Blue Grouse Training Camp

Flicka and the first grouse of 2011

It’s been a tough fall training camp, up on that western Montana mountain.

Trudging up and down those mountainsides, I couldn’t help thinking back to those long ago twice a day football practices back in my high school days. Those sweaty sessions under a steamy August sun were a long time ago, to be sure. In fact, I have to concede that the last time I put on cleats and pads, President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection, if that’s any indication.

Still, the goal of those practices: to get in good physical condition so that playing football games would seem easy in comparison, seemed altogether too much like the opening of the upland bird season over Labor Day weekend.

In recent years we’ve spent Labor Day weekends camping at a Forest Service campground convenient to both flyfishing and grouse hunting. There’s a Forest Service road that loops its way to near the top of a mountain and over the years I’ve established about five different areas that have blue grouse habitat. There are other areas on the mountain that look pretty much the same to me, but I never found grouse there. I guess you’d have to ask the grouse why they never go to these other spots. If you can find them, that is.

On opening day we drove up that mountain road before dawn and halfway up the mountain I spotted a covey of grouse on the road. The birds nervously moved off the road when Flicka, my Labrador retriever hunting partner, and I made our approach, but we managed to get shots at the flushing birds and dropped one of them. With one bird in hand we pounded the bush but the birds had scattered and didn’t want to be found.

At the top of the mountain we ran into another covey of grouse. I missed a shot at one bird, but another bird flew directly at me, about 15 feet off the ground. It’s an easy shot to miss, but I got this one. The bird folded, though its momentum carried it so that it actually crashed into and bounced off my leg. Flicka was at my side and caught it in midair on the bounce—an easy retrieve.

On another sagebrush ridge we put up just a couple birds that flushed at the edge of shooting range. I got off a couple shots but nothing dropped. We had friends coming to our camp for lunch that day so that ended that first day of hunting. I felt pretty good about getting a couple of those big, chunky birds.

In succeeding mornings, however, those grouse outfoxed Flicka and me at every turn. They’d flush when we were still 50 or so yards away. If we followed them into the timber they’d flush from the tops of trees, and I learned long ago the hard way that that’s about as tough a shot as they come.

I called the birds blue grouse, though if you look in the upland hunting regulations you’ll see the birds referred to as “dusky” grouse. In 2006, the American Ornithological Union designated blue grouse into two different strains. The grouse of inland mountains are now officially dusky grouse and the grouse of Pacific coastal mountains are “sooty” grouse. In the current issue of Montana Outdoors, writer Dave Carty wrote about hunting mountain grouse and used “dusky” throughout the article. He explained the official name change, though he acknowledges that when he’s talking to his hunting buddies, he’ll still call them blue grouse.

Whatever you call those grouse, don’t call them fool hens. While blue grouse, or dusky grouse, if you want to be correct, often have a reputation for innocence, I can take you trekking across a mountain where I know grouse are to be found, but after they’ve flushed at long distance, or flushed where a big tree screens their escape flight, you may start calling those grouse some new names, but fool hen won’t be one of them.

There may be fools on the mountain, but it’s the hunters, not the grouse.

Did I mention that I love September?

Flicka in search of grouse last September

The days are shorter and the mornings are getting chilly, though chilly mornings are the norm rather than the exception here in the mountains of western Montana.

Is this the end of summer? I don’t think so, though while early September may not be the end of summer, it is the beginning of the end of summer.

To my mind, however, tomorrow is New Years Day. I know you won’t find many calendars marking tomorrow as a holiday but it is to me, because that first day of September is the first day of the 2011 Montana hunting season.

The upland bird season for grouse of various kinds, along with Hungarian partridge and wild turkeys opens tomorrow on the first day of September. On Saturday, September 3, big game archery seasons begin. Note, however, that the pheasant season doesn’t begin until October 8 and waterfowl seasons have not yet been set. The deer and elk rifle seasons will begin on October 22, but that’s a long time from now, so we won’t worry about that for now.

Still, I look ahead to chilly dawns on top of a western Montana mountain. There’s a haze in the air from a distant fire smoldering away, and as usual there are some questions in my mind. Every year, it seems that the mountains are higher and steeper, and I have to pause more frequently to catch my breath.

Those thoughts are a given. The major question running through my mind will be whether we’ll find birds somewhere on this walk through the mountaintop sagebrush meadows.

We had a late winter and a cold, rainy and snowy spring. Did those grouse chicks chip their way out of their eggshell, back in June, to find a sunny, early summer day, or was their first peek at the world a late spring storm? The answers to that question on thousands of mountains and millions of acres of prairie add up to what kind of days Montana hunters will experience when they take their first walks of the year in search of upland birds.

