WILL THE REAL BLUE GROUSE PLEASE RISE UP?


Fellow Grouseketeer Tommy and three big blues.

Over the years, much has been written by various outdoor writers on hunting the blue grouse of the Rocky Mountains–some negative and some positive. The moniker of “fool hen” has often been applied to this game bird. In this post, I want to share some quotes on the blue grouse from multiple sources–both pro and con–and then chime in with my thoughts on the subject.

I’ll start with the negative:

While there have been only a few seasons over the past forty or so that I haven’t taken to the mountain for blues, I will admit straight out that I can’t rate them as being among our top upland birds. Others, like Betten, as we read, would differ with me. Of course the bird itself, and its habitat, have a unique wilderness flavor, but just how sporting almost all of the blue grouse I have shot were, is something else again. Many I’ve encountered are about as wild as a banty hen. Not as tame as spruce grouse or some ptarmigan, but awfully close. I’ve killed two with rocks, and came close to catching one with my hands. But there have been a few times, in Oregon as well as up in Washington, that I’ve seen blues so wild and powerful they take your breath away in appreciation.

Worth Mathewson, Best Birds: Upland and Shore (2000).

Sunny Girl with our first blue in 2009.

Suprisingly, the majority of writers have have mostly positive things to say. Below are some prime examples of positive comments on hunting blue grouse:

They are at their finest in alpine regions where the strum of mighty wings harmonizes with the boom of mountain cataracts and sturdy, graceful bodies in flight are limned sharp and dark against snowy, glacial backgrounds. There, in a setting surcharged with beauty and romance, a feathered mammoth roars aloft as the hunter approaches his rigid dog. It is with supreme exaltation that the gunner catches a glimpse of his fleeting mark; it crumples in a mist of feathers and he hears the hollow thump of a heavy body; listens to the beating wings among the fallen leaves as a gallant bird taps out a threnody in its death throes. I aim to take nothing from a fine lowlander, the ruffed grouse, but I insist that in identical environments the old fan-tail must play a second fiddle to his huskier relative, the dusky grouse.

H.L. Betten, Upland Game Shooting, 1944

No grouse in the primitive state had a native fear of man. This invariably applied to all of them: sage hen, prairie chicken, heath hen, sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse, ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, Franklin’s grouse, and various ptarmigan. Apparently they were secure from mammal predators–fox, coyote, bobcat, cougar, and the like–in the power of their wings. All they had to do was remain out of leaping distance. They were all foolish enought to let man walk right up to them as a result.

They are not all that way today, of course. With a certain degree of shooting over a period of years, they become wild and jumpy, acclimated to the fact that man has a longer reach than other mammals. This is especially true for the ruffed grouse of the Northeast. The blue grouse hasn’t been subjected to such a degree of education, but the important thing is that he can fly. A tame, backwoods ruffed grouse can make anyone look bad when he does take it into his mind to fly, and the blue grouse has this same quality.

In describing this bird I have used the analogy of the ruffed grouse. Realizing my opinion of the game qualities of this bird, I intend this as a compliment. Next to the ruffed grouse I feel that the blue grouse has the greatest potential for the upland hunter of any of the American Grouse.

Dan Holland, The Upland Game Hunter’s Bible (1961).

Blue grouse can provide all the sport a bird hunter might want. . . .

In four hours of hunting, two new partners and I flushed 20 blue grouse, nearly all of which were singles. We killed four and missed the others. Thanks to our dogs, the grouse were high-strung birds that flew hard and knew all about keeping trees between them and any line of fire we dared attempt. I tossed away a pocketful of shells on targets that darted in and out of cover as adroitly as any ruffed grouse. Only one blue landed in a tree, and we promptly missed that bird on the reflush.
. . . .
It was only mid-September, but apparently the blues were at or near their wintering covers. Typical of grouse, they escaped downhill, and some of them flew a long, long way. I thought about stumbling down that mountainside and trying to put them up again. And maybe again. It was possible, I supposed to move them all the way to the lowland drainages and aspen pockets which Jeff said could be stiff with ruffed grouse. Ruffed Grouse? Far below, those inviting aspen groves looked like flecks of gold in a sea of green. You may not believe this–I know I wouldn’t have–but the hunting for blues that day was far too good to worry about ruffed grouse.

