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Images abound of Ernest Hemingway holding rooster pheasants and ducks. He speaks of hunting Hungarian partridge and jacksnipe in Idaho, quail in Arkansas, and even grouse in Michigan. But there is another bird. One that escapes the headlines and paparazzi photos. It is mostly shared in letters to family and friends…I speak of Hemingway’s hunting for the iconic sage grouse in Wyoming.

Hemingway arrived in the Cowboy State in July of 1928. He described the state as “damn lovely country”. A few months later in the early part of Fall, he seizes the moment and heads across the sagebrush in pursuit of birds. Hemingway writes in his journal that while hunting the Wind River Reservation he successfully bags nine “prairie chickens”. He uses this term to describe “sage hens” and “sage chickens” as he often uses all three interchangeably to describe sage grouse. The pristine and delicate landscape feeds Hemingway’s appetite…literally. During his time in Wyoming, he ranks his favorite wild game in order of preference, “sage hens” is ranked 8th in a list of eleven. He was keen on shooting and eating young “sage hens”.

The following excerpts below are but a few I located in Hemingway’s letters about sage grouse. They offer but a glimpse into his thoughts, ideas, and love for hunting the birds. The sage grouse and its delicate sagebrush ecosystem they called home had already begun to experience its downward plight in the 1920s. The 1930s bring many states to start closing and shortening their hunting seasons for sage grouse. The 1931 Wyoming hunting season is cut to two days (08/16 through the 18th). The daily limit is six sage grouse.

Hemingway writes…

Portion of letter to Maxwell Perkins – Perkins was Hemingway’s editor
August 9, 1932
L Bar T (Nordquist) Ranch, Wyoming

“…We have been down sage grouse shooting for five days – finest shooting ever in my life – Went down last Wednesday – Shot a limit every day – Never shot better…”

Portion of letter to Charles Thompson in Key West, Florida – Thompson was a close personal friend to Hemingway
August 10, 1932
L Bar T (Nordquist) Ranch, Wyoming

“Dear Charles
…Last week we went down for sage grouse shooting — They were thick — Big old ones weigh 8 to 10 lbs. apiece — nearly as big as wild turkey — a big target but can fly faster than pheasants and can carry lead — Found them in alfalfa fields — one flush of over 100 — got up at 4 a.m. But birds got up about 80 yards away — very sly — Later found a bunch that lay close — young ones about size and a half of a regular ruffed grouse — most fun shooting I’ve ever had — I shot 11 in the a.m. and 7 in the afternoon — next afternoon shot 7 again — also shot 5 jackrabbits — certainly wished you were there —
Took a big old cock to Will Richards to mount “strutting” – It will be done in 3 weeks and he will ship it to your care… — will you keep it at your house until we get down?…”
“…It sure will be swell to see you and to hunt. Would have given anything if you could have had that sage chicken shooting…Pauline doubled on 3 with me and 3 with another guy – I know she hit at least 4 — She killed 4 {But she wouldn’t claim to kill because we shot too — } She killed 4 cripples that were running away –…”

Hemingway’s letter no doubt paints a picture of the excellent sage grouse hunting in Wyoming. This must be enough, for Thompson arrives in the last days of August or early September to hunt with Hemingway. And if you’re wondering about the “big old cock”, it is described as a “novel sage grouse mount” where it sat at one point on a table in the living room/library at the Hemingway home at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West, Florida.

ernest hemingway riding horse in wy

Ernest Hemingway riding a horse in the shadow of Pilot Peak on the L Bar T Ranch.

Letter to Patrick Hemingway – Patrick is Heminway’s second son
August 12, 1932
L Bar T (Nordquist) Ranch, Wyoming

“Dear Patrick:
How are you and how is Hooley and Gregory?
Papa took mama down to go to church and we went shooting too. We shot 24 Sage hens. They are bigger than chickens and fly very fast and make a big roar when they fly. We have eaten nearly all of them and eat the rest tomorrow. My they are good!…”

The backstory to the above letter to Patrick, goes that Hemingway and his wife Pauline leave Cody, Wyoming, and are driving to Powell so she can attend Mass. Hemingway talks about a changing landscape of sagebrush and a perfect setting to shoot “grouse”. While traveling home to the L Bar T Ranch on the rough roads, they experience car trouble after damaging the oil pan. They find a place to stay in Cooke City while repairs are made. Hemingway unable to sit around and waste the opportunity heads into the sage landscape. For four days he hunts sage grouse. On August 8th he and Pauline return home with a carload of birds. Hemingway would say that it had been some of the best shooting in his life!

Portion of letter to Josephine “Josie” Merck – Merck is a friend from Montana
August 12, 1932
Wyoming

“Dear Josie…
Damn how we missed you – We shot lots of sage hens – You would have liked it – Got our and our friends and hosts limits – …Had birds all packed in a big box with ice and evidentially they weighed more than you did — …”

ernest hemingway writing in wyoming - getty images

Ernest Hemingway writing in Wyoming. Photo from Getty Images

Portion of letter to Mary Pfeiffer who returned to Key West, FL on September 22nd. – Hemingway’s second wife
Timeline puts this sometime during the third week of August of 1932
L Bar T (Nordquist) Ranch, Wyoming

“But we shot 24 sage grouse – Some nearly as big as turkeys – and had a wonderfully fine and enjoyable trip – Really a grand time – And eating Grouse ever since — …”

You will most certainly had noticed in reading Hemingway’s boastings above that he may have hunted outside the scope of the set Wyoming season and exceeded his daily limits of sage grouse. I hold absolutely no speculation to this as it is unclear as no detailed information could be found regarding the state’s game laws and possession limits in 1932, nor the circumstances under which Hemingway hunted.

Hemingway did not overtly act on behalf of conservation. His desire was evident in that he wanted to visit intact, frontier landscapes in which to hunt and fish. He sought out those wilderness areas where wild animals flourished…and sage grouse indeed prospered, at least where he lived and hunted as seen by the number of birds he wrote about in his letters. It’s clear that Hemingway had a deep appreciation for the natural world and I would like to believe that he had that same connection to the sage grouse.

“When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.”

Ernest Hemingway — Winner Take Nothing


Edgar Castillo Author and Hunter

Author, hunter, law enforcement officer, and father, Edgar Castillo

Author Edgar Castillo is a twenty-five plus year veteran law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. Edgar also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years.

He longs for the colors of autumn and for frosty, winter days so he can walk the landscapes in pursuit of wild birds in wild places. Besides his faith and family, his passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.

Find him on Instagram @Hunt_birdz


Information obtained via “The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1932-1934” book, Edited by Sandra Spanier and Miram B. Mandel and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum