Hawking The West For Sage Grouse

(And a Little Taste of Western Attitude)

Article and Photography by

David A. Perfetti

Dayton, WY


"Good grouse habitat is specific. Look for 10" high sage, very dense with some grass sticking through. The terrain will be slightly contoured, little hills and gullies."



So, you want to go on a trip out West and hawk sage grouse? You're all set to go;you have a 2-year old gyrkin flying 1000 foot pitches, killing every duck in sight. Your 5-year old setter "Spunky" is staunch as the Rock of Gibraltar on point. Your 2-year old Ford Explorer is full of gas. And, most importantly, the wife just gave you two weeks off and $2000 to disappear. Is this you?
You're ready; you've heard of the great hawking grounds out West, the wide open "seas of sage." The call of the wild, the winds of nature gently caressing your tan cheeks; hey, wake up! Where are ya gonna go?
You heard about places with miles of BLM land in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. You can't decide, "gee not enough time to hit them all." So you start asking around; all the guys at the falconry club seem to have developed amnesia, they can't remember exactly where it was they found those grouse. "Was it Montana? Hmmm, no it was Wyoming." What part? What town? What what? "Ahh, south, yea that's right, southern Wyoming, a town called North Platte." Alright, now you know the hot spot - North Platte, Wyoming. You're all smug that you did your homework and got this great map of Wyoming from the Wyoming Division of Tourism(1-800-225-5996.) But you can't find North Platte. You're looking all over that map and no North Platte. Then the light comes on, "Hey dummy, North Platte is in Nebraska."
So, where do you hawk out West? This is a good question. Some of us falconers know, but are we gonna tell you? Not only no, but hell no. These areas of BLM land are mine, and you're gonna have to find yours on your own "flat lander"; good luck. Don't ask and I wont have to tell you lies. So what do you do? First, you boot up the computer, and on the net, you'll find "the information source for gun dog owners" under www.Bird-Dog-News.com. There you'll find the inexpensive Bird Dog and Retriever News magazine; unfortunately not as good as American Falconry, but full of information on where to hunt birds all over the US. They break up the entire country into regions: east, west, midwest. It's full of reports of bird hatches, CRP land, BLM land locations, and Game & Fish reports. Get it; the fall issues are good. The gunners are well organized and share most of their spots with technical info and support. Sorry falconers, but every serious gunner in the US knows if you want to hunt sage grouse, you go to Pinedale, Farson, Lander, Rawlins, and Bateshole, Wyoming. If you want pheasants, you go to Liberal or Flint Hills in Kansas or Oklahoma. If you want chukars, you go to Lewistown, Whitebird, Brownlee Reservoir, and Lucky Peak Reservoir, Idaho. If you want prairie chickens, you go to Alliance, Valentine, Halsey, or North Platte, Nebraska. If you want sharptails, you go to Choteau or Miles City, Montana. If you want ducks, you go to Texas. And if you want to go to hell, write an article on where to hawk sage grouse. Let's face it, there are good populations of many birds when you find suitable habitat. The trick is to find public land or smooge your way onto private property. The latter being the toughest and getting tougher.
There are many articles, books, and videos on grouse hawking. But none explain how to find the grouse. There are hundreds of miles of BLM land in Wyoming. A vast sea of sage, but unless you know how and where to find the grouse, you won't find any. Not even with the best dogs. Finding grouse is tough. I'll explain to you first timers things no ones gonna tell ya, even if you ask, and explain things you should do to prepare for a trip out West. Let's make two things perfectly clear. This is early season sage grouse hawking (the easiest) and one other thing, I'm no pro. I'm a novice writing here, expounding on the school of hard knocks. In fact, until I was shown a few grouse by some very friendly falconers, I couldn't find my ass in the dark with both hands when it came to sage grouse. This may not happen to you, so read on "flat lander."

"Teddy" the 27-ounce gyr x peregrine tiercel on a nice female sage grouse.