Tom Huggler, Grouse of North America, A Cross-Continental Hunting Guide.(1990)

In my part of the world, bird hunting generally means working the prairie for pheasants, sharptails, sage grouse, and Huns. It’s a hard premise to argue with, since plains habitat offers a smorgasbord of game, unobstructed shooting, and an opportunity to hunt all day without dying of exhaustion. But there are mountains here as well, and those mountains are home to three species that are usually all but overlooked by serious bird hunters. The West’s so-called mountain grouse–Franklin’s, ruffs, and blues–are lumped together here in Montana in one derivative category for legal purposes, the idea being that big game hunters can shoot their heads off with rifles more or less indiscriminately while “real” bird hunters are down on the prairie hunting “real” gamebirds in civilized ways. What a shame this benign neglect turns out to be, for at its best, at least one of these species–the blue–ranks amount the most challenging and rewarding shotgun quarries in North America.

E. Donnall Thomas, Jr., Fool Hen Blues (1994).

Some days, everything clicks and the shooting is second nature, instinctive. On blues flying like maniacs with the wind, zeroed in on cresting the nearest ridge, they are tough targets. A limit is rare. The accuracy juice doesn’t flow often, but when it does, it is sure sweet.

John Holt, Kicking Up Trouble: Upland Bird Hunting in the West (1994).

Now for my own personal opinions of the blue grouse as a game bird:

By way of confession, I am completely biased on this topic. In fact, I have a bumper sticker on my vehicle that says, “Blue Grouse Hippie.” I love everything about blue grouse: their majestic alpine habitat, their thunderous rises that spike your adrenalin so hard that you feel your heart pumping between your ears, their downhill dives that take your breath away, the taste of their flesh hot off the grill. What’s not to love?

Blue Grouse Hippie: Yep, that’s me.

Admittedly, as many of the writers have alluded to, I too have seen blue grouse act as a fool hen on occasion. However, according to my own personal code of ethics, I will not shoot a bird on the ground or from a tree limb. At those times, I pitch a rock or a stick at the blue and then try to overtake the diving bird when he blasts out of the tree, which is one of the most challenging shots you can ever imagine. Good luck with that one!

The majority of the time–when you bring a birddog into the mix–blue grouse take on a natural wariness to predators and fly hard and fast. In thick cover, there is no more challenging quarry. Of the five grouse in Idaho, I would rate blue grouse as one of the most challenging birds to take on the wing–on even par with ruffed grouse and definitely more challenging than sharptails.

I love all of Idaho’s grouse, but if the truth be told, I would almost rather hunt blue grouse in September than any other bird any other time of the year. Good thing I don’t have to choose. In short, blue grouse are a superb game bird in every sense of the word.

Like me, Farles loved blue grouse too.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. stphen says:

    well very nice post , seems to be very interesting.for information about birds visit : bird spike

  2. JimK says:

    Now I'm learning! Thanks, Andy! Nice piece of work!

  3. I too am a blue grouse hippy! What a fine bird to pursue with birddogs in the Autumn Rocky Mtn Uplands!

  4. Matt Ortiz says:

    3x on the hippie part.Man I love those birds.

  5. AndyMy one and only opportunity to shoot these birds with you brother Shawn confirmed all you and others say about their grand status as upland quarry. They were hard to find, flew with vigor, required a good hit with the pattern to bring them down. I was grateful to be able to bag two birds that day since I now know they will probably be my last. The had no "fool hen" qualities whatever. I might also note that having hunted ruffed grouse over 17 years in Minnesota, supposedly the wildest and most explosive of all upland critters, I saw some really dumb ones, usually early in the year with young ones. But, an old grouse could get "dumb" too. More than once I had to force a bird into the air that was protecting his drumming log, later in the season. I suspect there was a young male in the area that led to this behavior. They also can act goofy with dogs, flying up into trees and just looking at the hunter underneath. I can tell you, when they fly from the tree limb they are not easy to hit. I think I ought to write a little piece about some of my grouse hunting history here. In the blog, not in this over-long comment!

  6. Andy W. says:

    Walter, Please do! I see this blog as a way for us to preserve for posterity our experiences. If we don't write them down, they die with us. I would love to hear more about your experiences and I think our readers would too. Andy

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