September was Public Lands Month, so I finished the month of September with a walk for ruffed grouse on area public lands. Actually, of the four days I spent hunting in September, all of them were on public lands, both federal and state public land.
On my last outing of September I ducked out of a meeting because of predictions for a major winter storm and I wanted to get out before an early snowstorm would complicate walks through the aspens.
Skies were mostly overcast and winds were swirling around when Kiri, my Labrador retriever, and I started a walk into the aspens. In the forest, however, the wind is more heard than felt, as the wind blows around the treetops.
Fall colors were emerging on this outing, compared to the green landscape of a couple weeks before. The aspens were just beginning to change so most of the colors were in the understory.
One of the next things I noticed was a seeming bumper crop of Oregon grapes in the ground cover. Over the years I’ve picked Oregon grapes and brought them home for jelly-making. I’ve also learned to not bring any home unless my wife has said she’d like me to pick some for processing. I frequently stopped, however, to pick some fruit for snacking and to keep my mouth moist.
I’ve been hunting this area for many years and I’ve been watching the aspens grow and spread across previously grassy and brushy hillsides. Much of this tract of public lands was downwind (at least some of the time) from the big smelter stack near Anaconda. The toxic emissions from the smelter kept the hillsides mostly bare.
Now, approaching 40 years from when the smelter shut down, and roughly 30 years since I started tramping these hills, the changes are no less than amazing. Aspens are a fast-growing tree and aspen saplings of 20 years ago are now mature trees, spreading across the landscape through their amazing root systems.
I’ll note that I have some aspens in my yard at home and it’s a challenge to keep aspen shoots cut down so that my lawn doesn’t turn into a forest. I also harvest an impressive amount of aspen roots from my garden. It’s a never-ending battle.
I like the aspens on the hillsides better, as the thickets spread out, re-foresting the area.
Kiri and I aren’t alone in the forest. A couple whitetail deer, tails raised, scampered out of the aspen thickets shortly after we started our walk. That’s another change. When I first walked these hills, mule deer were more common. Further on our walk I spotted an antler lying on the ground where a bull moose had shed it a winter or two earlier. I kind of wanted to bring it home, but we were still a long way from finishing our walk so that antler is still out there.
As it happened, after a three and a half hour walk through trees, bogs, creek bottoms and meadows, we finished our walk without putting up a single grouse. It always surprises me when we don’t put up grouse, because we’re walking through prime grouse habitat. On the other hand, mountains are big places and it’s impossible to cover all likely spots where grouse might be found.
Our grouse walks in the next few weeks should get a little easier as the aspens drop their leaves and visibility improves.
On that topic, I’ll mention that if you enjoy fall foliage, now is the time to get out and do some “leaf peeping,” before it’s too late. As a general rule, fall colors in southwest Montana peak in the first week of October. Right now, leaves are dropping, but it’s a gradual process.
These hikes in the mountain foothills can be a workout and there are never guarantees of success, as far as finding grouse. It’s a good thing there are always things to see.