Preparation Is The Key
First, ask around to find out the area you want to hunt. Call the Game & Fish Department and question a biologist on areas and the season's hatch (Wyoming 307-777-4600, Montana 406-444-2950, Utah 801-538-4700.) Then well in advance of your trip, order the appropriate BLM maps; they come in different scales. In Wyoming, you can order them from US Department of Interior, BLM Office, PO Box 1828, Cheyenne WY 82003. Get the maps for the exact area you plan to hunt. These maps will help. Don't leave home without them; that's right ­ don't leave home without them. Now, the real challenge is to find the grouse.
There are some other things you will need to have for a smooth grouse hunt. These aren't just niceties, but stuff you will need. These areas are very remote; you are, in a sense, a pioneer, a flat lander, and a greenhorn. You have to be self-reliant and prepared. You will need the following (don't even think of going without this stuff):
1. Spare keys for your vehicle
2. BLM maps
3. Water container for dogs (full) and food
4. Full set of tire chains, both front and back tires
5. 4X4 vehicle in new running condition
6. Shovel
7. Tow chain
8. If hawking alone, a cell phone or CB
9. Cooler with lunch and drinks
10. Of course, all your hawking gear (perches, food, hoods, etc.)
11. Spare telemetry and batteries
12. A fully charged spare battery and jumper cables
13. Live pigeons for the unproductive points and unsuccessful days, food and water for them also
14. Gas can (full)
15. A few tools
16. Spare tire (inflated)
17. Compass
18. Blankets for a pleasant evening in the outback (lost, broken down, hurt)
19. Flashlights, good ones
20. First aid for your dogs, birds, and yourself
21. Binoculars
22. Warm clothes
23. You'll also need either hotel reservations or camping gear
24. Spare dogs
"The Hunt"
Many types of birds have proven to be successful over sage grouse. Female prairies, gyr hybrids, gyrs, and peregrines all have taken grouse. Sage grouse weigh anything from 25 ounces (709 grams) to over six pounds (2.7 kilos). My 27-ounce (765 gram) gyr hybrid caught as large as a 53-ounce (1503 gram) sage. Any smaller falcon is getting too small, although it has been done. There is a risk of any falcon getting hurt. Eagles and the size of the grouse make serious injury a real possibility. Facilities to administer first aid to your dog and falcon are usually not available. Be sure to have the names and phone numbers of qualified veterinarians that are going to be in their office during your hunt. Only big city vets in Denver, Boise, or Salt Lake are usually qualified to pin your falcon's wing or leg or sew them up from eagle talons. This is typically an eight to fifteen hour drive from many hawking areas, so plan accordingly.
In September, the grouse bunch up in family units, and there will hopefully be many youngsters. The temperature is 80º F in the heat of the day and frosty at night. It occasionally rains or snows, but is mostly dry. Large coveys of grouse, "honey holes," range from 10 to 150 birds. When you find a "honey hole," the grouse will be all over the place; this is exceptional. But a typical grouse hawking day, you will drive 150 miles, most of it down two tracks. Your dogs, on a bad day, will run 50 miles and may produce only one slip and possibly none. So you will need more than one dog. Your dogs, when first arriving, will bust birds and have unproductive points. They will have to find some birds to get used to pointing them; you need a "honey hole" for this. After two or three days in a honey hole, they will know what to do. After you know what your doing, with one vehicle and two dogs, you can plan to yield two or three slips a day. Don't go hawking with a caravan of three vehicles and six falcons to fly; some of you will not get slips. There realistically is not enough time during the cool hours of the day to find six slips.

"A typical grouse hawking day, you will drive 150 miles, most of it down two tracks. Your dogs, on a bad day, will run 50 miles and may produce only one slip and possibly none. So you will need more than one dog."

