I love to hunt grouse, any kind of grouse. For a grouse hunter such as myself, Idaho is a great state to live in with five different species namely: Ruffed Grouse, Dusky (Blue) Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Franklin Grouse, and last, but certainly not least, the Sage Grouse.
Although they sometimes overlap, each grouse has its own little niche of habitat in Idaho. Sage Grouse inhabit the once vast, but ever shrinking, seas of sage in the West’s high desert plains. Without this particular habitat, sage grouse can’t survive. Unfortunately, this habitat has been continually diminishing and, with it, sage grouse.
Many passersby view these areas as ugly wastelands, but a sage grouse hunter knows better. While these deserts hide their secrets well, there is a primeval beauty to this landscape that only a few who willingly venture therein will ever know. And these areas hold North America’s biggest upland game bird regularly hunted with dogs and taken on the wing, the Sage Grouse. In Western Skies: Bird Hunting in the Rockies and on the Plains, John Barsness lovingly called them: “Pleistocene Mega Grouse too big for the now.”
I fear our days of hunting this grand game bird are quickly coming to an end. In Idaho, the season is now only seven days long with a one bird per day limit. With such a limited opportunity, many hunters have already given up on the pursuit. However, for those who love and respect this game bird, we will continue to hunt them as long as we can.
On the sage grouse opener in 2014, my dogs and I hunted with a former law partner, Aaron Tolson, and his son, David, and my good friend, Scott Johnson, and his sons, Brigham and Cole. Of this group, only Scott, Brigham and I had hunted sage grouse before. So the rest of the group did not know what to expect. A few weeks before the hunt, Scott Johnson had witnessed a large flock of sage grouse right on the road as he was heading to a fishing destination. He figured this was as good a place as any to try opening day. At the time, Scott said, “I don’t know how much longer we will be able to hunt these birds and I sure would like to see my boys take one before it’s too late.” Having lost access to my favorite sage grouse covert the previous year, I was up for trying something new.
We arrived at the area we planned to hunt at first light with a panorama of the Tetons to the east. We quickly crossed the barbwire fence, loaded our guns, and hunted eastward. The hunters all pushed through the sage in a line at about fifty feet intervals. Scott had guided us well as my Brittany, Misty, bumped two grouse out of range in the first two minutes.
My old, arthritic French Brittany, Sunny Girl, must have hurt herself coming out the back of Aaron’s truck as she limped more than usual. Notwithstanding her obvious pain, Sunny caught scent and slowly walked ahead of me and pointed a nice flock of sage grouse. When they flushed, many of the hunters (including myself) shot, with nothing to show for it. Another group soon got up and I again missed with both barrels. And people say these birds are easy targets! In less than ten minutes, we had seen more than twenty birds.
We continued to hunt eastward, but veered to the northeast because of the blinding sun light coming up directly from the east over the Tetons. Aaron and his son, David, pushed the far left side nearest to the road. As they walked, multiple flocks came up within range, but the newbies just could not connect. In their defense, sage grouse are often referred to as “Thunder Chickens” because of the ruckus they make when they get off the ground, which can sure be unnerving.
We pushed northeast for about a mile and a half and came into a large herd of cattle. I told everyone to steer clear of the cows and to avoid any shot near cows. A huge jumpy flock of sage grouse got up ahead of us at about 100 yards. We pushed toward this area hoping for a straggler or two, but saw no more grouse.
By this time, my French Brittany, Sunny Girl was really struggling to walk. I decided that she had hunted long enough and that I needed to get her back to the car. We made our way back to the road and the dogs and I took leave of the rest of the hunters.
At first, I planned to walk the road as quickly as possible to get Sunny back to the truck, but with the steady traffic along the road, I decided that this plan was too dangerous for the dogs. So I hopped the fence on the side of the road we had just hunted and the dogs and I pushed through the sage along the fence back to the truck. As we walked, I watched two grouse fly over the road toward where the rest of our group was hunting. I also soon spied a giant male grouse in a grassy opening in the sage. He let us get to within sixty yards before he flew away. I was surprised to see this many birds on the side of the road we had already hunted.
Only a minute later, Misty flushed a big grouse and it presented me with my very favorite shot–quartering left to right–which I made. Misty then went to the grouse and stood over it, but would not retrieve it. However, old Sunny Girl dove in and made a nice retrieve. Now that is a team effort! As it had been a few years since I hunted these grouse successfully, I was glad to hold this large cock bird in my hand. The dogs and I paused to take a few photos. I so wanted to continue hunting, but I had filled my limit. As I walked back to the truck I heard a few gun shots on the opposite side of the road. I hoped that someone else in the group had experienced success.
Back at the truck, the dogs had a good drink and I took multiple photos of our beautiful bird. The other hunters soon showed up and I learned that young Brigham had taken his first sage grouse on the wing, which was a cause for celebration and more photos.
We hunted for a while longer and Misty worked some grouse fairly well, but did not hold them as we hoped and they flushed just out of range. At around 11:00 a.m., the younger boys were ready to be done and Scott wanted to take his boys fishing. So we all decided to call it a morning. Everyone commented on how amazed they were at the number of birds we saw. Everyone had shot opportunities, although few were capitalized on. Regardless, everyone had a fun time.
Sage grouse truly are a special bird. I feel sorry for those hunters who will never get the chance to hunt these ancient, gigantic birds of the high desert plains. They give us a reason to walk the lonely, but beautiful, seas of sage. Should we ever lose these precious birds, our world will be a little poorer, especially for this grouse hunter.