Under a warm sun in mid-October, Mike and I began hunting around noon in the high plains of central Montana, which are wrinkled with deep and endless coulees. Cobalt skies provided stark contrast to the landscape’s muted hues of brown, tan, and olive.
We strapped bell collars on the vizsla and Lab, loaded our shotguns, and set out. We began in the canyon bottoms, following a serpentine creek that rushed with clear, cold water fed by many springs and where cover for pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse is plentiful. The wind, like every day since we’d arrived in Lewistown 10 days prior, blew steadily at 15 miles per hour with strong gusts, making for hard conditions. The pheasants weren’t holding—they either flushed well beyond shooting range or ran ahead for a hundred yards, driving the dogs and us to exhaustion.
While Mike cleans the guns and tends to the spent dogs, I cut off the bird’s head and inspect its crop. It is filled with fragrant greens that look and smell like chopped watercress.
The floodplain was a nearly impenetrable mix of cattails, willow, and grasses up to our shoulders. Weaving through such thick cover made slow going, even for the dogs. Our bare arms and the dogs’ bellies quickly became crosshatched with scrapes and scratches. Still, I consoled myself that with such heavy winds, this protected cover was our best bet.
I cut off the tail and reach up into its chest, grasp the windpipe, and tug, pulling the entire gastrointestinal tract down and out of the cavity. The begging Labrador devours the heart, liver, and gizzard whole. Although the bird is about the size of a chicken, the skin is thin and tears too easily to pluck, so I peel it off. After rinsing the cavity, I check for shot pellets and am pleased to find none. I will honor this bird by making a memorable meal. Unblemished and intact, it will make a delicious and appealing roast.
We flushed birds that we only heard—the taunting cackle and the whoosh of beating wings as a cock pheasant took flight. The dogs ranged in crazy pat- terns, trying to follow the scent of the other pheasants that ran and eventually took flight but only after we chased them through thick brush and crossed several barbed-wire fences. When we reached private land several miles downstream, there was nothing to do but retreat along the creek bed—the same way as we came in. Hunting the surrounding barren range and bluffs, normally great habitat for sharp-tailed grouse, seemed pointless in the relentless wind.
I pat the grouse dry and wonder about the breast meat’s dark color, which is usually found only in migratory birds. Like wild duck, it will stand up to a robust sauce. Contrary to what som- meliers preach, a hearty red wine will pair well with this fowl. Toasted-pecan wild rice and a green salad with balsamic vinaigrette will round out the meal.
We were dragging ourselves back to the truck when the dogs became birdy and a pheasant rocketed out of the rushes. “Cock!” I yelled to Mike as the bird madly beat its wings and flew across his field of vision. He fired, and the bird crumpled, falling straight into a large stand of towering thorn apples. “Dead bird. Dead bird,” we called out to the dogs, both already looking earnestly for the kill. We wove through the thicket, searching, while keeping our eyes on the dogs. After more than an hour of crawling around a couple-hundred-yard radius from where the bird dropped, we gave up the search, frustrated and saddened because we and the dogs couldn’t find it. We speculated that maybe it had washed downstream, lodged atop tall brush or maybe a tree, or run 500 yards away.
Before surrendering the grouse to the oven, I rub butter throughout the cavity, as well as some wild sage and juniper berries I’d foraged. Because the bird has no skin or fat reserves, I wrap the breasts and legs in pancetta to seal in the moisture. From the RV’s “wine pantry,” I pick out Reserva do Monte, a robust red wine from Portugal that is a bit lighter than, say, a cabernet. The label proclaims a “fruity wine, well structured and with smooth tannins,” meriting 90 points from The Wine Enthusiast.
In midafternoon and beneath a falling sun, we admitted being skunked and called it a day. We didn’t want to take the same way back to Lewistown, so consulted the large and detailed county road map. A one-square-mile chunk of state land in the middle of nowhere was linked to the traveled highway by a wispy line. Such an alternate route would be picturesque, if not expedient, and we might have time for a quick hunt.
The wispy line represented a one-lane gravel road that quickly degraded. After we passed through a ranch homestead, the trail morphed to a cattle path, a mere suggestion of a byway. I proposed we turn around, but Mike countered that we were halfway to the big road so it would be a waste of time and gas. Besides, we were almost to the section of state land where we might find a grouse on the open range since the winds had died down. His logic seemed sound, so I shoved aside my unease.
We open and sample the wine. Mike, who prefers Bordeaux, finds the Reserva do Monte more than good to drink. It will also work in the sauce and complement the bird. I am tempted to pour a generous glass to ease the stress, but restrain myself, needing to remain sharp in order to cook the bird righteous.
My eyes darted from the county map to the handheld GPS to the alleged “road” we were negotiating in four-wheel drive. In a land where you could see forever for 360 degrees, there was no noise as the winds had died down and the air reminded me of clean, line-dried, and pressed sheets. We crawled along, hindered by having to open and close cattle gates, ford streams, and, being in constant doubt, stop to consult the map. Just as the GPS indicated that we’d entered Montana public land, a sharp-tailed grouse flushed from the brushy roadside.
“Stop! Mike, get your gun!” I yelled, restraining the dogs in the cab while he jumped out, retrieved his shot- gun, and loaded it. The grouse flew again, Mike shot into the setting sun, and it fell stone dead 40 yards dis- tant on the scrubby plain. Not wanting to lose another bird, I ran and scooped it up with no thought about usurping the dogs’ retrieve.
As the sun cast long shadows, we admired the bird before quickly scrambling back into the vehicle. In the fading light, we wondered whether we’d recognize the fork in the road that the map indicated with a spidery- thin Y followed by a line that looked like a piece of cooked angel hair pasta.
After much probing and anxiety about overcooking the grouse, I pull it from the oven. I simmer the pan juices and fat on medium heat while adding a few more crushed juniper berries, a quarter cup of the red wine, a handful of cranberries, a tablespoon of maple syrup, and a splash of apple cider. When the cranberries burst and the juice reduces, I blend the mixture into a coarse sauce. Cutting the bird lengthwise, each serving has a breast and leg. If this roast sharp-tailed grouse were perfume, an apt description might be: the top note is a tangy blend of fruit intertwined with sturdy game; the middle note is reminiscent of worn leather and milk stout in a cowboy bar; the base note lingers like the scent of high plains sage on a sunny fall day.
“The fork in the trail has to be just over that rise!” I exclaimed, trying to reassure myself as much as direct Mike. The trace, a tattered ribbon in the dust and stubble, no longer meandered but straight-lined up the bluff in front of us.
“Oh my,” I understated as Mike, never one to hesitate, hit the accelerator and charged up the hill like cavalry. At the top of the hillock, the split appeared, like a wavy mirage. We agreed the left prong was the way to go. The sun hung inches above the horizon as we lumbered along, squinting to stay on course.
With no light pollution and clear skies, the heavens would be incredible. If we were caught overnight, all we’d need was a star chart and maybe a couple of beers.
The grouse is succulent and delicious, not so much as a result of my culinary skills, but because of the bird itself and its backstory. We chew slowly, savoring each bite and the memories of the previous day.
We pressed on, and as darkness wrapped around us, we reached a gravel road. In the distance we saw twinkling ranch lights to the north, but headed south to intersect the paved road leading to Lewistown. Ravenous and exhausted, we stopped in Hobson, a speck of a town, for a hard-earned burger and beer before driving the last 25 miles or so to Lewistown. We would eat the grouse the next evening after another day’s hunt.
Our dinner is punctuated with RV-made apple pie à la mode. I pour two cordials of cognac, its sweet acidity cutting through the butterfat of the crust and ice cream, enhancing the bright spiciness of the fruit. We continue reliving our adventure and plan the next day’s hunt. A feeling of warm well-being seeps in, reminding me that the journey—being lost under the Big Sky, chasing birds, and soothing achy muscles with tired dogs at your side—matters more than a full pouch of game.