Silence of the Windy Wheat

When the wind blows on the prairie, the clatter drowns all other sounds, until you don’t hear much of anything. But there’s plenty to see, out to the curvature of the earth. It can be hard to tell what’s bigger, the sky or the endless sea of waving grass.

The colors are worth noticing, even if it all looks brown at first glance. It isn’t. There’s white, rust, copper, and the toughest shades of silver and black you’ll ever come across. The wild prairie is merciless at times, and that’s probably why more people don’t live out here. Peaceful, even when it’s forceful, and one of the greatest places to hunt birds if you love to unleash a good dog and let the dog take you hunting.

If you read magazine articles about how to successfully hunt upland game, tackling enormous tracts of prairie grass, one hunter, one dog, is exactly what they tell you not to attempt. Too much real estate, way too many escape options. Get on a bird, and you will probably cross from one habitat type to another before you either get a shot, watch it flush wild, or the bird gives you the slip. But in this type of pure pursuit, talented dogs learn their craft. In this ocean of possible hiding places you get to see the real game of cat and mouse, if you can control yourself, let the dog hunt, and do nothing more than stay in position and shoot when the time comes.

The chase, in this case, is more than fair.

One actual spot that defines this scenario, probably my favorite ever, is on the border between North Dakota and Saskatchewan. A good friend, Harold Reistad, drove me out there one afternoon many years ago, when I could walk farther and faster than I can now. We went separate directions and, dog whistle in his gnashing teeth, Harold said to meet at the truck when it was getting dark.

No matter how featureless you might consider the prairie to be, there are always distinctive landmarks. I remember making a mental note about an odd-shaped mound and small sodium lake that would help keep things straight. While I was still gathering up our bearings, my black lab Buddy led me up the first grassy hillside, we topped it, and that’s when I saw all the way to Canada.

Along the crest of the next ridge he hit a bird, snapping me back into the hunt. Tight muscles, black shiny fur, then only glimpses of orange collar when the chase moved into waist-high cover.

A certain angle of his neck and head told me that we were closing. A few final, frantic changes of direction and Buddy stopped dead and stared into the grass. His tail twitched, but nothing else moved. The bird was right there and I could see him already, in my mind, because I knew what he was going to look like. The dog held long enough for me to walk in tight, and I released Buddy by saying Git ‘Im! and the dog plunged forward and the bird’s wings fought the cover, but fear of the canine teeth pushed it free, a beautiful rooster that flared its tail and swung up and to the right. The shot shattered the silence of the windy wheat, and the bird’s momentum carried it, in a heap, to Buddy, who was running along underneath its flight.

I know that good trainers say your dog is supposed to sit at the flush and mark the bird down before being sent for the retrieve, but I’ve always had this thing about that. I want my dog to chase the bird I’m going to shoot at, like Willie Mays running and looking over his shoulder to track that long fly ball in the World Series, the famous basket catch. I want my dog to be on that bird when it goes down. If my dogs chase a hen, so be it, because by the time they do that a few times, it’s easy to holler “no bird” and call them off.

Do this over and over, together, and you become a team.

On this day, that first winding chase played out a dozen more times in the next couple hours. I shot one more rooster and went along for the ride on the others. Buddy kept jumping up out of his stance to watch long-tailed birds ride their wings until they blended with the background, and he kept looking back at me to see if I was still on the team.

At one point, Buddy was hot on a bird at the same time a flock of sandhill cranes was wheeling overhead. Even though I couldn’t hear what they were singing, for the windy wheat, it was spectacular. At another point, a small flock of sharptails came flying directly at us, for whatever reason. Maybe they were moving from food to roost? Maybe they were chased into the air by a coyote? I hunkered down in the grass like I was hiding from approaching mallards. When the grouse got close enough I stood up and fired, but it was only a wave goodbye.

At 6 o’clock, we filled the air with more sharptails, from a place where the wheat met the grass. They got up just a little too far away and effortlessly rode those wings, washing with the wind until we couldn’t see them anymore.

I’ve seen sharptails up close, and heard their clucking at the flush. This was better than that, and it was time to go find the truck.

– Mark Strand

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