The Dogs
You need good dogs to get grouse. If you find a honey hole, you'll have grouse to spare for training. Almost mandatory for a dog new to sage grouse. He'll need experience on them to find and point them with confidence. This takes a trained dog about three days. This is due to the unfamiliarity of the strong scent of fresh grouse mutes. After a few birds, your dogs will be more reliable, but expect the occasional unproductive point. Your dogs will have particular days of real hot streaks, doing fantastic then for no apparent reason, start screwing up.
Some guys swear by the practice of rewarding a dog with grouse guts after a successful flight. It's supposed to make the dog sharper with the essence of grouse grease in his palette. I've seen this practice give a good dog the shits, and then he'll start missing points other dogs find. Then he'll start to dilly dally 10 feet in front of the truck for miles. He's obviously sick! I recommend not to partake in this ritual.
How To Find The "Honey Hole"
Good grouse habitat is specific. Look for 10" high sage, very dense with some grass sticking through. The terrain will be slightly contoured, little hills and gullies. Most importantly, it seems like there will always be water within a quarter to one mile of a honey hole. This could be an irrigation ditch, river, stream, lake, or swamp.
Very tall sage or short thin sage may hold a grouse or two, but usually will not produce. So don't waste your time or your dogs in the wrong habitat. Grouse like to be able to see above the sage without being seen doing it (10" sage). They like it thick so they have cover and plenty to eat. And they don't like to go far to drink because it exposes themselves, makes perfect sense. So find the perfect sage, pass up the grease grass and inferior sage. Once you find the right type of sage, get off your butt and walk around, look for the telltale "greasy grouse rooster mute." These mutes are the size of a silver dollar, black and shiny like tar. This is the boomers crap. Regular mutes look like chalk covered white and green "Good and Plenty." Make sure it's fresh (touch it, taste it, experience the true essense of good grouse hawking).
When you have found a good area, find a two track that goes crosswind. Put out a dog and plug along at a good clip, 15 to 20 mph. Have the dog range in front of the vehicle, command him to get off the road and into the bush. The crosswind enables the dog to get the scent from the side and cover much more ground than if the wind is in his face! This is an excellent technique and it works. When he goes on point, back up your vehicle and quietly put up your bird. When in position, go in for the flush. When on foot, always take your telemetry so you don't have to go back to the car for it. This may save your falcon's life by timely getting to him on his kill before the eagle does.
The grouse hold well for points, especially when a falcon is up. The grouse lay down on their bellies and flatten out to hide. They look like camouflaged, flattened out footballs. They are very difficult to see and are barely detectable. I've walked within four feet of these grouse before I've seen them. If not pinned down from a flying falcon, these grouse will bust for excessive noise, extended periods on point, and nervousness. Nine times out of ten you can find one stray grouse after a large covey busts, so look for a second chance flush or fly on spec. A typical flight on grouse from a 300 to 800 foot pitch results in a hit 300 yards from the flush. Beware, a grouse under pressure will bail out into fence rows and under vehicles, so plan your flush away from these manmade obstacles; they are dangerous.
A good hit usually brings the grouse to the ground. If your falcon is good at whip arounds, he'll bind to the grouse and you'll have 'em. Quickly get there to help out. If your falcon remounts, this is super good too. Then the next reflush will really knock 'em down. But if your falcon loses sight of the grouse during the whip around and lands on a sage bush next to the grouse, kiss the grouse goodbye as you watch him bust out and fly over the horizon. Your dumb bird watching this in amazement or tail chasing him (the worst).
Eagles are a hazard; hawking is over between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm. The eagles are soaring, and it's 80º F at this time. Soaring eagles will spot your falcon on a kill and eat them both.

Sage supervises the crew after a good day in a "honey hole."

The Honey Hole
Once you find a honey hole, it will produce birds for several days, although you will notice the numbers going down and the grouse harder to find with each successive day. After two days of pressure, they'll start moving out into similar habitat within one mile or so. When this happens, it's time to give the spot a rest. Go find another honey hole. If you don't, the grouse will disperse altogether. Grouse in September and October are easy to take because they're young, easily overheated, and plentiful. The trick is to find them. Late season grouse is a whole new ballgame. The grouse after November are harded up and in huge flocks. I've heard numbers as large as 3000. It takes a bazooka to knock these birds down and access to them can be impossible due to snow.
Other Tips
Know what permits you'll need for the state you'll be hunting; get the regulations ahead of time. In Wyoming, you'll need a "license to hunt with a raptor." You can't get one unless you go to a Game & Fish office. The local bait shop will not have them. You'll also need a gamebird license and a conservation stamp. Do your homework, and you'll have a good trip.
Locating grouse is the trick, bagging one with your bird is a bonus. Use your maps and hunt smart. In some locations, you'll find falconers at the local coffee shops in the morning. Don't expect a lot of help from them; they worked real hard for their honey holes. They also have slips to find for their birds. One thing is for sure, I won't be showing you mine! You'll be there every day and race me there in the morning! No way Jose! If it's your last day, you whine enough, and have not had a slip for a week, an old pro may feel sorry for you and show you a slip. You can expect to buy him dinner, grease up his hunting boots, change the newspaper under his bird's vehicle perch, put gas in his outfit, and tell him how great his dogs work and his falcon flies. So good luck hawking the West, have a good time, and then go home. And don't even think about moving here!
See ya!

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