NEAR NEW TOWN, N.D. (MCT) - The first sharptail flushed just four minutes after we had begun hunting. One minute later, a covey of Hungarian partridges burst into flight, filling the air with their wingbeats and peeping.
No shots were fired by Tom S. Bell, 38, and his longtime friend Tom Schramm, 37. The birds were just out of range.
But those early flushes were a sign of good things to come on this five-day sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge hunt in western North Dakota. Bell soon picked up his first sharptail of the morning in low cover near a dry wetland.
The real action on this mid-September hunt began in a nearby tree row along two stubble fields of harvested grain. One sharptail after another flushed, interspersed by the rise of two more coveys of partridges. Bell's black Lab, Koya, kept busy retrieving downed birds. Bell and Schramm shot well.
Meanwhile, Bell's dad, Tom Bell and his friend Dick Adams were working other treelines and stubble fields on the same farm. By the time we had finished that walk, our group had 14 sharptails - just one shy of a limit - and four Huns. We had been in the field exactly an hour. By noon, when the heat forced us to quit hunting, the tally was 15 sharptails and eight Huns.
"I'd say this is close to one of the best morning's we've had," the senior Bell said.
Bell, 62, has been going north and west for sharptails for more than 30 years. He and others began hunting the prairie grouse in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1972. On one return trip from Saskatchewan, they stopped at a small-town cafe in this part of North Dakota and met a farmer who invited them to hunt sharptails here.
Now, Bell and friends make the 550-mile trip west from their northeastern Minnesota homes annually, camping on the prairie, eating what they shoot and living close to the land. His son Tom has been making the trip for about 20 years now.
"Once you get it in your blood, you gotta keep coming out here," the younger Bell said. "You can't say it's one thing because it's so many things."
"The land," Schramm said. "The diverse hunting. The dogs."
"And you're out here, and you don't see any 'No Hunting' signs," Bell added.
It's easy to find land to hunt. Bell's right. We saw little land posted "No Hunting" during our trip. If we had questions about whether land was open to hunting, we stopped and asked farmers.
"I've seldom been refused," the elder Bell said.
One day, we stopped to visit with a farmer who gladly let us hunt and suggested two other parcels of land we might want to try. We found birds at both places.
Another thing you see little of out here is other hunters. Except for a group of Bell's friends from Duluth and one farmer he already knew, we saw no other hunters in five days. The main source of blaze orange we saw were actual orange blazes at oil-drilling sites, where waste natural gas burned day and night. There's an oil boom happening here that's making some farmers millionaires and others - who don't own mineral rights on their land - bitter about all the semitrailer traffic on once-quiet roads.
Away from the roads, though, this is still the western North Dakota you remember - wheat and barley fields rolling to forever, broad grasslands where the eye can roam for miles, distant buttes and promontories. You can't help thinking about a pioneer family, creaking across this country in a covered wagon, trying to decide how best to proceed west.
We would often split up and go our own ways, following our dogs wherever they would lead us. You'd look across the folds of land and see a tiny speck of orange on a distant hillside. Your hunting partner. And the sharptails we were hunting are native t o this land, eking out a living on seeds of native grasses like little bluestem and side-oats gramma as well as crop residue.
"I like sharptail hunting," the senior Bell said. "I feel close to the earth. It's a native bird, natural to this environment. And I like walking."
Our hunting was good. If one part of the day or one piece of land didn't produce, another would. We hunted treelines and vast grasslands and Missouri River breaks and abandoned farmsteads that almost always held a covey or two of Huns.
We would walk all morning, then return to our little camp during the afternoon heat. Dick Adams had brought his pop-up camper, and some of us slept in tents. We ate sharptails at least once a day, sometimes twice - grilled and pan-fried and in stew.
Hunting sharptails was good. Living with them, camped under the prairie stars, listening to a great-horned owl oboeing in the night, was even better. Living on the land, and living off the land eating what we had shot, seemed to complete a circle. We felt completely immersed in the landscape, as much a part of the grand scheme as human beings could be.
At night, we lay in our sleeping bags listening to crickets singing, coyotes yipping and Canada geese honking. At dawn, rooster pheasants cackled from the knee-high grasses just beyond camp, stirring anticipation of the season to come.
In the mornings, we'd roust out, feed the dogs and pick a new piece of land to hunt.
It's a good place to live in September.
WHO SAYS SHARPTAILS DON'T TASTE GOOD?
Sharp-tailed grouse have a reputation of being less than savory table fare. Granted, they aren't chicken. Or pheasant.
"People who like chicken white meat probably wouldn't like sharptail, because it's dark meat," said Dick Adams of Superior, who hunted North Dakota sharptails from Sept. 17-20.
But the way Tom G. Bell of Duluth, Minn., and Tom Schramm of Esko, Minn., prepared sharptails during our North Dakota hunting trip, they were excellent. We camped during our stay and ate sharptails for one or two meals each day.
Sometimes Bell or Schramm would fillet the breasts off the birds, season them with salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder, then grill them on a small charcoal grill. Often, they would slit the breast fillets in half horizontally, resulting in two thinner pieces instead of one thicker piece. The secret is not overcooking them, which dries them out. Just a few minutes per side does it.
Bell also pan-fried some sharptail fillets in red wine and melted butter. Those, too, were excellent. Schramm prepared an excellent sharptail stew one evening with carrots, potatoes, onions, jalapeno tomatoes and yams.
One day for lunch, Bell's son, also named Tom, pan-fried several fillets in a mixture of salt pork and parsley. We ate those in sandwiches with Havarti cheese.
Young-of-the-year sharptails are decidedly more tender than older birds, but you can't always pick them out when a group of sharptails takes flight.
For the birds he brings home, Bell seals several fillets in a solution of olive oil and garlic powder in a zip-top bag. He later pan-fries or grills the fillets.
© 2008, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.