Throughout its range, thanks to politics, habitat loss and dwindling numbers hunting in most places is difficult at best. Not so in Montana, where hunters enjoy a 62 day season, 2-birds daily bag limit, 4-birds in possession and over the counter license. But the best things are public land hunts with little or no competition.
Our biggest grouse, cocks can weigh 7 pounds, hens half as much. Mature cocks make the most dramatic mounts, smaller males, hens and youngsters eat best. With experience you can tell the difference between cocks and hens in flight.
Sage grouse and sagebrush are joined at the hip. Early on hunt the wet meadows, spring seeps, even alfalfa fields at the edge of sagebrush. Lacking a grinding gizzard sage chickens cannot digest weed seeds, grain or other hard food stuffs. Early season diet consists of succulent greens?forbs, dandelion leaves, gum weed?and insects, especially ants. As the season wanes sagebrush leaves and berries start to show up, by the last week or so of season crops often contain nothing but.
Water is a good place to start. Great wanders and strong fliers the dogs often locate large concentrations a long way (in human walking terms) from water. Find fresh droppings (greenish as opposed to desiccated gray and white) and you best get the guns up. Binoculars help to keep track of wild flushes but gray birds in gray sage can and often do vanish into thin air?really. In the southwest early season hunting is usually best above 6000 feet; I've shot sage hens above 8000 feet in September.
Big running, stanch pointing dogs can be hard to find in a sea of sage often measured in hundreds square miles. Hot tip: Save your legs and the anxiety looking for lost dogs by ordering a Garmin Astro from LCSupply.com
Good to go in 5 of 7 Management Regions the best hunting is in Beaverhead County in the the southwest corner the state and Region 7 in the southeast. Various maps showing roads, distribution, land ownership and such are invaluable; available from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, BLM and U.S. Forest Service. FYI some Block Management Areas (free hunter access to private land) offer excellent hunting.
Every hunter I know has strong opinions on guns and loads. For what is worth I shoot a 20-gauge over-under, improved cylinder both barrels, 2 ", 1-ounce, #7 1/2s.
If cared for and cooked properly sage chicken is delicious. In the field draw, butcher and ice down ASAP. In the kitchen, breast out, save the legs and thighs for soups, stews, stir fry, sausage whatever. Soak breasts in buttermilk overnight. Prior to cooking marinate for 3 or 4 hours, grill breasts quickly and never?repeat after me?never?over cook.
Waterfowl, Huns and/or sharp-tailed grouse are distinct possibilities. In the southwest fly fishing is a nice change of pace, a good way to wile away a hot afternoon. Most small towns offer dog friendly motel rooms, decent meals and friendly service. I prefer to drag the camp trailer and hunt right out the back door.
Licenses are available on line at fwp.mt.gov or over-the-counter locally at sporting goods stores and fly shops. A non-resident upland bird/fishing and conservation license costs $120. Major airline service is available in Billings, Bozeman and Idaho Falls, all within reasonable driving distance of good hunting.
? by Chuck Robbins
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