Grouse

IMG_6514It’s Monday evening and I’m watching the second Monday night football game between the Chargers and the Texans.  That seems odd to write – second Monday night game? My daughter mentioned that for some reason there were two games this evening. The first just ended with the Redskins losing to the Eagles in one that went down to a last ditch unsuccessful onside kick by the Redskins. Today was quite a day at the shop with technology failure and trips to three different oil change jobs to see if during the afternoon I could sneak in a quickie. Ended up with a long wait anyway at Walmart, after which to learn that the oil pan plug was stripped. This resulted in a Pintrest post of Van Gogh’s “Man with His Head in his Hands.” So, to attempt to relax, I thought I’d write this evening about a couple of recent days in the field with Seth. Writing usually, subject pending, results in a brighter outlook.IMG_6166 I will say that the old Toyo has been on many hunting, skiing, fishing and racing adventures throughout the northwest. The last couple of weekends the old tub has reliably once again taken us to high mountain tops in search of Mountain and Ruffed Grouse. This was Seth’s first trip hunting birds with his father. We have enjoyed a walk or two during past deer seasons. The nice thing about Missoula is that one can be into bird country by merely stepping out one’s back door. North, south, east or west there are mountains to explore where there are birds. I’ve been hiking in the hills in the area for numerous years during early September. IMG_6187One of the side benefits of getting out early for birds is that it is also a time to scout out country for sign of elk and deer. A few weeks into the month the archery hunters are often found afield as well enjoying the earlier big game season which is often during the rut for the elk. I’ve often thought about taking up archery, but a harmonious marriage dictates only so many hobbies. I often see Montanans in the hills this time of year stocking up on their winter firewood supplies. While walking out along the edges and finger trails which were once old logging roads, Seth and I listened to the buzzing of not too distant saws echoing up the canyon.

The experience of hiking through the mountains with my children has been invaluable.  One learns a great deal about the goings on in his son’s life while simply hiking along.  This also applies during the trip in and out of the hills as well; although, Seth had his nose surprisingly buried in “A Diary of a Wimpy Kid” during part of the commutes in and out on these days.  The other part of the commute when not chatting, was the I-pod, of course.

The hunting on day one was pretty entertaining as the birds managed to get the best of us. We got to the end of the first hike, a section that has old trails both above and below our chosen path, and three large Blues exploded from tree tops.  We were not looking up, which is something I usually do.  This is a typical part of the routine for mountain grouse and took a little getting used to when I first moved to the area from the east, where ruffed grouse and quail are hunted with pointers “on the ground.”   I should have been paying attention as this was the same section Todd shot his first grouse not too many years prior.

One thing for sure was that my young partner’s attention was roused by the whole affair and Wen gave us the old “what happened this time, guys” look.  Seth had mentioned that the whole drumming explosion of the birds lifting out of the trees had been startling. We visited about how that occurs when hunting deer or elk and the effect seems to be even more magnified, as silence is key during still hunting. There is a pleasantness to hearing distant grouse drumming in the fall, though. Memories of the first hard freeze, turning colors, dustings of snow and harvest. Drumming grouse.

Later on the same day we drove to a second area and immediately after having gotten out of the vehicle and walking twenty yards, a group of probably six large Blues startled us again, merrily flying down the mountain one at a time.  Mountain grouse seem to always fly down the mountain rather than along its side or up the mountain. Not sure why this is?  Do predators attack from above?  Maybe it requires less energy or is simply nature’s instinctive methodology. At any rate, once again the birds got the best of us prior to my having even loaded the Wingmaster 870.  IMG_6524I had chosen Molly’s twenty gage to hike with during these trips.  It is a simple little outfit that has been very reliable.  These are probably found in a high percentage of hunter’s homes as they are not only reliable but reasonable as well.  Over the years I’ve managed a collection of shotguns that have been a result of having attended many of the Missoula Duck’s Unlimited banquets along with stints on the local committee.  I still try to attend these banquets when possible as I firmly believe in DU’s mission and passing it along to future generations.

