Dennis Anderson
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Years ago when I lived in Ely and grouse season rolled around, as it will again Saturday the 16th, I regularly strolled into the woods toting a Model 12 Winchester.

I had cut down this vintage smoke pole from its original 30 inches to a more swingworthy 28 and bored it for Briley chokes, screwing in the cylinder option for Ol' Ruff. The Winchester wasn't much of a grouse gun but it was the only gun I owned. Cased, it could slide behind the seat of my '56 Willys pickup, while my yellow Labrador, Boogie, rode sidekick. Dinner was what we brought home, if anything.

Duck hunting is a good time, but the uplands and the many game birds they harbor — woodcock, pheasants, various species of quail, prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge, in addition to my Ely quarry, ruffed grouse — often attract wing shooting specialists who want nothing to do with targeting mallards or other fowl.

Exercise freaks by another name, upland hunters prefer to walk for their birds, often endlessly, rather than sit in a blind and await their prey to arrive over decoys.

Already this early fall, sharptail seasons are open in North Dakota and Montana, and Minnesota nimrods eager to wear out boot leather are striding across western prairies, having the time of their lives putting birds in their hands. Or trying to.

Among these is Jerry Kolter, who with his wife, Betsy, owns a Sandstone, Minn, setter and pointer training and breeding kennel. As you read this, Jerry's following an eager phalanx of his charges over hardscrabble flatlands, awaiting one of them to point and his other dogs to back — a visual rush that for centuries has inspired scattergunners and painters alike.

Bud Grant was more of a duck hunter than an uplander, but he could cover country like Big Foot if there was a chance a covey of sharptails lay ahead.

Years ago, Bud and I were in North Dakota, hightailing it through Bismarck, where at Bud's insistence we pulled over for ice cream.

"It's bad luck to drive by a Dairy Queen without stopping,'' Bud said.

"Words to live by,'' I said.

Bud was running a black Lab named Maggie at the time and she could go all day working the willowy draws that pockmark the country on either side of the Missouri, near the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

For my part, I put to ground a setter named Risky, and she and Maggie worked well together, one nearer, one farther out, angling into the wind or cutting it obliquely, eager to get a nose full of sharptail.

This was later in autumn, after pheasant season had opened, and we were chasing these florid birds, too — ditch parrots as some roustabouts call them.

By then in southwest North Dakota, the wheat stubble was colored goldenrod and the cottonwoods were shedding leaves. Each day, morning til sundown, we strode into this autumnal milieu, not killing many birds, but their scarcity hardly dampened our enthusiasm. In fact, the fewer the birds, the farther and faster we hiked, adopting like religion the uplander's credo, however fanciful, that just over the next rise, payoff awaits for sure, one sharptail after another, flying low and cackling.

Though not the blaze-orange holiday it once was, in the years after I finished school in Morris, the day the pheasant season opened, and the day before and the day after, was in aggregate that university's real homecoming, no football required.

A motel in that town, the Sunwood — now under a different name — was ringneck central over those long weekends in the '80s and into the '90s, and every manner of dog arrived there in every manner of pickup, their drivers guiding the rigs exuberantly.

Like birds of a feather, uplanders share an affinity for a certain look afield, beginning with well-oiled boots and including briar-proof pants, a warm-but-not-too-warm blaze orange shirt or jacket, and ending with a similarly colored ball cap and vest whose rear pocket is big enough to carry felled birds.

In Morris in those days, a few hundred of these similarly clad shotgunners would fan out posthaste from the Sunwood shortly after dawn on opening morning. Viewed from above, say as a red-tailed hawk could while catching the day's early thermals, this outpouring might recall a prison break, or perhaps a running start at Le Mans.

Such eagerness, whose seasonal stirrings begin just now, in September, is nearly as old as time itself.

As far back as the 1500s, Henry VIII waylaid grouse, woodcock and snipe in Britain with a crude form of shotgun that, while kicking like a mule, nevertheless toppled birds.

Daniel Myron Lefever, an American, accelerated both upland sport and meal provisioning when in 1878 he invented the first hammerless shotgun, and by 1908, the Sears & Roebuck catalog featured an impressive 23 pages of shotguns for sale, including the New England Hammerless, retailing for $11.95 and manufactured in the Sears & Roebuck factory.

So it is now, on the eve of the 2023 Minnesota ruffed (and sharp-tailed) grouse opener, and following it the woodcock and pheasant openers, that uplanders statewide are ripe for new beginnings.

Some of these sporting types will chase birds in Minnesota only, hoping in coming months with the aid of their springer spaniels, wirehaired pointing Griffons, Pudelpointers, Gordon setters and other canines to still the echos of their yawning freezers — the better to pass the coming winter.

Still other uplanders will consider the fall seasons here only a start, and in coming months will travel south to Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and then farther south still, to Texas and Arizona and even to Mexico, extending their days afield into next year, and hanging up their guns only then.

Boot leather was made for this, also briar-proof pants and blaze orange shirts, jackets, caps and vests.

And, I guess, Dairy Queens.