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The rising sun swallowed the darkness of night and the foothills appeared closer as the morning mists gradually evaporated. It was warm for September, but the day looked promising and would probably remain sunny and clear all day.

I had taken the north road out of Edson, Alberta toward a small ranch of a friend. He’d suggested I park just above a big field close to a tiny footpath that led downhill toward a pole gate. It was quiet and there was no wind. I stopped for a moment to admire the glistening stubble from the harvested rows of oats. The sun warmed my back and shoulders.

It was great having the weekend off and it reminded me of a similar field I had visited several years earlier. A farmer north of Fort Assiniboine had given me permission to hunt there. I’d managed to collect three sharptails that morning. The owner said he’d seen several sharpies flee from the path of his tractor the morning before.

There were still a dozen big bales of golden straw left from the harvested grain near the south end of the field. I figured there was a good chance of flushing a few birds by the time I worked my way down the path and out into the field. I began walking slowly about fifty yards from a barbed wire fence to my right. A few minutes passed without sighting any birds. But from among the tufts of cut grain, I saw movement. Thirty yards away there was just a single head and beak showing. There were probably others close by alert and ready to fly. 

The grouse saw me long before I noticed it slowly strutting. When it stopped, I prepared to take a shot as soon as it flew. I gently released the safety and began to half raise the barrel of my 12-gauge automatic. The sharpie gathered itself to take off. Suddenly, it blasted into the air and tumbled into the stubble near the fence. Surprisingly, there were no other grouse to shoot at. After picking it up, I stood admiring the varied toffee-coloured plumage of the sharpie before sliding it into my game bag.

As I walked slowly toward the end of the field, I didn’t spot any more birds, but the moments turned into minutes and minutes into an hour and a half. Patience is a virtue hunters try to develop over the seasons. There was a bit of a swale at the end of the field close to the wire fence. I decided to sit cross-legged for a while by the fence opposite the surrounding woods and under the shade of a large over-hanging aspen. The water in my canteen was still cold, so I extracted a package of salmon sandwiches and an apple from my pack for lunch.

After lunch, I began strolling down the middle of the field, this time toward several big bales of straw at the opposite end. I continued slowly. Some hunters choose to walk a little faster but for me, taking your time seems the more relaxing way to hunt sharp-tailed grouse than trying to win a walking marathon. I moved out about 150 yards or so. Suddenly all hell broke loose! At least ten birds ran a fair distance through the stubble before taking off. Sharpies can really run until suddenly they all rise up in a cloud of feathers. Their speed was trying to get them to wherever they were headed before their tails caught up with them.

I managed to make two clean hits. The others headed off toward the fence on the far side of the field. There was no point in pursuing them. They had just seen me and had heard both shots. I resisted pressing them and headed on towards the opposite end of the field again. It was a long way and I didn’t really expect more surprises, at least not before I had scouted more of what was left of the big field. I was satisfied I’d seen those first sharpies so soon. It was a good sign. Three birds in the game bag was pretty good for one old upland gunner.

Time was not a factor as I strolled down a gentle slope toward the big bales at the north end. As I edged within fifty yards of the first bale, I released the safety and went on the alert just in case there were more surprises. A mature red-tailed hawk flew off one of the bales to my left. It glided over the open field where I saw it pounce on an unsuspecting field mouse. Nothing happened until I reached the third bale. I spotted two sharpies running toward the fourth bale. One of them went air-born and headed off toward the fence. It was too far for a clean shot. I moved a little closer to the fourth bale. Sure enough, the second sharpie broke from behind the fourth bale and flew in a low straight line toward the fifth bail. The bird flew directly away from me. The distance was only about thirty yards. Now that I had four beautiful sharptails in the game bag, I decided to relax and rest my back against the fifth big bail of straw in the corner of the field. I watched to see if there might be any new arrivals.

For two hours I sat admiring the view and watching the entire field. It’s amazing what hunters see when they stop for a while. Listening is also a habit that gunners appreciate by disciplining themselves to be observant during upland gunning exercises or while hunting deer and moose as well. Almost within minutes, I heard the familiar steps of an animal that suggested a deer was close by. The unsuspecting deer was about to materialize right beside me if it continued coming. It approached from the woods behind the fence and the fifth straw bale that concealed me. I slowly stood and remained absolutely still. The instant the deer stepped into view beside me, it immediately bolted making grunting sounds while galloping back off toward the woods again. He was a huge ten-point buck with his antlers still in the velvet stage.

In retrospect, seeing the birds and the red-tailed hawk catching a mouse and the ten-point deer that almost stepped on me made for a rewarding day. I waited a while longer before deciding to head back toward the pole gate again but as soon as I moved, another flock of sharptails flew onto the field and settled among some of the other bales of straw farther to the northeast. This time I could use a little wisdom I thought. At least I should have a look at them. The bales could act as a screen to get closer. It took a few minutes until I realized I was close to where I’d seen the sharptails landing. I moved slowly again, one-step at a time, scanning the stubble for any sign of the birds. Nothing moved. Either they were playing the game of find me if you can or I had misjudged their location. On the other hand, perhaps I had fooled them and was able to escape detection. It seemed that they were totally unaware of my presence. It happens sometimes – unwittingly of course. I knew these amazing birds could hide behind a blade of grass until the last moment. Then suddenly they all exploded from the stubble and scared the pee out of me. At that, I thought the birds deserved a break and I didn’t raise my gun. Two minutes passed and then bingo, three more sharpies decided to go air-born. I shot the one bird and called it a day.

Heading back into Edson on a good stretch of gravel road, I saw three coyotes crossing the fields and another deer. Several old friends met me at the Edson gas terminal at Smitty’s restaurant. They’d been elk hunting but hadn’t seen a thing all day. Billy said they saw lots of tracks and fresh scat, but there was nothing standing in the tracks. Mitch jokingly added, “Yuh can’t eat the blasted tracks y’know.” I enjoyed their humour, including a hot mug of coffee and a large slice of strawberry short cake. ■

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