On getting outwitted by ruffed grouse.

  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.

Ruffed Grouse Habitat – Always Changing

Ruffed grouse coverts have a special place in my heart. Ever since I first got hooked on hunting ruffed grouse something like 35 years ago I’ve built a mental collection of patches of woodland that shelter and nurture ruffed grouse and other wildlife. It hasn’t always been easy, as I had to come up with a new collection of coverts when my last job transfer brought us to Montana 22 seasons ago, and I had to say goodbye to old haunts in North Dakota.

The term, ‘covert,’ incidentally, the word used to describe ruffed grouse hangouts, is defined in my dictionary as a hiding place, or a thicket affording cover for game. The emphasis is on the first syllable, to distinguish it from covert (with emphasis on second syllable), as in a spy mission.

It’s another example of why our English language is confusing. Adding to the confusion is that covert can be pronounced with a silent ‘t.’ In fact; some writers have come to even drop that ‘t’ and just use the word, ‘cover,’ to describe ruffed grouse hangouts.

My collection of grouse coverts is more than scattered aspen-covered hillsides and creek bottoms. They’re the repository of memories from many hunts over the years and the Labrador retrievers who shared those hunts and, of course, the ruffed grouse, that wonderful game bird that stubbornly ekes out a hardscrabble living in the thickets.

Grouse coverts are dynamic places in constant change. Ruffed grouse thrive in forested areas with a variety of habitat, with a mixture of different age classes of aspens and brushy cover, along with access to denser forest for refuge from severe weather or predators. As the forest matures, conifers take over, shading out aspens and ground cover. Eventually, as far as ruffed grouse are concerned, the forest becomes a virtual desert.

One grouse area and one of the more productive, as far as numbers of grouse flushed—which does not always translate to shots fired or birds on the dinner table, was approaching that climax stage, though with another wrinkle: mountain pine beetle. The last couple years I often thought that the area needed a controlled burn or a logging operation to clear out dead and dying pine trees and to revitalize the habitat.

On a snowy November day I made my annual visit to the covert and saw that a well-publicized logging operation on the Mt. Haggin Wildlife Management Area was, in fact, on this grouse covert. It was quite a change; with formerly dense stands of trees now pretty much gone and with aspen trees the main survivor.

One question in my mind was answered when Flicka, my Labrador retriever, put up a grouse from a hillside that had not been logged. I managed to scratch the bird down on my second shot. Flicka was retrieving the bird when another grouse flushed from in front of her. Flicka forgot about the grouse in her mouth to chase after the bird in the air. We later flushed another grouse from aspens in the logged-over area. In spite of a couple months of putting up with logging operations, the grouse are still in residence.

I subscribe to a newsletter, “Grouse Tales – the Official Newsletter of the Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters.” In a recent issue one person wrote of trying to find a certain clear-cut area in Michigan and asking a Forest Service employee for directions. The Forest Service person pointed out it wasn’t a clear-cut; it was an aspen regeneration area. As they continued the conversation, every time the person said clear-cut, the forester corrected him, “It’s aspen regeneration.”

In fact, studies have shown that ruffed grouse love those old clear-cut—excuse me, aspen regeneration areas, especially in the 5 – 15 year period following the logging operation. It’ll be interesting to see how this area recovers in coming seasons and whether the grouse have a population boom.

For now, the covert is blanketed in snow, and after the grouse season closes next week, the only predators the grouse need worry about will be those with talons or jaws.

Puffballs – a Bonus to a Ruffed Grouse Outing

A Woodland Prize – a softball-sized puffball

I thought it would be a deal she couldn’t refuse.

On a September weekend of camping, fishing and grouse hunting, I suggested to my wife, “Why don’t you come along with your mushroom field guide and pick mushrooms while Flicka and I look for grouse?”

After the soaking rains of early September followed by relatively mild and sunny weather there has been an explosion of mushrooms in the mountain woodlands. They’re growing on stumps or emerging from decomposing leaf litter in the aspen thickets. I’m pretty sure a lot of them are edible, though a guideline you ignore at your own risk is to never eat a wild mushroom unless you’re certain about its identity.

My wife has the advantage here. She studied mycology (the study of fungi) as part of her college biology major and understands the scientific lingo when a guidebook discusses the identifying characteristics of mushrooms.

While I though it was a great offer, she still passed it up. Go figure.

So I wander the forest, looking at thousands of mushrooms and wonder about them.

On the other hand there are some mushrooms that are not only edible; they’re easy to identify. In spring and early summer morel mushrooms are treasures when you can find them.

Puffballs are edible mushroom that are easy to find and identify. In fact I often have puffballs growing in my yard, though they’re usually too small—marble-sized—to make picking worth the effort. Usually when I pick them they’re golf ball sized.

On an early October hunt I could hardly believe it when I looked down and spotted a softball-sized puffball. “It’s going to be all mushy,” I told myself, not wanting to get too excited about my find. I gave it a squeeze and it was nice and firm, just the way a good mushroom should be. I added it to my game bag and continued on my way.

While that softball-sized puffball was a prize it’s far from a trophy. I’ve seen them as large as a basketball and they get bigger than that. The trick is getting a large puffball that’s still fit to eat. According to a couple internet sources, when the puffball flesh is soft or looks yellowish or green, it’s no longer edible. In its final phase the puffball flesh dries and if you step on it a puff of powder comes out. Each of those little grains of powder is a spore capable of starting a new puffball. The number of spores in a giant puffball can be trillions. That’s a lot.

Perhaps if I left that puffball where it was, next year the whole hillside might have been covered with puffballs. We’ll never know because after bringing it home we sliced it and fried it in butter. That mushroom is gone.

While the puffball was a treat, it was just a bonus to the outing. Ruffed grouse were the goal of the trip and when Flicka and I finished our hike up and down the hills we had flushed several grouse and gotten two of them.

After we finished the hunt I drove on to the Big Hole River. After a late lunch in the shade of a golden cottonwood tree I rigged up a flyrod and waded up the river. It was mid-afternoon and the main dry fly action of the day was over. One trout came up and looked at my fly and turned away.

A couple minutes later another trout wasn’t so fussy and took the fly. This trout wasn’t a bit happy about being fooled into taking an artificial bug but after a few minutes I was able to bring it to hand long enough to unhook it and send it back to get a little bigger, though to tell the truth a 20-inch brown trout is just fine as it is.

We’d had a real western Montana day. A pleasant walk through the aspens on a golden October day, two ruffed grouse, a giant puffball and a 20-inch brown trout.

I love living here.