While the question of what Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and faithful hunting partner and I will find is still to be answered, rest assured we will be out there taking those morning hikes. It’s what we do, and, good lord willing, we’ll keep doing it as long as we’re able.

While I mentally begin to focus on shotgunning and upland birds in coming days and weeks, it’s a focus that often shifts to trout and flyfishing. For many anglers, the summer of 2011 has been a difficult and frustrating season with prolonged periods of spring runoff.

Now, at the end of summer, rivers are in prime shape for angling. The fish are feisty and robust after chowing down during all those weeks of high water. Fishing may not be easy right now, though it may be rewarding if you’re on the water at the right time.

Tricos, those diminutive mayflies of late summer, make their spinner flights to lay eggs on the water in mid to late mornings. When conditions are right, fish go nuts over the millions of bugs coming to the water. If you enjoy fishing light tackle and tiny flies, this can be some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Using #20 flies on a 6X leader isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it sure is fun when a good trout sips it in. Of course, for comic relief, this is also the season for hoppers. Take your choice.

In short, tomorrow is September and with early season hunting, late season flyfishing, ripening chokecherries and wild plums, there are more opportunities in the great outdoors than there is time in which to do it.

I kind of hate to see those sunsets getting earlier every evening and sunrises later every morning, but it’s the rhythm of the seasons and that rhythm beats with more urgency this time of year.

Did I mention that I love September?

The Art and Frustration of Shooting Flying

Flicka and our first grouse of 2010

Standing New Year’s Resolution No. 3: Go shoot some clay pigeons before the next upland bird hunting season rolls around.

Alas, that resolution, along with those resolutions to go on a diet and become a better human being, is one that gets forgotten on January 2.

Then, when September rolls around and those first grouse flush, I’m reminded about that neglected resolution. The birds are in the air and instead of picking out a bird and focusing on it, I’m poking my shotgun in the general direction of the grouse and shooting.

Shooting at flying grouse, or clay pigeons for that matter, is a lot like playing tennis. One of Butte’s tennis aficionados occasionally reiterates her Three Rules of Tennis. 1. Keep your eye on the ball. 2. Keep your eye on the ball. 3. Keep your eye on that danged ball!

Ignoring those rules of tennis generally translates into taking an ineffective poke at the ball or what tennis commentators refer to as an “unforced error.” Baseball coaches give similar advice to both batters and fielders, and football coaches give that advice to pass receivers. Keep your eye on the ball.

The same goes for shooting. Keep your eye on the bird.

Fortunately, there’s nothing like missing some shots to reinforce the need to keep your eye on the bird. Things do get better.

On those first walks for grouse at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend there was mostly frustration.

First of all, on the mountain where Flicka, my Labrador retriever, were searching for blue grouse, there was evidently poor reproduction. Last year, hunting the same mountain, there were five separate areas where it seemed I could reliably find blue grouse. This year, just one of those spots, a long sagebrush ridge, had a covey of grouse. In any event, when Flicka finally had a chance to go on point, when the birds flushed I poked my gun in their general direction when I fired and, predictably, nothing fell.

Later that day we took a walk up a brushy creek bottom in search of ruffed grouse. A grouse flushed and I had what should have been an easy straightaway shot. Again, I poked in the general direction and nothing fell. Flicka, bless her heart, went over in the optimistic hope that there would be something for her to retrieve, but her hopes were again dashed.

A few minutes later four ruffed grouse flushed and I swung on the birds, but when I pulled the trigger nothing happened. I had neglected to flip the safety to the ‘fire’ position. That’s a pretty basic error in gun handling.

The next morning we returned to that sagebrush ridge. Flicka, bless her heart, picked up the scent of the grouse and several grouse flushed from a brush patch. I missed what should have been an easy shot at the first bird to get up. I quickly reloaded and a couple more birds took off. This time I concentrated on the grouse and kept swinging on it, even after I missed the first shot. With the second shot from my over/under shotgun, the bird dropped. Flicka made the retrieve and I happily put the first bird of the season in the back of my vest.

A few minutes later I had a shot at another grouse and dropped it with my first shot.

The morning’s hunt ended with a vest pocket holding two blue grouse and a handful of fired shotgun hulls. It was one of those mornings where it felt like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once famously said. When I got into my first bunches of birds last year I did a lot of shooting before we actually put some birds in the freezer.

I take comfort in knowing that things get better after getting those misses out of the system. That shotgun starts feeling like an old friend again and shooting at flying targets, whether feathers or clay, gets to be fun.

Nevertheless, I did shoot some clay pigeons this week. Better late than never.