There I Was…
It was September 16th and my first-day sage grouse hunting. I was off of work for three days and all I had was a bird-loving dog and a willingness to suffer. At the risk of sounding totally incompetent, I do have to admit: I wasn’t really sure what a sage grouse looked like, and second; I didn’t know where to find them.
I had received a hot tip from a non-hunter that said she always saw them hanging by the road on her way to work. I badgered her for an hour trying to figure out this spot on Google Maps. When I had an idea of where to go I packed up my car early and was out in the area by sunrise. No sooner then I had pulled up I was slammed with doubt.
Just sagebrush, hills, no trees, no grass, no water.
I was convinced I had been bamboozled in a non-Wyoming native prank. I stood outside my car contemplating with Bandit who was staring out the window next to me. I figured since I drove this far, why not at least run the dog for a little bit, maybe get a shot on a jackrabbit. Bandit disappeared about three seconds after opening the car door – the long bumpy dirt road out here always seems to psych him up. His constant straining whine in my ear the whole time. I took off at a moderate pace behind him for about two hours, wading through the shin-high sage.
As I walked, I started to observe things I had missed on arrival. Herds of antelope cruised the plateaus, mule deer poked through some of the larger drainages, coyote tracks left and right. What I thought was a dead zone was teaming with Wyoming critters. I had to crack a smile at this point, realizing what I had rendered a prank was a great way to see my new home. I was kicking dirt under my feet and I saw what looked like small greenish-white worms. If I hadn’t known better, I would say this is some sort of large upland bird scat. It only took a second to notice a change In Bandit’s behavior.
A bond between a man and his gun dog is a strong and odd relationship, developed between hours of observing each other. We sleep in the same bed, watch TV on the same couch, and dine at the same time. Our bond was closer than ever before, mostly a result of spending the past 8 months with only each other. I sensed his cues: a wag of his tail in a small circle, his shoulders dropped, eyes focused, butt moving a mile a minute. His lean gave away the secret of his track mind and his movements intensified. There was no doubt in my mind, we were close to these birds.
Suddenly, he paused, or rather pointed, exactly ahead of us. Here it was, one of my dog’s first points, on a bird I had never seen, in a place I had never been to. I took all of a half step forward when it happened the flush of 15 plus birds, all completely hidden creatures exploded around me as if I had stepped on a landmine. The instinct had kicked in so quickly I hadn’t even processed what had happened until my gun was off my shoulder.
A single bird tumbled down as Bandit blurred past where I stood. The first shot I took had connected so clean and quick it actually blew my mind. Bandit dove into the sage and emerged from a larger bush on the other side. His mouth held what looked like a black and white juvenile turkey. His eyes were the size of saucers as he bounced back to me. It was a moment I had dreamed of for years, ever since I had started bird hunting. I held the bird in my hand, the weight of the prize still startling me. How could such a large bird live so well hidden in what I had first assumed was a sage wasteland?
As a consumptive user of our public lands, I smiled so deep inside I couldn’t help but start to laugh. I had taken what little I knew and here I was, dinner in hand and dog in front. I took the bird and quickly shoved it into my bag, ready to chase my second and final bird of the day. Bandit took off too, maintaining his distance as he realized what we were doing. He needed no more cues or commands, relying on years of breeding and instinct. We had made it about 200 yards before again he struck still and silent. Just as my heart rate started to increase, the flush was sprung. Another large group of sage grouse took off in every direction, and again, I had shot true. The bird fell and Bandit took off.
As I picked up the pace to catch up with him, I hear the ruffle of a bush, a rabbit taking off in the opposite direction. After making quick eye contact with Bandit, it was clear the plan had changed. He quickly wheeled around and gave chase. One quick spot was all I needed and the rabbit crumbled into a bush.
