The upland slam

Despite the headwinds on the prairie due to lower numbers of upland birds resulting from habitat loss and drought, this season marked a monumental first for me. By combining a September trip to the pine-and-popple forests of northeastern Minnesota, along with weekly adventures between the southwestern corner of that state and the plains of North Dakota, I was able to piece together the upland slam, harvesting all four major upland bird species available to most hunters in the upper Midwest. Almost as an afterthought, I put together the combination of ringneck pheasant, ruffed grouse, sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in my head from this autumn’s trips. The feat took nearly the entire season, with the final piece falling into place last week.

The start of the slam came in late September, while visiting family on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota. With ruffed grouse populations on the upward peak of their decadal cycle, opportunities at flushing thunderbirds were plentiful — relatively speaking — once the soaking rains that wetted 25 of that month’s 30 days let up for two good days of weekend walking. In the chill following Friday’s front, under clear blue skies and a canopy of red and gold maple and aspen trees, a lone grey-phase ruffie rose from the forest floor, and a second shot connected with the bird. Despite many missed shooting opportunities leading up to it, that ruffie would be my only one; just enough to start the trip around the proverbial bases.

Following the festivities of the Governor’s Hunt in Marshall, I picked off a far-flushing rooster pheasant which was quickly joined by two more, taken by my father-and-son hunting companions, Ron and Sam, on a piece of public land we were sure had been hammered on the opening weekend. But a winding walk deep into the grass along the boggy cattail edge of the WMA gave us each a bird, and the parcel alongside the blacktop of Highway 19 near Ivanhoe. reinforced the idea that each area open to public hunting is worth exploring, no matter the apparent pressure.

Early November’s cold and snow set the stage for a wave of flushing sharptailed grouse along a treeclaim on some PLOTS acres north of Bismarck, N.D., where the trailing bird in a pair of close-departing stragglers provided a near-perfect right-to-left-cutting shot. Crash landing in the remaining snowbank from the recent squall, the sharpie was an easy retrieve for my young pup, Ole. All down the rest of the walk, dozens of the laughing prairie birds would take flight, giving insight that huntable populations of sharpies still remained in the region and served as seeds of hope for a better spring and more hunts like that particular one next fall.

Finally, following one of his first points on a tight-holding rooster, my dog finished up our remaining walk, splitting a pair of Hungarian partridge in chilly December air over a small stretch of private grass north of New Salem, N.D. He took after the bird that broke right, and my shot rang out as I spun after the one that went left, sending it into the beige grasses for an easy pickup. Admiring the rust-tinted grey plumage on the small upland bird, I placed it in my vest’s game pouch before I realized what the Hun signified; but as I opened the door on my F-150, it came to me.

It was a combination of luck, opportunity, skill and dog work that had helped make it my first Upland Slam in a season possible despite limited time in the field, and limited populations to chase after in some areas. On a mix of the alphabet soup of public lands across two states — WPA, WIA, WMA, and PLOTS — and access from generous landowners to some prime private parcels, the upland slam came to be. While I hope to find more pheasants on old familial lands in western North Dakota, and the chattering flush of Hungarian partridge interspersed in greater numbers wherever my bootleather may be worn shiny by the grass of open fields, soaked by soggy slough bottoms and frosted by drifted snow in the wide and varied places that the pursuit of upland birds takes me each autumn…in our outdoors.