Mountain (Grouse) Man

Al Parker's picture

A hunting story.

It’s cold for early September and snowing. Pushed a few inches off the rocks when I crossed the creek. It’s still early and dark at the bottom of the steep canyon. The switchbacks start up the canyon wall, rising above the forest and away from the creek. My dog is with me. Not really a bird dog, though she is a lab mix. Probably the runt of the litter. We put her in a milk crate between the kids in the backseat the day we picked her up. She’s six months old now. This is her second hunt, and we're climbing into the mountains to find mountain grouse: blues, ruffies, spruce, and Franklins. I’m glad she’s with me in the dark forest, leaving her wee paw prints in the snow.

At the first switchback I put the headlamp away; there’s enough light above the trees now as the sun rises a little higher. Saw a black bear run up the side of this canyon... last year? Mountain grouse men have to hike in a few extra miles to reach the good spots. It's easier to focus now as the light grows stronger and the tree stumps look more like tree stumps, and less like bears. I gain the ridgeline and look out to where the other side of the canyon ought to be. But this morning there is only the falling snow. No sound. Cold. I'm grateful for the miles that pass under our feet; without the miles, Bubba and his purebred-to-hunt dogs would be here.

Forest, Snow, Hunting, Grouse Hunting

When the ridge flattens out, I take the two pieces of my gun out of my pack and screw them together, loading five rounds of steel shot.  Steel shot because of my kids, who love grouse. After a hunt, my kids run out to greet me and we line the birds up on the old pickup’s tailgate while Mom snaps a few pictures; grouse are regal and beautiful even in death. My kids gobble the breast meat and "grouse tenders" my wife and I fry for them, and love it on pizza, or grilled in fajitas. I read an article once about lead contamination in deer meat. So I shoot steel, because of my kids.

Grouse hunt, upland bird hunting, Bozeman, Montana

Back on the ridge, I know where the birds are. I know the tree where they flushed from last year. A large covey flushes from that tree today. Separate explosions of wings as the birds flush in separate groups. Mountain grouse are creatures of habit. I am a creature of habit. They flush early behind a screen of trees so I don’t have a good shot. Leaving the trail for the first time today, I step down onto the steep bank. I slip and fall on my ass in the four inches of snow; it's still coming down and is absolutely gorgeous. I can’t see anything except this ridge that I can’t keep my footing on. I am in a swath of trees that grow in a thick line down from the ridge top. I zigzag and slip down the slope through the trees to where I think the birds are hiding after the flush. My dog moves more easily than I do in the snow, but she is unsure where to go, unlike a bird dog.

Mountain grouse are legendary for their propensity to perch like statues until you get very close, believing that camouflaged stillness is their best defense. A friend's father called them "fool's grouse," because even a fool can harvest one—if the fool knows where they land after the flush. Unfortunately for this fool, I didn't see where these grouse landed. So I zigzag. I hear them fly off after I pass. The wait-like-a-stone tactic works again.

The wind blows the snow at me now. I'm discouraged, wet, and cold. I don all my warm gear, wishing I had gators. CamelBak line is frozen now; my pack is an unwieldy icepack. I wish I had better gloves; my hands are red and stiff. I consider heading back. My wife would be happy if I did. But I wouldn't be. It’s only 9am. I’ll warm up if I keep moving. I climb back onto the trail and head higher into the mountains. I clasp my hands together to warm them, cradling my gun.

I leave the trail again and move through the trees to where the birds are. There are two of them. They are on the ground. Feeding? Mating?  No, that was spring when the drumming wings of mountain grouse cocks broadcasted their virility. Like we used to do on East Main at KO’s, before my wife and I were married. Slowly, I unclasp my hands as they flush. Swing the gun toward them, stock to my shoulder, sight along the barrel (boom!) as they fly behind a tree. I decide not to zigzag after them, not much of a chance to flush them again—without a bird dog.

Instead I turn and continue higher along the ridge. Finally: grouse tracks in the snow. I follow the tracks, ready for the clattering of wings, but can only hear them, so I must zigzag. High in that pine tree is the grouse, craning its neck to get a better view of me and my dog. It doesn't move. Any fool could take that bird with this shotgun. And I do.

We celebrate, my dog and me. She gobbles down the heart and liver, I eat a PB&J. Inspired, I continue to hunt this magic place high on the mountain. Another explosion of wings. I'm warmer and I'm faster. A few grayish-blue feathers float to the ground after the shotgun blasts recede.

3,000 feet up. Seven miles in. Five rounds discharged. Three birds shot. And back by two o'clock to watch the kids. A fine day for a mountain grouse man.

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