Early September can never seem to come soon enough as the ‘itch’ to get behind the dogs and tote a scatter gun grows stronger and stronger as the summer passes by.
Staying true to form with our early season adventures, after being fortunate to successful score a Himalayan Snowcock and check the box on an incredible ‘bucket-list’ hunt, we drafted up a plan to chase Ptarmigan in the Uinta mountains of Utah once again. (Read about that hunt here)
Rewind 4-5 years or so ago and you’d find myself with good friends Carson, Alan and Derek backpacked in some 4-5 miles with our dogs hoping to find success. Alas, that year wasn’t a success and after 30+ miles in 2 days of hunting, we were headed home empty handed.
The goal of returning for another swing at these incredible birds burned strong and knowing we’d be back at ‘em in September ‘22 kept the anxious feelings manageable as the opportunity came back into play.
This year we decided to explore some new country and step our camping and gear approach up a notch. So, we loaded up my horses and Alan’s mules and headed up into some steep, rocky and truly breathtaking country.
After several hours of riding, with no major rodeos along the trail ride in, we reached the general area we hoped to hunt. Some poking around and exploring produced a consistent water source and good feed for the equines to mill around while we hunted. I will admit being above treeline makes it REALLY hard to highline the four-footers. Fortunately we found a few sparse pine trees that allowed us to keep the tie-outs high and tangle free. I swore if I had to chase a hobbled horse It’d like stay on the mountain.
We took care of the animals, kicked out some semi-flat spots for campsites and tents and geared up to do what we came to do - hunt Ptarmigan.
A short 5 or so mile hike that early evening produced no birds, a few ghost points on some semi-fresh sign and kept our hopes high that we were in the right area.
One of the ‘old timers’ I spoke to about hunting this area mentioned that like Chukar, the Ptarmigan will stay down in the rocks the majority of the time and that if you find sign, to walk big loops and keep coming back through the same areas. Easier said than done when you have miles and miles of giant, gorgeous country ahead, but it made sense. He said that if your dog gets ‘birdie’ to make sure you meander back through that day and that you had a great chance of catching them out in the open. I took his advice to heart.
We camped up for the night, I slept about 2 minutes with a restless dog, and woke up early to beat the heat and put some miles on before it got too warm for us and the dogs.
Alan and I teamed up to head one direction while Derek and Johnathan opted to head the other way. We wished each other luck, broke our guns over our shoulders and began boulder hopping up the steep rock faces.
Several hours of hiking, with zero bird contacts to show for our efforts, we decided to loop back through where we’d come ealier and then head down to meet the other guys, who had decided to wet a line in some of the high mountain lakes and wrangle some beautiful trout. Cold water on the feet and flipping a spinner a few times sounded like a nice change in pace.
As we looped through a large ravine, worn down from glaciers many thousand years ago, both our dogs flipped a switch and went from the bored “Ill poke around” pace to “There’s birds here and we’re gonna find them” redline speed. Our emotions soared.
Unfortunately, the thermals had switched by this point in the day and the dogs worked up the draw, working to locate the birds. We decided to park it for a few minutes and see if they could scratch them out. The ‘old timers’ word kept ringing in my head.
As the dogs cruised the green hills above us, Alan and I decided we’d go down the drainage and see if the dogs would cross us and check some country they hadn’t already. I could see a small tree and remember telling Alan, “Let’s go to that tree and then we’ll start across down to the lake”.
We started off and some 75 yards later I heard Alan say, in the most stern but quiet voice he could, “Matt! RIGHT THERE!”.
He wasn’t kidding when he said “Right there.” If Alan hadn’t said anything, I’d have walked right past them. Sure enough, one had moved as we approached and there were 8 Ptarmigan sitting there, looking at us like they didn’t know what to do.
I told Alan he could have first shot and that I’d be right behind him on my trigger..
A few more steps towards the birds and they jumped to try and escape.
Alan caught with his bottom barrel and fell a giant, beautiful male grouse. I matched his success taking the next closest bird to me as it flew down and away.
Our shots put the rest of the birds into the air and with both of us standing across the ravine from each other, we took 1 more bird each. 4 shots and 4 birds. I’ll admit we hooted and hollered a little..
While the limit of these birds is 4, with a small population of them available to find and hunt, we both were more than ecstatic with our success and agreed that we’d leave the rest alone and go about our way. We’d limited on smiles and success, in our books.
After linking back up with Derek and Johnathan, we hunted back through an area and located a single bird that my dog found and held in a pile of rocks on our hike back to camp. Jonathan took the bird as it flushed. His very first upland bird.. Not a bad way to start if you as us.
The rest of the evening wasn’t very productive as we’d exhausted our efforts spending a little more time out that we had originally planned to.
We made it back to camp, celebrated with some giant steaks on the BBQ and after some discussion that next morning, Derek, who’d successfully hunted them before, bowed out and opted to drop to lower country where we could get out of the sun and enjoy the rest of our camp and stay.
We spent the rest of the trip riding ponies, tossing some fishing lines and enjoying the simple times. Another epic, successful and foreverable memorable hunt with friends. Can’t wait to do er again.