Long ago, before I could legally carry my own pepperstick, I spent many weekends following my father and brother around the mountains near our home chasing grouse.
We're fortunate to have both Ruff and Dusky (they're still blue grouse to me) readily accessible and spent many memorable mornings hiking the mountains behind the dogs. While I spent my early years as the 'bird sherpa', I loved carrying the birds around and was proud to make my small contribution to the hunt.
Grouse hunting will forever be very dear to me.
Fast forward many years.. hell.. nearly 30 years.. and I was fortunate to find myself living back in the very home I grew up in and just a hop, skip and a step away from the very hills I cut my teeth on upland hunting in. We had bought the house and with a full time job, a full remodel in motion and juggling to keep up with FINAL RISE, time was in short supply. But, per my usual, I always seemed to sneak away and find time to work the dogs and hunt. The 'honey-do' list usually suffers during hunting season.
My truest upland species passion is Chukar, but one weekend I thought I'd mix things up and head back to my stomping grounds. It was mid-November, we'd received snow a few times in the high country and I honestly wasn't sure if I would be able to access the ridge I hoped to hunt.
I kenneled the dogs up and pointed the XJ at the mountain. An hour or so later I was able to break through a few small snow drifts and park right where I'd hoped to. It was so damn beautiful.
The thing is.. from the moment the snow melts in the spring, every recreational vehicle in the valley is zipping around on the dirt roads. Campers can be found in every imaginable pull-out and people are in abundance. I don't blame them for wanting to enjoy some fresh mountain air, but it sure takes away from the experience when it's bumper to bumper side by sides going every single direction..
Fortunate for us.. the snow had fallen, the majority of the big game hunts were over and the mountains were empty. It was incredible and I forgot why I actually risked getting my jeep stuck a few times on the way up.
I quickly came too as I opened the door, looked at the ground and was greeted by the waving markings in the snow of multiple blue grouse.
Now, the cool thing about Blue Grouse.. sorry "Dusky", is that as the seasons progress, they actually move to higher ground. Huge, windblown, snowy ridges often hold a large congregation of birds, as they group back up. Needless to say, when you find one.. you find a whole grundle.
I gathered my gear, tossed on some leg gaiters to keep my pants and boots dry and dropped my oldest dog, Reload, and my up and comer, Chief. Off they went.
Per usual, they ran around like their asses were on fire for a good minute or two and after getting their wiggles out, you could see them gather their senses and their body language shift as they started to work the wind that was blowing off the top, towards us.
I'd not sooner tossed my gun on my shoulder when the sweet 'beep' of the Garmin greeted me. I looked down at my watch to see which dog had stopped and how far they were. Before I could lift my wrist another beep notified me that both dogs had stopped.
200ish yards away both dogs were within 40 yards of each other. I assumed one was backing the other.
I slowly made my way over, as I'm never in a rush really because it's good for the dogs to stand their birds, and as I came around a stand of pines I could see both dogs froze in the distance. Chief had found the birds and Reload was kindly honoring.
Anticipating the direction of the birds location, based on the wind, as well as the direction that I assumed they'd attempt their escape, I slowly approached.
I peered hard into the dark clump of brush, some 15 yards from Chiefs nose, to see if I could see the birds on the ground and know if any adjustments were required in my approach. Unfortunately, I could not see them so I continued with my original plan and closed the distance.
With crunchy snow underfoot I knew that my footsteps would cause the flush. It was one slow step at a time.. ready.. waiting..
Finally, as I arrived some 20ish yards down-mountain from the tree, the mountain erupted!
Now, if you've hunted blue grouse, I wouldn't consider them a very explosive or quick bird. They're slower to rise and usually on the easier side of wing shooting. Especially when you have a wide open opening from where they're coming. I was setup for success.
Upon the flush, some 10+ birds took flight and started to cross me from left to right. My favorite.
