Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blue Grouse Training Camp

Flicka and the first grouse of 2011
It’s been a tough fall training camp, up on that western Montana mountain.

Trudging up and down those mountainsides, I couldn’t help thinking back to those long ago twice a day football practices back in my high school days. Those sweaty sessions under a steamy August sun were a long time ago, to be sure. In fact, I have to concede that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection, if that’s any indication.

Still, the goal of those practices: to get in good physical condition so that playing football games would seem easy in comparison, seemed altogether too much like the opening of the upland bird season over Labor Day weekend.

In recent years we’ve spent Labor Day weekends camping at a Forest Service campground convenient to both flyfishing and grouse hunting. There’s a Forest Service road that loops its way to near the top of a mountain and over the years I’ve established about five different areas that have blue grouse habitat. There are other areas on the mountain that look pretty much the same to me, but I never found grouse there. I guess you’d have to ask the grouse why they never go to these other spots. If you can find them, that is.

On opening day we drove up that mountain road before dawn and halfway up the mountain I spotted a covey of grouse on the road. The birds nervously moved off the road when Flicka, my Labrador retriever hunting partner, and I made our approach, but we managed to get shots at the flushing birds and dropped one of them. With one bird in hand we pounded the bush but the birds had scattered and didn’t want to be found.

At the top of the mountain we ran into another covey of grouse. I missed a shot at one bird, but another bird flew directly at me, about 15 feet off the ground. It’s an easy shot to miss, but I got this one. The bird folded, though its momentum carried it so that it actually crashed into and bounced off my leg. Flicka was at my side and caught it in midair on the bounce—an easy retrieve.

On another sagebrush ridge we put up just a couple birds that flushed at the edge of shooting range. I got off a couple shots but nothing dropped. We had friends coming to our camp for lunch that day so that ended that first day of hunting. I felt pretty good about getting a couple of those big, chunky birds.

In succeeding mornings, however, those grouse outfoxed Flicka and me at every turn. They’d flush when we were still 50 or so yards away. If we followed them into the timber they’d flush from the tops of trees, and I learned long ago the hard way that that’s about as tough a shot as they come.

I called the birds blue grouse, though if you look in the upland hunting regulations you’ll see the birds referred to as “dusky” grouse. In 2006, the American Ornithological Union designated blue grouse into two different strains. The grouse of inland mountains are now officially dusky grouse and the grouse of Pacific coastal mountains are “sooty” grouse. In the current issue of Montana Outdoors, writer Dave Carty wrote about hunting mountain grouse and used “dusky” throughout the article. He explained the official name change, though he acknowledges that when he’s talking to his hunting buddies, he’ll still call them blue grouse.

Whatever you call those grouse, don’t call them fool hens. While blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you want to be correct, often have a reputation for innocence, I can take you trekking across a mountain where I know grouse are to be found, but after they’ve flushed at long distance, or flushed where a big tree screens their escape flight, you may start calling those grouse some new names, but fool hen won’t be one of them.

There may be fools on the mountain, but it’s the hunters, not the grouse.

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