Fond memories of September sharptailsLate September in North Dakota meant sharp-tailed grouse hunting for us, and I still remember the indescribable anticipation of it as a teenager.
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
Late September in North Dakota meant sharp-tailed grouse hunting for us, and I still remember the indescribable anticipation of it as a teenager.
Sharptail hunting makes me think of Hoppe’s No. 9 nitro solvent, and an old Remington Model 870 in 16 gauge that was not so old at the time. It reminds me of the sweet chore of sorting through shotshells (paper hulls in those days), separating the No. 6s from the 7-1/2s, and stuffing them into the rows of elastic compartments sewn into a shell vest.
The toughest part was enduring that last afternoon of school, and I remember many times running all of the six blocks between school and home, leaves rattling in the street, the “whiskbroom winds of September,” as the late Gene Hill put it, helping the leaves along.
The hills near the Cannonball River are yellow-gold this time of year with green patches of snowberry here and there, the inviting draws of buffaloberry and scrub oak, and sun in the sky.
It has been a very long time since I’ve felt that welling up in my chest that makes me want to shout for joy, but I felt it every time my father Jake took brother Jim and me to “west of river,” as he put it. Redwing boots on my feet, some tan bird hunting pants and a cotton shirt under my vest, the 16 gauge in hand and I was ready to walk.
And walk we did — mile after mile, coursing through those wonderful, grassy hills, up and down the draws, one hunter on either side to be ready for the flushing sharptails, protesting “cuk, cuk, cuk” as they flew away. Even in my youth, I appreciated the significance of the country, the land where my great-grandparents homesteaded in 1901, migrating from Germany and Austria through Russia and to North Dakota. I still cannot imagine it, staking out a claim in that part of the world, living in a sod house, and somehow surviving. I don’t think I ever have been that tough and resilient.
But back to the hunting: Most years my uncles would be along for the hunt, and I treasure those weekends more than I ever would have believed. The stark reality of it is that I gave little thought to the fact that those few weekends over a handful of years were passing moments, never to happen again.
It didn’t occur to me that one day the Marine Corps and a procession of jobs would take me far away, keeping me from September sharptail hunting for years at a time. And I hadn’t thought that one day Jake and my uncles would get old, and that I too would get old, and that time would arrive quickly, thrust upon me without any notice, and I would have to deal with it.
The last time I remember hunting sharptails near the old family homestead was in 1973. My grandma Kuntz (Jake’s mother who died in 1991 at age 91) told me at the time that 1973 was the driest year since the Great Depression. I don’t know why I recall her telling me that, but I do. I don’t remember much about the actual hunting, but that we dressed out a couple grouse to give to Grandma, and that I shot a few rattlesnakes that year on the Standing Rock Reservation south of Solen.
Over the years, I shot a few sharptails in northeastern Wyoming and a good number of them in Montana, and enjoyed the experience every time.
But if you want me to be honest, none of it ever approached the magic I felt walking the hills of southwestern North Dakota in late September, thinking all the while that it all would last forever.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974