My attention turned to where I thought the 2nd bird lay. As I got closer, I sent Bandit to retrieve again, his nose laser-focused. While finding a dead Sage grouse in sagebrush can be near impossible, Bandit quickly bounced back to me, head lumbering under the weight of what was my 2nd dinner for the week. I pulled some tailfeathers out to reward Bandit for his super successful day.
As he munched on the tails, I took a minute to appreciate the features of the grouse.
The black and white feathers had such an unmistakable placement on the bird. I had never seen a natural pattern like this before on a feathered game. The distinct and splotchy hues ran down to its feathered legs and feet. The bird itself was art. I placed the last treasure in my bag realizing I had reached my limit. I had yet to experience this level of success in almost all of my hunting career and yet I found myself with a full heart and bag to boot.
I walked back to the car with an unloaded gun. The sun had just begun to set, but the big dumb smile on my face kept getting bigger, complete satisfaction grew with every step. The very real and emotional lift of that day is still unmatched, but I will always remember the feeling of belonging and home that I had not just stumbled into, but earned. The last ray of sun hit my car as we finally loaded up, all in all, it was a pretty good day.
Wyoming Wildlife Federation is at the forefront of conservation in this state. Whether it is in legislative sessions or boots on the ground WWF has had a role to play in conservation. I’ve always said there are two types of people. Those who mold their passions into work, and those who work to feed their passions. Every single member of WWF is so absolutely ingrained into their work because this is their passion. The staff works tirelessly to ensure the future of what I believe is the greatest state in the country. WWF has tackled issues from highway safety and wildlife crossings to sage grouse and mule deer habitat. This is an organization that values its members as they understand they are the voice of Wyoming. I have seen this organization reach out time and time again to our state’s leaders in regards to what matters personally affect me. Whether it’s fighting for our public lands and or fighting to provide funding for migration projects WWF has been there 110%. I am Sam Stein and I am a very proud member of WWF.
Recipe: Sage Grouse Breakfast Burrito
¼ cup salt
4 cups water
1 Sage Grouse Breast
Approx. 2 tbl of bacon grease
4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried onion
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)
The first step to this recipe is to brine your birds. I can not stress enough how big of a difference this makes. Not only does it help to keep the meat from drying up but it also helps to reduce the fowl “gamey” taste we so often hear about. The best part is it’s super easy. I take the breasts out, skin off, and simply let them soak in the saltwater overnight in the fridge and take them out when I’m ready to cook.
I like to chop the breasts into very small chunks, approx. ¼ inch chunks, before sautéing them in the bacon grease. The problem we often find with wild game is due to the lack of fat game meat can dry out rather quickly. Thankfully we can compromise and use the bacon grease here to coat the little chunks in heavenly oils. Once the meat is about halfway cooked through I like to throw in the seasonings and cook it to completion. Sometimes you may need to add a small amount of chicken stock depending on how much liquid is in the pan. It should cook down as well until you have a small amount of sauce as well. You know it’s done when the sauce coats the back of a spoon and the grouse has finished cooking through. I am not sure what it is about the combination of seasonings but I have never made this and had someone actually dislike it. I use the meat mostly for breakfast burritos in the duck blind but feel free to use this in any Mexican food dish.
Note: For authentic street tacos I like chopped red onion, chopped cilantro, a dollop of sour cream, a squeeze of a lime, and a spoonful of grouse on a corn tortilla.
Sam Stein is originally from Chicago, Illinois where he filled his off days in Illinois with chasing critters in the woods of the midwest. Soon enough, he realized he wanted to hunt big open spaces and live closer to the wild he is so fond of, so in 2017, he moved to Lander, Wyoming with his Weimaraner bird dog, Bandit. After two years dedicated to chasing birds in the west, he was hired by Jackson Hole Fire, where he is currently a firefighter Paramedic. He remains passionate about chasing feathers and any adventures with Bandit.
Follow along with Sam and his pup on Instagram @samandbandit.
Do you care about sage grouse conservation? Please consider supporting WWF’s work improving sage grouse habitat by giving during our 2020 Fall Fund Drive.