Sharp-Tailed Grouse Hunting in Michigan

A Personal Account Written by Bruce Basom

In 1961, I made my first trip to the Michigan Upper Peninsula (U.P.) to hunt ruffed grouse, woodcock and waterfowl. However, it did not take me long to discover the other grouse that could be hunted in Michigan – the sharp-tailed grouse (STG). Originally, my STG hunting was primarily centered west of Seney in Schoolcraft County on the Bullock Ranch management area on both sides of M-28. There it was possible to pursue and harvest both STG and ruffed grouse all within the same basic habitat type – brush, willow and light aspen. Later, my hunting was expanded north and east to the Danaher Plains, and north and west to the Kingston Plains and Prairie Creek Marsh in Alger County. Birds were consistently flushed and harvested on all these areas until the open season was closed. Over the time that these public land areas were hunted, the habitat type was largely flat or lightly rolling pine plains, with poor sandy soil. The Michigan DNR completed some active management largely through timber sales that continue today, but the large expansive open and semi-open areas needed by STG gradually became reduced in size and largely fragmented from each other. During the time that STG were hunted there, my flush rate was probably 3 or 4 birds per hour, but the likelihood of obtaining an opportunity to actually harvest a bird within 50 yards of me was about one opportunity every four hours. Much of the best cover was semi-open with clumps of brush, short aspen and pine, so the birds would not flush and fly a long distance. As a consequence, a fair number of birds could be re-flushed.

Beginning in the early to mid 1980s, one of my friends lived in the eastern U.P. and I had some opportunities to hunt STG on hay and small grain private farms, primarily in Chippewa County south of Sault Ste. Marie. The habitat type tended to be relatively large hay fields consisting of clover and birdsfoot trefoil. The clay soil delayed hay cutting until perhaps mid-July or later. Often there was just one cutting, and never more than two per year. With some brush and/or abandoned farms nearby, the habitat was suitable habitat for STG. Additionally, and unlike the public land areas further to the west that required active management efforts, the hay fields were kept open by private ownership with a business interest. On these areas, an experienced hunter could expect to average 5 or 6 bird sightings per hour, maybe more, but unfortunately the birds consistently flushed at a distance well outside the effective range of a shotgun and were apt to fly long distances. Consequently, opportunities to re-flush the birds were not very frequent. It might take six hours on the average for an opportunity to harvest a bird. In the eastern U.P., my flush rate per hour has not changed much from the 1980s. If anything, my flush rate is higher now than it was in the 1980s, but this may be due to more experience and knowing where to find birds on my part as opposed to significant habitat changes.

Unlike pheasants that are often found in higher and reasonably dense grass cover, STG prefer short grass of mixed height and density, usually between the top of a hunter’s ankle and the bottom of the hunter’s knee. As a result, with or without dogs, the birds are difficult to approach. For that reason, I hunt with a well-weathered 1967 Browning Over and Under 12 gauge shotgun chambered for 3 inch shells and choked Full and Full. It is kind of a sorry looking gun with a beat-up slip-on recoil pad that extends the length of the pull 3/4ths of an inch and is held together with “gorilla tape,” but it has never failed to fire and has assisted in the harvest of a lot of upland game birds. I use turkey loads with 1 and 7/8ths or 2 ounces of #5 or #6 size lead shot because it takes a lot of energy to knock down a STG, and more pellets just increase the chances of success at the maximum ranges where harvest can be reasonably anticipated by an accurate firing.

In terms of weather, I prefer overcast days with high daily temperatures between 50 and 60 degrees F with little or no wind. Wind speeds over 10 mph are counter productive and winds greater than 20 mph may keep the birds out of the open fields. A little dew in the morning is okay, but rain is mostly not good and snow is just plain bad. My best luck at flushing birds is clearly in the morning from dawn until about 9:30 a.m., but for purposes of harvest, midday and evenings are probably just as productive. During these times, the birds can be found in light brush, potholes, along the edges of hay fields so long as the trees are less than 20 to 25 feet high and on abandoned farms. Finally, another likely place to find STG is a pasture where cattle are actively grazing. The cattle tend to keep the grasses down, but there is still some cover to conceal the birds from predators. Unfortunately, the farmer pasturing cattle is not likely to allow hunting, which just encourages STG to use these areas as safe sanctuaries from hunters.

In terms of land availability for STG hunting, there is very little public land where STG are consistently present. For that reason, The Michigan DNR has leased 5,000 plus acres of private land under the Hunting Access Program (HAP). These private lands are located in Chippewa County and are all lands where STG can regularly be found, both east and west of I-75. Any prospective STG hunter should be willing to walk at least 5 miles per day and 10 miles would be better. A hunter must also be patient, because it is not unusual to go several hours between flushes. Even so, from the 2010 hunting season through the 2021 season, I have not personally gone more than about a half day without flushing birds. Finally, prospective STG hunters should be satisfied with the quality of the experience as opposed to the flush rate per hour or the quantity of the harvest. Good luck and successful hunting.

For more information about the Hunting Access Program (HAP), including dates for hunting sharptails, visit our Recreation page or the DNR’s official page.

One thought on “Sharp-Tailed Grouse Hunting in Michigan

  1. Good article Bruce, the Sharptail is a most exasperating bird. All day long they will flush anywhere from 70 to 200 yards ahead of you and “chuckle” at you and your dogs. Then, when you are headed back to the truck defeated and worn down from a long day of wearing out the bottom of your boots, a covey will burst from right under those same boots. If you are lucky, extremely lucky, you might scratch one down with your second or third shot, if you’re gun is still loaded. If not, you will stand humiliated, cursing the bird with the sense of humor as he flies away chuckling at you and your dog. Bruce’s friend from the Eastern U.P.

    On Mon, Oct 18, 2021, 11:34 AM Michigan Sharp-Tailed Grouse Association wrote:

    > michigansharptails posted: ” A Personal Account Written by Bruce Basom In > 1961, I made my first trip to the Michigan Upper Peninsula (U.P.) to hunt > ruffed grouse, woodcock and waterfowl. However, it did not take me long to > discover the other grouse that could be hunted in Michiga” >

    Like

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