First Hunt of the Season

Kiri exploring the early autumn foliage for signs of grouse scent.

The opening day of the 2018 Montana hunting season started on an early autumn morning. As I noted a couple weeks ago, our calendars might say it’s still summer, but the frosty morning temperatures on September 1 and the clear, blue skies, along with some brisk winds, made it feel like autumn.

With both upland birds and big game archery seasons starting the same weekend day, a lot of people were out celebrating the beginning of the season. When I was organizing my gear my wife asked where I was going, and I said I hadn’t decided yet. Actually, I kind of knew where I wanted to go, but I also know that some of my favorite grouse spots also attract archers.

That was, in fact, the case, so I drove on into the mountains, following a Forest Service road into the Pintlers. I had an idea of going to an aspen creek bottom where once, just once, I stumbled into a big bunch of young ruffed grouse. That one time was a wild hour or so, as Flicka, our late Labrador retriever, then in the prime of life, kept putting up grouse—and I kept missing them, though we ended the session with two grouse in the bag, along with a dozen shotshell hulls.

I took a diversion on the way, turning off on a narrow, rutted two-track road that went up the mountain, leading to a sagebrush ridge. Kiri, my current Lab, and I took a walk around the ridge in hopes of finding some blue (dusky) grouse, but we finished our walk without seeing any birds. Still, the panoramic view from the top of the ridge made it all worth it.

I drove back down to the main road and a few miles later arrived at that creek bottom I had in mind.

Kiri and I had a pleasant walk in the aspens, even though the ground is full of hazards, with rocks, hidden holes, fallen branches, and the like.  It’s a reminder that walking in the mountains is full of hazards that could easily lead to a fracture if not careful. Obviously, something like that could ruin the day—or the season. I also noted lots of small slash piles everywhere, where forest crews have been cutting down small conifers, presumably to maintain the aspen environment.

After our walk, which didn’t include shooting grouse this time, Kiri happily splashed while taking a good drink of water in the sparkling little creek that runs down the mountain. I could have tried casting a fly into the creek, though all the brush and trees along the stream would make it a challenge.

One of the many little creeks in western Montana.

While Kiri and I took a lunch break before heading back home, I reflected on the morning. We didn’t put up any grouse, though I did spot a little Franklin (spruce) grouse on the road earlier. I passed on the bird because they’re not particularly good eating, as their main food source is pine needles. Still, we had a couple pleasant walks in the mountains. It’s still early in the season and grouse hunting tends to improve as early frosts thin the ground cover, and shrubberies start losing their leaves. The goal for the outing was to get out and take our first hunt and we succeeded.

Also, the whole outing took place on Federal public lands. I didn’t have to ask permission or pay somebody a fee for the opportunity to walk on the land I own with my fellow citizens. I met others out on the access road doing the same thing and they, too, were enjoying the opportunity to enjoy themselves on a beautiful early fall day. September is Public Lands Month, and to quote Chris Wood, the head of Trout Unlimited, “Public lands are the best idea America ever had.”

I should mention that my jaunt into the public lands wasn’t for naught. In that creek bottom I found a little patch of wild raspberries, including one plant that still had one berry. It was delicious, bursting with flavor.

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