We finished day one birdless and semi-frustrated. However, there was a a fun moment of target shooting to blunt the negative effects of having been out smarted by the game. We were also fortunate to have had nice weather during the first day. Sunday, the following weekend, we started off the hunt in the steady rain. The Wookie did not seem to mind though, tromping off down the same path as the last trip in his windbreaker and orange vest.  I like hunting in the harsh elements.  For some reason it feels more like hunting to me. I’m not keen on the smell of wet wool, but have gotten used to it over the years, accepting its unpleasantness for the more important aspect of its quickness to dry, warmth and quite nature. In the cold, damp fall air, though wet, the wool vest felt pleasant. Wen was able to drink from the various puddles along the route, rather than relying on the bottles we carried.
IMG_6523This day,  I noticed three or four spent shot shells along the trail and wondered how many hunters had been through since our last visit. We saw no birds along the hike out in the morning. There were a few elk tracks which were not fresh. Rather than hike up and back out the above finger, I suggested we drop down to the lower trail and hike it back to the vehicle. This resulted in seeing no game and a small hike up to get out of the bottom. Upon arriving back to the vehicle a small train of three or four four-wheelers dropped down out of an old camp site I used to use and tracked by our parked vehicle. People out having fun recreating. The weather had calmed and it was no longer raining. We drove again to the gate near the upper section on the mountain to hike along the talus. Seth had mentioned that during the last visit to this section he had not enjoyed the rocks, so I told him we’d keep it simple and avoid the bad areas. Listening. If one wants to keep the enthusiasm up, he learns to listen.  Boots instead of old sneakers probably would have been better as well.

I shot a Ruffed Grouse among a stand of lodgepole above the route we had taken in from the gate. It was a simple affair and Seth got to watch the lab actually work as she quickly gathered up the not yet dead bird and brought it to us. The dog makes the hunt. My love of watching a working retriever is unending. Wen happens to be a special dog as she has become a bit of a lap dog, loving the children and practically playing the video games with them from the basement couch, while still possessing the innate desire to retrieve. She still senses when fall has arrived and is eager to hop into the truck, which has now come to mean up front, rather than in its bed. We get softer as we age. Wen has accompanied me to many Montana peaks, places most people will never visit. My trustworthy companion.

We took a break. Seth had an applesauce and some nabs. I had a tin container of smoked oysters still in the pack from last year’s season. Following the respite, we walked to where the numerous birds had launched the prior trip up and this day none were to be found. We took a few photos on top of the mountain as the sun had come out. Someone during the week had build a nifty little chair out of the talus in which one could sit and look west (with a hint of south) from on high. Seth obliged. I love this area and have often ridden my cyclocross bike up from the Missoula area to get in a quick, difficult workout. Occasionally, after driving up and parking at a gate, I’ve cycled the area toting a rifle looking for big game. This is common in western Montana.IMG_6506Once Henry had been wrested from his stoop, I suggested we make a small loop below the peak area to see if we could find the Blues that we had flushed last week which were probably still around. The colors in the area are showing signs of fall’s looming approach. Another way this is apparent to me is when one notices that the huckleberries and thimbleberries are no longer on the bushes. Regular upland bird hunters know grouse are found near berry patches. In the west, in the alpine at high altitude.

We did not drop too far off of the mountaintop when I noticed a few Blue Grouse, harvesting one and not getting a shot at the second. The first thing Seth noticed upon receiving the bird was the difference in the size between the Ruffed and the Blue Grouse. Blues are large, similar almost to a small chicken. The colors are different as well, the Ruffed being mostly brown and the Blue being grey and blue with bright colors on its head. It was a brief and happy stroll back to the vehicle where I dressed the birds and we then headed back to the barn. On the way out we listened to the Rams versus the Cardinals on the AM, after having listened earlier as well to Seth’s favorite team, the Seahawks, get by Carolina. Another part of past grouse hunting memories, college and pro football on the AM driving to the next section to hike in the crisp fall air. Happy days.

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