Camp Swampy is hardly your typical hunting camp as it’s a house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, plus lots of additional rooms for storage and other needs. But the hooker with Camp Swampy is that the property enjoys a one-mile frontage with the famous Yellowstone River in Montana. So not only does Dale own Spanish Grulla, AYA, Arietta and other fine shotguns – he has a mile on one of the world’s greatest and most famous rivers. No wonder I’m envious.
Arguably, Dale Spartas is the USA’s foremost outdoor photographer. He’s in demand by private individuals, his books, often the coffee-table type loaded with spectacular photos, have been some of the best selling outdoor books ever. But, bottom line, he’s a wonderfully down-to-earth guy, and I think he’d rather turn his dogs loose in bird cover, of course carrying one of those fine shotguns – and tramp after upland birds, than anything else.
Dale had agreed to show me some Hungarian partridge, for which much of Montana, where he lives, is famous. Otherwise known as the gray partridge and by bird biologists as perdix perdix – next to ruffed grouse the “hun” has always been my second favorite game bird. In Spanish word “perdiz” simply means “partridge” – so you can bet this bird is just that – a plain old partridge.
Sexes are similar in appearance. Size is roughly 12 - 13-inches long – so figure about half way between a ruffed grouse and a bobwhite quail. The breast and upper abdomen are a finely vermiculated gray – thus the bird’s name. The tail feathers are a rusty brown. Once in hand most hunters fan that tail out for an admiring look-see. Obviously, that fanned-out tail is much smaller than a ruffed grouse’s spread fantail.
In Montana, Dale and I concentrated on hunting huge cattle pastures, and, this is extremely important, pastures that were not overgrazed. If overgrazing does take place there’s no hiding/escape cover for the Hungarians. As you’ve probably heard, a lot of over grazing does take place out west. Further, Montana doesn’t get all that much summer rain, but that area does get one heck of a lot of hot sun, especially in the summer. If overgrazing does take place it can take five, six, seven and more years for the natural grasses to catch hold and make a comeback. Further yet, a pasture that held lots of nutritious and ankle-high grass last year may be overgrazed the next. Consequently, I was lucky to have Spartas take me by the figurative hand and lead me to pastures that held excellent cover.
The first morning Dale was carrying a beautiful and light Grulla 20 gauge side by side while I carried my Beretta 12 gauge 686 Ultralight – the model with the alloy receiver and the tungsten breech face insert – an over and under that weighs only 6 pounds – about the same as Dale’s 20 bore. I had arranged for Morris Baker at RST Shotshells to send us some of their excellent ammo to shoot in Montana.
What I like about RST shells is that they are very low in recoil, most of their offerings are at less than 1200 feet per second velocity, in my tests I’ve found they pattern beautifully, I already knew they were excellent killers of upland game from my experience with them back in my home state of Pennsylvania, and the loads performed to their high level of excellence in Montana. RST began in the 1990s – catering to blokes who were buying English 12 gauge doubles with 2 ½-inch chambers. Not only does RST offer those, but their line has expanded tremendously, and 2010 has been their best year ever. These are not bargain-basement priced shotshells, but I’m telling you they really work.
But back to that first morning hunt. Ruby, Dale’s Pointer, does not show her 15 years of age. Spartas says Ruby is the best dog he has ever had. Despite hot temperatures Ruby did herself proud for at least 100 minutes, and by the time we got back to the Suburban it was already in the 70s. That’s a lot of performance for a 15 year old dog.
I can still see her first point in my mind’s eye. Dale walked in on one side me on the other, and we both killed a single cleanly, Dale shot his on his side, my bird went my way. What a good start.
Speaking of hot weather Dale and two of his friends that we later hunted with – all wore Quilomene vests, vests with a collapsible water container worn in the vest back – next to the area used for carrying bagged game. A plastic tube runs out of the back of the vest from the water container, the tube with an open/close faucet on the end. In this dry country carrying water is essential for the dogs (yourself, too). I don’t see how dogs operated out here without these unique vests. The dogs know the water is there, too. Every 10 minutes or so they would come back and take a hearty drink, Dale giving water from the tube at a fast drip so the dogs wouldn’t take on too much or get the water in the wrong place.
We swapped Ruby for Dale’s four year old English setter, Meg. Remember – we put her down when it was already above 70 degrees. Meg is locally born and bred, and it didn’t take her long to start stretching out over that Montana pasture/prairie. I can still see her running, full bent, tail high and cracking. If you have never hunted wide open country like this I suggest you give it a try. I’m getting too old for hunts of this type, but I still did it. Get in walking shape before you try this, and take along a comfortable well broken in pair of boots. For the uninitiated you are going to be surprised at how big this country is and how far each walk will be. But that’s great – not bad.
As wide as Meg ran – I remember how she stayed in so well when that became necessary. She made a point and held it perfectly while Dale and I walked the figurative country mile to reach her. Once along side her she moved forward, pointed, moved forward again, pointed again. This went on for about 150 yards, so you know she was working a running partridge. But she never moved too fast, always stayed cautious. When the bird finally did go out the flush was to my right – Dale positioned to my left.
My footwork on the first shot was anything but admirable as I didn’t have time to get my front foot around toward the “hun’s” departing direction. Don’t forget that right-handed shooters can’t swing very far to the right – unless they move their feet. So I missed the first shot but did get my feet turned around enough in the partridge’s direction that I rolled the little fellow up with the second shot.
But that was just the first day of Hungarian partridge hunting in Montana. We chased these challenging birds for three more days. Despite the hot weather it was still a wonderful experience. Hungarian partridge populations are subject to significant highs and lows. Overgrazing has already been noted as a reason for decline, but Montana can have some horrible winters, and when that happens bird numbers usually take a nosedive. Weather during the spring hatch is also an obvious “numbers” factor. But if conditions are good this upland bird can spring back fairly quickly as brood sizes tend to be about eight chicks.
Like pheasants, Hungarian partridge were brought into this country – “huns” from their native southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. While hunting “huns” is not as popular as chasing ringnecks I urge any of you to try this “gray” partridge for I bet you come to love the bird, the country he inhabits, the dogs that try to find him, and the guns that try to hit him.
6631. Dale Spartas with a couple of Hungarian partridge that he shot with his Spanish Grulla side by side.
6645. In Montana you hunt big, wide-open country when after Hungarian partridge.
6720. Nick Sisley with a brace of “huns.” On his shoulder is the Beretta 686 Ultralight mentioned in the text.
6740. Ruby, Dale’s 15 year old Pointer – on the move in the sunset light.
6698. This is part of the Yellowstone River frontage that Dale Spartas owns. What a view – the Crazy Mountains are in the background.
6674. Dale’s Camp Swampy.