I wish I had a dollar, no let’s make that five dollars to allow for inflation, for every magazine or calendar illustration I’ve seen showing a ruffed grouse sailing over a clearing in the forest with a hunter, with gun raised, and a dog at his side.
|Flicka and the day’s bag of grouse.|
Over some 30 or more years of chasing after ruffed grouse I guess I have actually seen a few grouse take those flights across clearings, but they’re few and far between. Ruffed grouse survive by breaking rules, not imitating art.
Those cold rains in mid-September ushered in autumn. By the calendar it was still summer, but when it cleared there was a chill in the air along with clear blue skies after the rains washed out the smoke haze of recent weeks; in other words, the perfect time to check one of my ruffed grouse coverts.
This ruffed grouse walk took me over familiar terrain, a mountain hillside with patches of aspens interspersed with pine stands. I’ve been visiting this hillside every year for over 20 seasons. Sometimes I find grouse and sometimes I don’t. I even remember one year when there were a lot of grouse, but that was an exception.
Flicka, my Labrador retriever and hunting partner, was acting ‘birdy’ as she sniffed out bird scent along the ground in a clump of pines at the edge of the aspens. My shotgun was ready, but I wasn’t quick enough when a grouse flushed—not from the clump of pines Flicka was sniffing, but from another one 10 feet away. I caught just a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared into the trees.
From the sound of wings as the bird flew off, I didn’t think the bird went far. The trick was to find out just where the bird went.
We tramped through the aspens, Flicka occasionally finding tantalizing whiffs of scent, though nothing that resulted in a flushing grouse. After a couple wide circles, however, a grouse flushed from the top of a knoll, flying downhill through the trees. I got off a couple shots at the disappearing bird, but they weren’t good shots.
We walked down the hillside, again hoping to flush the grouse, optimistically thinking that the third time would be a charm.
We did find that bird a third time. This time it was up in the twisted branches of a pine tree that recently perished to a pine beetle attack. The bird flushed from high up the tree and disappeared without giving me a glimpse. We tried to get yet another flush but this time the grouse gave us the slip. We searched the area hoping to see it one more time, but this bird didn’t hang around any longer. Chalk up another score for ruffed grouse.
Some of my favorite places in southwest Montana are ruffed grouse coverts. Ruffed grouse and aspens go together like a horse and carriage. Aspen thickets are islands of color, sunshine and moisture in autumn, as aspens and underbrush turn from green, as they were in mid-September, to shades of yellow and orange, as they will be these next couple weeks. A month from now, after the leaves drop, the aspen thickets will be austere shades of brown and gray.
Ruffed grouse habitat is dynamic and always changing. In recent years it seemed like pines were taking over many of my grouse coverts. Then pine beetles came along and now new aspens are popping up.
Whatever the season, ruffed grouse depend on aspens for shelter and livelihood, and that means I keep coming back, and sometimes things work.
On that outing, after Flicka and I circled back to the truck and had a lunch break, we tried another spot. We hadn’t gotten far when I realized that Flicka had gone on point. I prepared for a flushing grouse and was ready when it took off. Another pine tree bravely sacrificed a branch, but enough #8 shot slipped through to drop the bird.
There are never guarantees but sometimes those meanders end with the makings of a gourmet dinner.