Return to the Grouse Woods

Bent-over trees in the grouse woods.

It took longer than expected, but the plan worked!

Back on the first day of September I took a walk in grouse country and decided I wouldn’t go back until we got precipitation and cooler weather.

Seasons can change with a vengeance, going from hot, dry weather and forest fires burning over much of Montana, to heavy snow and cold weather, and, like shampooing, with “lather, rinse and repeat,” a second helping of heavy snow.

The weather and other commitments kept me out of the grouse woods longer than expected but I finally cleared a day for a trek in the aspens after we’d had time for the snow to melt, though at that I passed on an area I planned to hunt, because of heavy snow that would have made hunting a heavy slog.

A thousand feet lower the snow was mostly gone, though it had made its impact. Willows along a creek were bent down from the snow, and in the aspens many trees were bent over and some larger trees had broken branches and broken trunks. There were still patches of slushy snow in places but no problem for walking.

The biggest question, as we started our hike up the mountainside, was would we find grouse? Mountains are big places and grouse are relatively small birds with lots of places to hide.

That question was answered when Kiri, my black Labrador retriever, started acting as if she had found fascinating scent. Seconds later a grouse flushed. I managed to get a couple shots off as it disappeared into the aspens but missed.

We continued our walk, as a light rain started to fall. We followed a long, forested draw down the mountain and a grouse flushed ahead of us, far out of range. A few minutes later, another grouse flushed, also out of range. We followed the direction of the flushes, hoping we’d get another chance at them, though we never did catch up with them.

At the edge of an opening in the trees, Kiri put up another grouse that made the mistake of flying across open space instead of into the trees. On my second shot I dropped the bird, a handsome, mature ruffed grouse, and my first game bird of the season.

A treasured bonus to an outing in the aspens: a beautiful ruffed grouse.

Near the end of our walk Kiri put up another grouse, which disappeared off into the aspens.

I’ve had a long fascination and love for hunting ruffed grouse and, like many, pay homage to ruffs as the “King of upland birds.” One ruffed grouse won’t fill much space in my freezer, but a four-hour hunt that produces six flushes, plus shots at two grouse, and connecting with one is a banner day.

I enjoy these hikes through the aspens. As of the last week of September, the fall colors that make the aspen thickets a blaze of gold in the autumn sunshine really hadn’t happened yet, which means that this first week of October should be the time to take a drive in the mountains to enjoy the colors.

Just three days later the aspens had turned to gold.

Now that it’s October, Montana hunting opportunities begin to diversify, though we’ll note that the sage grouse season closed last Saturday.

The waterfowl season for ducks and geese opened last Friday, and in some areas will continue into mid-January.

This Saturday, October 7, hunting seasons for pheasants and firearms hunting for pronghorn antelope will begin, a day that brings serious numbers of hunters into Montana’s prairie country.

Just around the corner, on Saturday, October 21, the general seasons for deer and elk will open, the day that many Montanans regard as the real opening of hunting season, even if upland bird hunters and archery hunters have already been at it for some seven weeks.

What with a drought and a million acres having burned up this fire season we might have to make some adjustments in hunting destinations and expectations. But, this is still Montana, and we have some of the longest hunting seasons of any state. It’s a great time to be alive and living in Montana.

Patchy September snow in the aspens.

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