Grouse Walks on Mountaintops

A smoky haze.

A smoky haze from distant wildfires diffused the sunrise view across the mountaintops to rocky peaks in the distance. Somewhere, on the next mountain, a bull elk bugled, announcing that he was in the mood for love.

It was a relatively warm morning for the first week of September, and Kiri, our black Labrador retriever, and I were trudging across the mountainside early in the morning before it got too hot for dogs and this aging hunter. The archery season wasn’t yet open and in any event, the thought of dealing with a quarter-ton of dead elk on a 90-degree afternoon holds no appeal.

Kiri and I were out looking for bigger game, blue grouse, or “stalking the wily fool hen,” as the late Butte journalist and editor Jeff Gibson would muse. 

I’ll note that the grouse we call blue grouse is officially a “dusky grouse.” Around 15 years ago, ornithologists renamed our grouse the dusky grouse to differentiate them from their cousin, the blue grouse of Pacific coastal mountains, which are now officially sooty grouse. Still, you’d have to be an expert in bird identification to tell them apart, and in areas where their ranges overlap, they successfully interbreed. Besides, most people wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I referred to these big grouse as dusky grouse.

When it comes to grouse hunting, my first love is the ruffed grouse, the elusive bird of the aspen thickets. When the season opens, however, everything is still too dense and green for hunting ruffies. This is a better time for walking the sagebrush ridges and conifers for blue grouse, even if, after nearly 30 years of pursuing them, they’re still a bird of mystery to me.

All I really know is that if you don’t get up early and head to the mountaintops and sagebrush meadows, you probably won’t have any blue grouse for dinner, and that would be a shame. As my old mentor and hunting partner, the late John Banovich, told me, “They’re just as good as a ruffed grouse, but much bigger.” 

I’m guessing there are some dumb blue grouse out there somewhere, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I find them to be wary and elusive, and ready to flush a hundred yards away, far out of range for a shotgun.

Kiri searching for grouse scent.

On our first morning’s walk, we actually put up about half a dozen grouse, but none closer than 50 yards, still out of shooting range. Sometimes, they’ll fly up into a nearby tree, but these birds weren’t that dumb—they’d take off and fly into some dense timber, or sail off to some far off trees.

The next day we put up a pair of grouse out of range. A little later we put up another grouse that might have been in range if I could see it. As it was, it flushed from the other side of a dense thicket of trees.

On our last day of hunting, we finally found a fool hen. It was walking down a forest road and then meandered off into the trees at my approach. Kiri quickly picked up the scent and put up the bird, and I swung my gun and, in my first shot of the season, managed to scratch it down. Kiri closed the deal by catching up with the grouse before it could run away.

A successful morning hunt.

One grouse in three days of hunting may not sound too impressive, but it was actually my first blue in several years, so I declared that first hunting weekend a success.

We elected to come home a day early from our Labor Day weekend. It seemed surreal, with daily high temperatures in the 90s, to have a winter storm warning for Labor Day. But, that’s life in Montana and the Rocky Mountain West.

In fact, on Labor Day in 1992, also on September 7, we had frigid morning temperatures in our campground and after getting home we learned that home in Butte it was a frozen 18 degrees that morning. Needless to say, my tomato crop was ruined.

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