[Note from Author: This article first appeared in the Ruffed Grouse Society Magazine in 2014 and is reprinted here with permission. Happy Thanksgiving from Upland Ways! We appreciate all of our loyal followers!]
The rich ruffed grouse hunting tradition is deeply rooted in the Eastern United States and is spreading across the country into the Rocky Mountains. Wherever we live, we grouse hunters have much to be grateful for. On Thanksgiving, I can think of no better tradition than to go afield in pursuit of our favorite game bird, especially when we have the opportunity to introduce a new hunter to our grand sporting tradition.
I was pretty excited on Wednesday night when my good friend, Scott Johnson, agreed to go grouse hunting Thanksgiving morning in 2013. Before I picked Scott up the following morning, I did not know that his 11 year old son, Cole, was coming, but I was glad he did. On opening day in late August, we took Cole forest grouse hunting and—though we found a few birds that day—Cole had no opportunities to get his first grouse. Our plan was to hunt a new area not far from home in Eastern Idaho that Scott had discovered while deer hunting in October. Along for the hunt were my Brittanys, Sunny and Misty, and Scott’s Chocolate Lab, Gunner.
It took us a while to find the road, but once we located the general area, Scott couldn’t remember the exact spot he wanted us to try. So we settled for a willow-lined creek bottom at the end of a dirt road. At first glance, the cover did not particularly strike me as birdy-looking because the north-facing, right-hand side of the narrow valley held mature Douglas Fir pine trees—or “dark timber” as we call it—which usually isn’t the best habitat for ruffed grouse. But with time ticking away, we felt it important to get hunting, come what may. I thought to myself: If we can only get Cole his first bird, this will be enough.
As we walked up the snow-covered trail about seventy-five yards, my American Brittany, Misty worked the willow-choked creek bottom out of view and her bell suddenly went silent. Sunny Girl—my aging French Brittany—who was on the trail ahead of us, also pointed honoring Misty.
I looked at Scott and Brigham and proclaimed, “Sunny is on point!”
No sooner had I said this when multiple birds boiled out of the thick cover. One landed in a tree along the trail. Another gave me a nice quartering shot, which I flubbed twice.
As a rule, Scott and I only take birds on the wing. However, we make an exception when we take a youngster hunting for the first time. In this situation, we allow the new hunter to shoot a sitting bird so they can experience some success. We figure that it is only a matter of time before they realize that it is more challenging and exciting to take them on the wing.
With a grouse in the tree ahead of us, we walked to about twenty yards of the target. Cole then pointed and shot his tiny .410, but missed the sitting grouse, which hopped outward on the limb and then flew straightaway uphill. Of course, I was there to back him up and shot twice at the departing grouse seeing no signs that I had hit it. So I did not follow up as I should have. Cole and I continued to hike up the trail while Scott worked the left-hand side of the creek.
Scott had marked down fairly accurately where one of the first grouse had landed. So we all pushed toward this area. Gunner, the Labrador, briefly pointed, and, as I passed him, a bird flushed behind me into the dark timber without presenting a shot.
As Cole and I continued up the trail, the dogs raised another grouse out of the creek bottom and it flew into a tree ahead of us. We gave Cole a second chance and this time he made a better shot, but the bird was only winged. My Misty chased the grouse down and brought it back, but dropped it at my feet only to have it run off again. Misty ran after it and retrieved it again with the same result, except this time the grouse ran down the hill toward the creek. Gunner and Sunny charged after it—with Gunner beating the old timer—and he retrieved the grouse to hand. Cole now had his very first grouse! The day was already a tremendous success (despite my own poor shooting). I took a few photos with Cole and his first grouse.
Along the snowy trail, I observed fresh grouse tracks going down into the willows. I called out to Scott across the creek, “There’s a grouse right down here, Scott. Get ready!”
I then sent energetic Misty into the creek bottom to do the brush-bustin’ and a grouse flushed up into a tree about twenty yards ahead of where Cole and I stood. A split second later another grouse flushed hard behind me heading for the dark timber and I spun and swung ahead of it. The shot felt good, but Scott also shot milliseconds after me and—with all the lead in the air—the bird fell solid to the ground. We called it a “double” and were both glad to take this beautiful bird on the wing.
As for the bird in the tree, Cole had a chance to take his second bird. This time Cole’s shot was right on the money and Gunner quickly retrieved the ruffie to hand. Scott came over to the trail and we stopped to take some beautiful photos of Cole with his first two grouse. A kid’s enthusiasm over his first birds is contagious.
It’s amazing what a few birds in the bag does for the psyche and to a piece of cover, which suddenly took on a new light. I now recognized why the birds were drawn to this area. They used the dark timber on the right hand side of the valley for roosting at night and the willow clusters for budding in the morning. We could not have picked a better set up for late season grouse hunting. We later worked some other areas on the left hand side of the little valley with quaking aspen thickets, which is good grouse cover in the early season, but we did not move a single bird. This only substantiated my theory regarding the grouse’s preference to the creek bottom and the adjacent pine-covered hillside in the winter.
Around 11:00 a.m., we recognized that it was time to head home to our families for the holiday festivities. To get back to the car, we hiked back down the same trail that we had hunted up earlier. Gunner, who had hunted fairly close all morning, was soon out of sight. I didn’t really notice, but Scott watched him work uphill into the dark timber. As we got about 75 yards from the car—where the action first began that morning—Gunner suddenly appeared on the trail walking towards us with a dead grouse in his mouth.
Upon bringing the bird to hand, it was cold to the touch. Putting two and two together, we deduced that this was the second grouse which I shot at as it flushed straightaway out of the tree. I realized that I should have followed up after the bird even though I believed I had missed it. To our amazement, Gunner Boy had found and retrieved this bird nearly two hours later. I was ecstatic. Suddenly, my shooting for the day was not so bad after all. Scott described Gunner’s finding and retrieving the bird as a “little redemption” for me, and I could not disagree.
Because of inclement weather, late November grouse hunting in Idaho can be a hit and miss proposition (no pun intended). Oftentimes, a hunter is locked out of his coverts by Ol’ Man Winter way before the season is officially over. I could not have picked a better day to go grouse hunting with a great friend and his young son. The words of the hymn sum up nicely my sentiments for the hunt that Thanksgiving morning:
Come ye thankful people come; Raise the song of harvest home.
All is safely gathered in, Ere the winter storms begin.