I picked what was probably the 3rd bird in the air and let fly a well placed load of 7.5s from the 16 gauge Citori Superlight Feather I was carrying that day. Boom..Poof. I swung to the bird in front of him, as my barrel was already traveling that direction and let the second shell fly. I thought I'd seen a tuff of feathers come off but the bird seemingly flew away untouched. I watched it fly down the mountain and assumed I'd simply doofed an easy double. Dang it!
A little frustrated at what was about as easy as it gets when it comes to a double opportunity, I enjoyed young Chief picking up a gorgeous male bird. The cold weather has gifted him with full plumage and absolutely beautiful colors. To be honest, I'd never shot a Blue so late in the year and was amazed at how handsome he was. What a treat!
Already considering the day a success, we continued on the ridge and not 100 yards later young Chief rounded a small stand of pines and pulled the e-brake. I knew the bird was right off the tip of his nose.
I swung around and came to him quartering, knowing the bird would flush to the opening. To my delight, a nice male Ruff grouse shot out from the undergrowth and provided a easy shot to give Chief his second reward of the day.
I remember thinking to myself, "What a freaking ball this is!". The scenery, the dogs and the birds were all 10/10 so far! I was in heaven.
No sooner had Chief finished brining the bird back 90% of the way, something we've been working on, than my watch vibrated and I looked up to see Reload some 80 yards off, standing tall at a single lone pine tree.
I placed the bird in my Summit Vest and started towards him. Chief, being the talented young dog he is, immediately honored Reload the moment he saw him and let me travel the last 60 or so yards solo.
I arrived to Reload and could see three little heads atop dark silhouettes hiding beneath a large overhanding branch, at the bottom of the tree.
I stood there and waited. To me, there is such thing as "too close" and while I shoot very open chokes and small shot for dense, hard hitting, patterns, I like to stand at the ready, knowing the birds will feel the pressure of my presence and make a fatal move.
Some 30 seconds went by when one bird decided it'd had enough. Fortunately for me, and unfortunate for him, he gave me a very nice shot and our 3rd bird of the morning. The other two birds made a good choice and flew out the back of the tree, directly away from me and out of harms way.
With 3 beautiful grouse in the bag, and the potential for 1 more to finish a Utah grouse limit, I thought we'd continue one. After all, it'd only been some 20 minutes and we were finding birds everywhere!
As we continued on, things slowed down and the thought of "Did I hit that second bird from the first contact?" entered my mind. Eager to close the case, we dropped down the mountain in the direction I'd seen the bird fly. It was a good ways down, and I assumed him alive, but I knew I needed to look either way.
We rounded down and I worked my way around the area, going slow to give the dogs time to be thorough in their search.
I was about ready to call it a morning and add the mystery bird to my daily limit when I watched Reload come to an abrupt halt. He stood at the base of a large tree, next to an even larger tree that had blown down. I would not get an opportunity if I didn't circle around and get to the other side of Reload.
I made my way around and with Chief having seen Reload and honoring his potential find, I tip-toed around and was in position. This bird was toast.
I slowly and methodically approached, hoping for a glance at the bird before it flew, and as I neard the edge the cover, nothing happened. I looked.. looked some more and I could not see a thing. Reload stood tall, convinced he was right. And he was..
I was about to release them when I looked down in the snow and I'll be damned if there wasn't a huge blue grouse submerged in the snow. It about took my breath away when I first saw it but then I quickly realized that the bird was dead. We'd found the mystery bird! I went over, picked him up out of the snow and looked at the tree to see if the scene would tell us a story.
A few small feathers were in the branches of the big pine tree above where he lay. It appeared that he had flown down the mountain, landed in the tree and that a golden bb had made its way into his vitals and shortly after leaving our sight, he'd fallen dead. What a way to end the day!
Happy as a pig in mud, I proudly propped up our successful day's gathering and staged the dogs for a quick hero shot before loading them back into the jeep to begin the drive home. A hunt that won't be soon forgotten.