It was mid-morning on September 15th by the time my wife, Susie, and I had our 3 dogs, my hunting gear, her “hubby stuff”, and all the other things we would need for a 4 week trip loaded. The journey would eventually cover over 6,500 miles. In addition to my two Llewellin Setters, Rikki Lynn & Dixie Belle, we had her little Maltese, J.R. Now J.R. had just turned 12 a few weeks earlier and had lost about 90% of his sight a year prior so this trip was going to be a challenge for him and us. I’ll say right now we shouldn’t have been concerned, he came through in flying colors and provided us with a few smiles along the way.
Four days later we pulled into our cabin in the far northwestern corner of Montana. (West of Glacier National Park) As Susie stepped out of our truck and took a deep breath she commented, “I like this trip already, it smells like Christmas trees.” This location/hunt was not selected at random. In October 2013 I successfully hunted Blue Grouse in Wyoming. A big male was the 5th grouse in my quest for the 7 major species of grouse in North America. The target (pun intended) in Montana was the Spruce Grouse. Before some of you think that a Spruce Grouse is easy to kill and not a worthy challenge consider this. I would be hunting for 3 days with a 3 grouse limit per day and I was looking for a mature (2 year old) male. Montana lumps all the forest or mountain grouse together for an aggregate limit of 3 per day. I had 9 chances for 1 bird and since Ruffed and Spruce Grouse share much of the same habitat I couldn’t have many mistakes and still meet my objective.
Day one began with success about half an hour after Rikki hit the ground. We were in open regrowth fir when my guide shouted “over here, we have a point”. Like usual, I managed to make enough noise getting to the location that I missed the point and flush but not my target. The juvenile female was my first spruce grouse. Over the next hour I had a limit but, alas, no mature males. We obviously got into a family covey that hadn’t dispersed yet since they were scattered our over about a half-mile of hillside. Luckily, one was the mature hen so she was saved as a back-up to go to the taxidermist if needed. Day one was short on the hunting but long on enjoyment,
After lunch Susie and I spent the afternoon exploring and taking fall foliage photos for our Scrap-book. An activity as enjoyable as the actual hunt. For this leg of the trip the only meals provided were lunches, we were on our own for breakfast and dinner. The cabin where we stayed had a fully equipped kitchen for our convenience. Breakfast was easy with warm cereals and fruit (typical home breakfast). But dinners would be a challenge, enter “Chicken Helpers”. We filleted and diced the “kill of the day” and then sautéed it in butter and placed it in one pot with the “helper”. Delicious and the clean-up amounted to 2 pots and our eating utensils.
If you read closely you noticed that Dixie didn’t get any ground time on the 1st day but she provided one of the highlights of the trip early on day 2. We decided to have a go at Blue Grouse on an old clear-cut ridge about 10 miles from our cabin. As we rounded a bend in the logging road there was a male Spruce Grouse getting grit in a truck pull-out. (We knew it was a male by the black color) We proceed on as if we hadn’t seen him and as we rounded the next bend he went out of sight. A couple hundred yards down the road we stopped so I could fumble around with vest, shotgun, and shells. The plan was for me to hug the edge of the road and trees on the right as I snuck back so that when he finally came into view and flushed he should be in range. The plan worked to perfection, almost. The grouse flushed, took a steep angle toward the top of the conifer forest but as my load of 7 1/2s connected he began tumbling through the limbs to the ground. That is when I discovered that I had a problem. Those were the tops of mature fir trees he was approaching and now he was somewhere at their dark bases a good 80 to 100 feet below me. I wasn’t sure how I would get down there and getting back up wasn’t even a consideration. Send me Dixie I hollered back to my waiting guide.
Dixie was still in her crate in the truck and hadn’t seen or smelled anything. All she knew was that I had shot. When she arrived I motioned her off the road and down the slope with the commanded “hunt ‘um up”. This would be a true “blind retrieve” to make Lab owners jealous. She pulled it off. About 3 minutes later she clawed her way back up to the road with my grouse, a male bird but another juvenile. The quest was still on.
The morning and early afternoon had Rikki on a ridge looking for Blue Grouse with no success unless you consider “dusting bowls” and feathers success. They had been there, we just couldn’t locate them. Reluctantly we trudged back to the truck arriving about 1:30. The sandwich and bottle of water and a soft truck seat sure were welcome.
Since the day was warming we decided the birds would be in the coolest, dampest, and heaviest cover around so we went from the ridge to the creek bottoms. Dixie had been on the ground for about half an hour when she got birdy off to my right. I found a clearing (I use that term loosely) and waited for her point or wild flush. The flush came from about 5 yards in front of me by a red-phase Ruffed Grouse, the first one I had ever seen! Of course it continued from right to left and as I raised my shotgun for what would have been a relatively easy shot, it turned between myself and my guide, NO shot. That bird eventually eluded us never to be seen again. About 10 minutes later the scene was repeating itself with Dixie becoming birdy so our thinking was that we had another Ruffed grouse from a family group. But to my joy when the flush came it was a mature 2-year old male Spruce Grouse. Mission accomplished, I had Grouse # 6. At that point 2 birds were fine with me so I called it a day and we headed back to the cabin.
Day 3 was just going to be a “fun” day of taking whatever the “Grouse Gods” handed us and we were ultimately blessed. We started on an old military microwave installation site that has been completely dismantled and removed. However, that ridge had been clear-cut and is now in the regrowth stage. It would be a brief hunt no longer than about 45 minutes. Rikki got the nod and just before we reached the end of the ridge we had a Blue Grouse flush and she was off at the shot to complete the retrieve. I had been successful in taking 2 species of grouse in northwestern Montana.
I then suggested the impossible! I wanted to return to the covert from yesterday to see if we could find the proverbial needle in the haystack. That red phase grouse along the creek bottom would be our illusive target. All you dedicated grouse hunters know how this one would turn out. With Dixie on the ground we started “mission impossible.” Close to an hour in I heard a flush to my right but saw nothing. As Dixie continuing working a Spruce Grouse flushed in front of her and headed for the tree tops. My shot stopped it short and when Dixie completed her retrieve I had two grouse in my vest and they were each a different species. Following a 10 minute break she became restless and wanted to continue hunting. Within 5 to 10 minutes she got very birdy. She went through a nearly impenetrable thicket of regrowth fir trees while I skirted it on the right and took up a position at the end next to the edge of what would be an alder slough in a wet year. Dixie continued her animated search for the strongest scent when a Ruffed Grouse flushed about 25 yards in front of me. At the shot Dixie was off for her retrieve but as she proceeded, grouse started erupting from the slough as if they were popcorn. Ultimately, there were six grouse in that family group. I’ll never have such an easy opportunity for a Ruffed Grouse double but that first one completed my limit for the day. As I admired that mature female bird it began to sink in what I had just accomplished. A mountain grouse trifecta – in one day!
The first leg of our adventure came to an end with more success than I had even imagined. Now the only remaining grouse in my quest was the Sage Grouse. Wyoming here we come!
Phil R. Hechler, NSCA Certified Level II Instructor