Shootin’ Sage Chickens
It was early evening, that little window of time between sunset and complete darkness. We were walking down the lane when we spotted them. Their silhouettes stood out in sharp contrast against the dim lit sky; their heads clearly visible. Dad raised his arm signaling me to stop. He put a finger to his mouth; an unspoken gesture that said I was to be extra quiet. He raised the .22 caliber long rifle to his shoulder, took aim and fired. His first quarry fell. He methodically fired two more times picking off his prey until three sage chickens lay dead on the ground.
I used to write a weekly nostalgia column for the Idaho State Journal. I was visiting with some friends at the Caribou County Fair a few years ago, and some of the comments turned to my columns and how they reminded them of some events of their own youth. The topic of shooting varmints with a “.22” entered into the discussion and that reminded me of the times I went with Dad to shoot sage chickens. Actually, he did the shooting. I was still too young at age 9 or 10 to be trusted with a firearm.
The legal age back then (1944 or ’45) for a minor to get a hunting license and use a gun in Idaho, was 12. I did eventually get my turn at chicken shooting, however, and I got to be almost as good a shot as Dad, but not quite. I shoot a rifle left handed, but my right eye is dominant, so I sort of ended up with a slight handicap for which I had to learn to compensate.
Dad bought his first dry farm north of Soda Springs, Idaho, in 1944. The state still owned a lot of sagebrush land out in that area that hadn’t been broken out yet. This provided excellent habitat for sage chickens. Dad’s farm was bordered on two sides by sagebrush, and sage chickens were readily available whenever we wanted to hunt them. Later, as more of this land came into private ownership and the sagebrush was broken out, the chicken population diminished as they moved to find better habitat.
We were still living in Grace, Idaho, at the time, and Dad would regularly take me with him to the farm where he would find some chore to keep me busy for the day. On a Saturday night, when the day’s work was done, he would say to me: “C’mon, son, let’s go see if we can get a couple of sage chickens to take home for mother to cook tomorrow for Sunday dinner.”
Dad carried his long barreled .22 caliber rifle in the pickup with him at all times, because in addition to providing good habitat for sage chickens, the sagebrush grasslands provided perfect habitat for ground squirrels (known also to some folks as “prairie dogs”). These squirrels loved the taste of young sweet tender barley. This was very damaging to barley crops, which made the elimination of as many of these varmints as possible a necessity.
.A lava rock reef ran along the farm’s west border, with sagebrush between the field’s edge and the reef. A lane also ran along the edge of the sagebrush the full length of the field. In the early morning, or late evening, sage chickens would wander along this lane. We would drive up to the southwest corner of the farm and park the pickup; get out and walk north along the lane until we spotted the chickens—which were most always there. They were usually in bunches of a dozen or more.
Since sage hens were very spooky and difficult to get into shotgun range, Dad preferred to shoot them with his .22. As a matter of fact, I don’t think he even owned a shotgun. Besides, if you wanted more than one bird from a flock, it was better to shoot them with a .22 caliber rifle, simply because the report from this small caliber weapon wasn’t any louder than a cap pistol.
When using a rifle, a shot to the head was the only effective way to bag these birds. In addition to being spooky, sage chickens are almost as stupid as wild turkeys. With a shot to the head, the remaining birds would just stand there and watch their companions get shot down, one by one, as though nothing were going on. If you went for a body shot, it wouldn’t always kill them on the first try, and the antics of a wounded chicken spooked the rest of the flock, causing them to fly away.
Head shooting obviously required a dead on shooter—which Dad was. Shootin’ chickens in this manner was sort of like the Sergeant York movie, where Gary Cooper told how he would go “wild turkey huntin.” That’s the way we hunted sage chickens. After we spotted the birds, we would quietly sneak closer until Dad felt they were within good range for his little .22 caliber rifle. He would draw a bead on these birds and pop their heads off. In the Sergeant York tradition, he started with the closest bird and worked his way through the flock. If one were so inclined, a shooter could wipe out the entire flock one bird at a time. We never took any more than two or three birds at any one hunt, however. Dad was very firm about that; “take only what you can immediately use,” was his motto. There would always be another day for another hunt.
In my mind, there is nothing to compare with a wild sage chicken dinner the way my mother used to prepare it. Wild sage chickens were a favorite treat around our house, and we enjoyed them whenever the opportunity presented itself. Mother would bread the birds in flour, brown them in the frying pan, and then steam them on low heat until tender. She would fix boiled potatoes, white country gravy, a green vegetable, (spinach was my favorite); baked squash, hot buttered rolls, and brew up a huge pot of green tea. If you’re into birds with all dark meat, I’m telling you, there isn’t a better tasting meal on this planet.
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a wild sage chicken dinner like the one just described. Whenever I think about such a treat, however, my mouth begins to water.
If you like reading nostalgia, perhaps you’d enjoy reading my book, Buddy…His Trials and Treasures, a book of adventures about a young boy growing up in 1940s rural America. For a free sample, click on the free download button at upper right of this page to receive the prologue and Buddy’s first three complete adventures. The book is also available for purchase at www.amazon.com.