Peter Brookes: Hungry for huns in North Dakota

Peter Brookes

Despite my hearing being hampered by 30-mph winds gusting down the North Dakota prairie and a set of squishy foam ear plugs, I could sense a bunch of hooting and hollering from the rest of my bird hunting party off to the left.

I “shot” a glance in the direction of the rest of the guns from my position on the right flank of the hunters spread across the grassland, fully expecting to see a newly airborne pheasant rooster climbing into the fall’s Dakota sky.

That wasn’t the case.

I quickly realized that the Dakota boys were shouting and waving at me, pointing their fingers at something on their side of the field out in front of the gun line. Through the howling wind, I could hear them shouting “Shoot! Shoot!”

I thought: Shoot what?

I scanned the horizon in front of me where they seemed to be pointing to catch a glimpse of a good-sized, light-brown bird streaking across the gun line about 30 yards in front of our advance.

It was also moving in my direction.

At first, the potential quarry looked like an “unbaggable” pheasant hen to my untrained eye, only adding to my bewilderment at the fellows’ unexpected excitement since we’d already been having a great day in the field for roosters.

That’s when through the whistling wind, I was able to make out someone screaming: “Groooouuuusssee!”

By this time, the now-identified game bird–a sharp-tailed grouse–was fully in front of me and was snapping into a 90-degree “angle of bank” (Think: “Top Gun”) to turn downwind for its escape around our flank and into countless acres of farmland behind us.

With the prairie wind whisking it along and nothing in front of it, the “sharpie” was in full “North Dakota afterburner.”

With the pressure on and the bird crossing my 3 o’clock by this time, I let instinct kick in. I swung hard, letting a blast of #5-shot thunder from my 12-gauge Browning over and under.

The discharge of the second barrel folded the bird nicely. A fellow hunter yelled, “Great shot!” but it was probably more accurate to put it in the category of “minor miracle.”

I hustled to where I saw the bird tumble into some tall grass near a long-abandoned fence post – only to be beat to the spot by an enthusiastic Vizsla, Max.

Always glad to get a hand from man’s best friend considering how perfectly the game birds blend into native grasses, Max found the grouse in no time, bringing it to his master a little moist but with hardly a feather out of place.

It’s amazing what a great bird dog can do.

While I was pumped about bagging my first sharpie on this trip up to the Great Plains, I really had been keen on getting into some Hungarian partridge–known locally as “huns”–and, like sharpies, not as common as ringnecks.

And, a bit surprisingly, we did.

We busted a number of hun coveys and some singles. I had one chance from a covey that got up behind me, but the surprise of the flush, a bad gun mount and twisting, turning birds made sure I wasn’t putting one in my bag.

My friend, Todd, took a couple of huns – to spite me I’m sure!

No surprise as Todd is a “bird magnet,” one of those guys who’s always in the sweet spot when the birds flush. The other “problem” is that he rarely misses, so hanging nearby him in hopes of getting a shot at his “whiffs” is an exercise in futility.

In fact, that’s true of the Bismarck boys I hunted with – they just don’t miss. If you want to put birds in your bag with these guys, you’d better shoot true on your first shot and if they shoot first – let’s just say – if it flies, it dies.

Fortunately, there are plenty of pheasant in North Dakota; the southwest part of the state was reportedly up 40 percent this year due to last year’s mild winter. Indeed, the weather may account for the increase in grouse and partridge, too.

Well, I didn’t get a hun like I’d hoped. But, in life it’s always important to have something to look forward to – even if it’s bagging a small game bird.

Peter Brookes has a home in Fort Valley and writes about the great outdoors here whenever he can. brookesoutdoors@gmail.com.