
But sharptails are available in Minnesota. Not in the numbers that will be encountered on the ranges of North Dakota, Montana, and up into Saskatchewan and Manitoba -- where they are very abundant -- and available. Minnesota's big concern is, of course, for ringneck pheasants. Along with waterfowl, however, our shotguns are borne afield for ruffed grouse, sharptail grouse and the imported foreigner, the Hungarian partridge.
Sharptail grouse aren't hunted in Minnesota, with the bird in mind. The sharptail is taken as a bonus when hunting pheasants. They're not here in great numbers, so if it is this upland bird that you're after, the answer lies in going after the sharpie in Montana, North Dakota, or into Alberta or Saskatchewan. Sharptails have been on the western scene for a very long time. First introduced to the prairie grain hills around Calgary in about 1880, the bird took a liking to the countryside and flourished. The seasons are long and the bag limits generous. The darker flesh of the sharptail isn't as tender or as flavorful as the ruffed grouse or the pheasant, but many of us do like it, and it is different. When not hunted too hard, sharptails will hold to a dog's point quite well. Sharptails like knee high grass as it provides cover, but also provides the chance to see approaching predators, including hunters. When hunted hard, however, the bird becomes skittish and will flush long before a hunter comes within shotgun range. With each flush, the cover breaks up to an increasing degree, resulting in your pursuit dwindling down to just a few birds. On the early part of the gun season, flocks can be fifty birds or more.
Even in North Dakota and Montana, sharptail numbers continue to decline. Drastic land-use changes are probably the reason for that, rather than hunting pressures.
The sharptail grouse can be successfully hunted with most any shotgun. The 12 gauge stuffed with trap loads in one barrel and a load of low base #6 shot is probably for the hunter with an over-under or a side by side double. Pump shotguns like Remington's 870 or Winchester's Model 12 are popular, but one is going to see the average hunter in the fields with a semi-automatic more often than not. The semi automatic is making inroads on all magazine type shotguns, but there continues to be a trend towards the over under nowadays. Part of the reason is the outstanding models now being imported from Turkey, Russia, and Brazil. Quite nicely fitted and finished, these shotguns have a shelf price of $500 or so, and can often be found for less than that. No, they're not the same as a Beretta Silver Pigeon or a Caesar Guerini, but they're serviceable, and there is some pride in ownership there.
The Hungarian partridge has no press agent, no tradition, no glamour. He is simply a rust colored bird, which is in between the ruffed grouse and our native quail in size. But once you have successfully hunted the Hun, you too will be a fan. But you'll have walked your legs off in the pursuit of this game bird. In Minnesota, the Hungarian partridge exists in sparse numbers. The nearest coverts that I know about, and have hunted are northwest of Twin Valley and west of Ada. Some years ago there was a bunch of them near the community of Foxhome, a town west of Fergus Falls.
The arrival of the Hungarian partridge in North America was occasioned by some well-to-do hunters, who brought over some breeding stock in 1906. This was also in the province of Alberta, just like the sharptails. These birds took to the terrain, which was cultivated rolling farmlands, mostly seeded to wheat and barley. Hungary and Czechoslovakia is their home grounds.
The Hungarian partridge can tolerate extreme cold weather and winter's winds. The best place to find them is in the stubble, where they'll be picking up waste grains. When the winter winds sweep these fields of snow, the Huns will be right there, enduring the cold and the wind. They like the low grasses, as that's where they see an approaching predator and will flush wildly, when approached. Huns can be successfully hunted in North Dakota when you are on a pheasant-hunting trip. But Saskatchewan is a far better place to find this elusive game bird. In my experience, one has to walk miles before encountering a bird. They're far less predictable than quail or pheasants.
A flock of distant Huns may get you excited, but you still need to get into good shotgun range, and this bird sees you coming! It is a real challenge. Unless you go up into Canada for the Huns, consider this just as a bonus bird, incidental to pheasant hunting, or sharptail grouse hunting for that matter.
Gregarious almost to a fault, they find safety in numbers and more often than not, the covey will flush and reset themselves in a group, retaining all individuals. You can mark them down, and even see their heads above the grain stubble. Huns will not fly as far as the sharptail grouse. You'll need to get within thirty yards of them.
Again, a lightweight upland shotgun is the right medicine for Hungarian partridge. The twenty gauge is probably ideal, with a one-ounce of shot, #7 1/2 in one barrel and a stout load of #6 in the other. The 3" loads in 20 gauge are what you need. Just as one hunts a covey of quail, it is always best to pick out a single bird rather than "flock shoot" them. They will indeed get up as a flock rather than in singles. Shooting Huns is not always tough. In some instances, they hold well for a dog and you can approach them. But this isn't always the case. That's the nature of this imported foreigner, which is becoming more popular as an upland game bird. Growing some, in Minnesota, but it isn't ever about to become common here. Yet, there is opportunity, if you are alert. Minnesota has a long and generous hunting season for hunting the Huns. It is open right now and ends at the end of the year. The limit is set at five birds with ten in possession. Shooting hours begin a half hour before sunrise, and continue until sunset. Good luck hunting!