It was the first day of September, but with summer heat and smoke from wildfires, it didn’t seem much like hunting season.
Still, it had been a long time since January when my black Labrador retriever, Kiri, and I had taken our last walk across a frozen field in search of ducks, and it was time to pack a lunch and head to the hills in search of grouse.
While there was a forecast for high temperatures of around 90º in the afternoon, the morning was still cool when we took our first walk across a mountain hillside in search of blue grouse, or dusky grouse if we want to be scientifically correct.
Walking around on the hillside didn’t feel right this time. In fact, walking around through the dry, crispy grass and low brush made me feel kind of nervous. While we’ve been mostly spared from wildfires in and around Butte, it seemed obvious that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to start a fire. In fact, a rock rolling downhill and hitting another rock might be enough to cause a spark that would start that conflagration.
In any event, after an hour’s walk we circled back to our starting place at the top of the hill where we had driven up a rutted two-track trail. Another vehicle had pulled into the turn-around and I had a chat with two other grouse hunters, commiserating about the hot weather and drought.
As for blue grouse, one of the guys pointed to a much higher ridgeline above us and said, “There should be some blues up there.”
“Yes, could be,” I responded, “but you’ve got to walk up there.” He agreed, “Yeah, there is that.”
After a cordial chat we agreed on walking routes where we could hike without getting into each other’s way, and Kiri and I took off, this time down a long aspen draw.
Happily, things aren’t quite as dry in the aspens as they are on the mountain ridges. On the other hand, at the beginning of September all the trees and shrubberies still have their leaves and visibility in the quakies is quite limited. As it worked, however, Kiri didn’t pick up any bird scent and I wasn’t frustrated by the sound of a grouse flushing out of sight. Trust me, I know all too well what that sounds like.
The highlight, or perhaps the lowlight of this walk, was finding a seemingly open spot to cross the bottom of the draw to walk back up the hill on the other side.
I found myself in a boggy spot where fallen trees boxed me in and I couldn’t get over the trees. I finally found a spot where I could crawl under a tree and emerged on the other side covered with mud.
Of course, by the time we walked out of the trees into midday heat, I was mostly dried off.
And that, sorry to report, was the opening of the 2017 hunting season for Kiri and me. We didn’t see anything, scent anything, and I never fired a shot. On the bright side, however, is the knowledge that things should get better in future hunts.
That mindset of optimism is, of course, what keeps us going back to the mountains and aspen thickets.
The memories of past hunts when things click and we get shots at grouse and sometimes connect and come home with the makings of a gourmet dinner is what keeps upland hunters going through those long months of the off season. It keeps the wheels of commerce grinding as we submit to the lust for fancy shotguns, buy and feed bird dogs, put gas into gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, and all the other expenses that we try not to think about.
On the other hand, I have decided that until we get some rain and cooler weather, I’m going to go fishing. Standing in the middle of a trout stream, even if the water level is low, I won’t have to worry about accidentally sparking a wildfire.