Grouse of the September Uplands

Publish September 5th, 2019, The Waitsburg Times

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With the summer heat still baking the brown and brittle landscape, dog work would need to be restricted to the precious early morning hours of refuge. Fortunately, we were blessed with an overcast sky; one of the first to come of the early fall season. But the transition to autumn was in full swing, presenting a soothing canvas of large pines towering dark above the reddening of the Oregon grape and snowberry, and the fading yellow of elderberry leaves accented by their rich, black berry clusters.

The remains of an old road wound its way along a tributary of the Tucannon. The native shrubbery was speckled with the remnants of homesteads that once grew lush with apples and plums. The homes are gone, but the old fruit trees hung heavy with bright red apples and golf ball-sized orange and purple plums; their delicate offering a gift to the wildlife seeking to plump a bit for winter’s arrival.

Hiking the road, my mind wandered to days gone by. I pondered what the old homes may have looked like. Had they raised livestock? Did they grow vegetable gardens? I could almost taste the sweetness with a hint of pectin tang from the canned preserves that may have come from one of the old plum trees. Basking in fantasy, my muse was jolted back into reality. My innate setter sense triggered a subconscious reminder that my girls were missing, and dead silent above the ambient roar of the creek.

A couple whistle toots usually brings them back around for a check-in, but not a sole moved for a visible quarter mile. Adrenaline kicked in, and my leisurely stroll swiftly transformed into a calculated search for white, speckled bodies, little orange vests, and high setter tails flagging a pinned bird in the soft breeze.

Ruffed grouse or “ruffies” received namesake from the ruff of feathers around their necks. They are one of many miraculous upland bird species on the Columbia Plateau, and the first of the upland seasons to open in our little corner of Washington. But it’s a tough season, opening September 1st, concurrent with the early deer archery season. Temperature can soar into the 90s, wildfires can diminish air quality, and the thickets that these birds inhabit can challenge the most seasoned of hunters.

Finn Yuba Grouse 1

Hunting ruffed grouse became an upland tradition in Appalachia and the Northwoods many moons ago before the early decline of the northern bobwhite quail. An icon of the northern deciduous and boreal forests, their chest-pounding “drumming” echoes throughout the timber like autumn’s noble ambassador. The literary world offers a wealth of praise to ruffies from a simple emotional mention of grouse drumming, to entire volumes dedicated to what some regard as the “king of upland birds”. And a tradition this strong is sure to span a continent and beyond.

But the plethora of upland bird species and the overlap with big game seasons in the west has made the ruffed grouse seemingly less sought-after quarry, at least here in the Walla Walla River watershed. While I commonly share my public land pheasant coverts with others, I have yet to meet another grouse hunter afield in Washington.

Ruffies occupy a variety of habitats and elevations, but are quite fond of thick cover offering insect and tender vegetation food sources during the summer months, while fruits and berries serve as a winter food source. And a variety of food sources requires a mix of conifer and deciduous forest. In the Blue Mountains, this translates to creek bottoms and draws where elderberry, serviceberry, snowberry, hawthorn, and possibly some aspen occur, intermixed among or flanking fir and spruce species.

Given the tangled and sometimes prickly nature of grouse coverts, walking old forest roads presents the most efficient, and at times, the most pleasurable experience, particularly if working a dog with a GPS locator. Historically, a bell was hung from the dog’s collar, and some folks in the Northwoods still prefer the traditional gear. In any case, letting a dog do the brush-busting dirty work is my preference, although the most successful grouse hunters charge right into the thick of things.

Stepping from the road, I wound my way into a thicket of hawthorn and snowberry with a few pines poking up through for good measure. A darkly shaded mess of impossibility lay ahead as I dropped to a knee, ducked a few low branches, and began clawing my way in. Blackberry tendrils clung to the edges and my flannel shirt as if trying to sway me from entering the torture chamber.

Straining deeper in, I finally spied a speck of white about twenty feet ahead where snowberry met pine; my oldest Llewellin, Finn, on steadfast point. Crashing through the understory, I clambered as quickly as possible to reach her, cautiously optimistic that the bird would hold through the racket. A bit further into the snarl I spotted Yuba honoring Finn’s point, affirming the bird was indeed holding.

Anticipating the flush, planting my left foot forward triggered an explosion of wingbeats against the heavy vegetation. A blur of brown feathers and white setters ensued as my old 16-gauge side-by-side came to shoulder, reporting a clean miss. My split-second shot window vanished with the grouse, now sailing full tilt toward safer cover. Another performance typical of our little team.

Grouse 1

We regrouped on the far side of the jumble for a drink and some puppy praise, then resumed the mission, but grouse hunting does not have to be this difficult. Rain actually plays a major role in my success. Ruffies tend to slip out of the woodwork in the rain, spending time along mountain roads and other more open edges with good cover nearby. A quiet stroll under the pitter-patter of a shower has by far afforded me the most success, no pointing dog required. For this reason, and the likelihood of a spooked grouse sailing into a nearby tree within range of a small caliber rifle or arrow, ruffies in the west have also earned the nickname “fool hen”. But those who utter such blasphemy have never hunted grouse in the deciduous forests east of the Mississippi River.

If September archery hunting just isn’t your game, grab your favorite scattergun and hit the timber at sunrise. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 10-year harvest trend, grouse numbers in our corner of the state are rebounding from a 2015 low, likely on their normal, cyclical pattern. The W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area and Umatilla National Forest surrounding the upper Tucannon River provide a variety of habitats and opportunities.

Prior timber harvest offers an easy hike for youngster to become immersed in the uplands along old harvest roads closed to vehicles. You stand a good chance at seeing moose, mule deer and bear. The tranquility of a soft, pink sunrise and songbirds welcoming the day is broken only by the energetic flush of a ruffie erupting from cover.

Kings, Pawns and Jesters in the Game of Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, September 19th, 2020

“King of the woods”. Otherwise known as the ruffed grouse. I won’t go so far as to agree with those who believe ruffs are the king of all upland birds, yet I am yielding to this “king of the woods” business.

There’s an old saying about hunting chukar that goes something like “at first you hunt them for fun, then you hunt for revenge”. I have found with chukar that I hold no hate strong enough to chase them down (or up) the cliffs and scree slopes and plummet-to-your-death, inhospitable hell holes where I have never before seen so many birds in my life. It’s just not worth it. But I will say that I am wholly undecided on it being passion, challenge, or vengeance that calls me back to the grouse covers.

My setters and I have secured a comfortable routine hunting prairie birds across the west, and my desire to run the dogs earlier in the season is what drove me to the grouse covers. And nowhere have I been more frequently frustrated to the point of maniacal laughter like in the dark tangles of the Blue Mountains.

In the literal thick of things when a grouse blows my socks off, my brain short-circuits, fumbling gun mount and lead timing. The 3.2 nanosecond shot opportunity a ruff leaves in its wake, screaming through pinholes in impenetrable vegetated walls sufficient to challenging a Jedi Interceptor require far quicker reflexes.

My oldest Llewellin, Finn, searches a wetland for ole ruff.

If you’ve ever hunted timber of the ruff’s preferred stem density, you know precisely the dodgy, Mach-speed flight these birds are capable of. Instinctual shooting is a must. The kind of target acquisition born nowhere short of a lifetime in the grouse woods. Thinking is not an option. Not even a blackberry thicket quail covert requires so much anticipation and keen attention to the flush.

But there is something more to success on roughed grouse than snappy, savvy handling of walnut and steel. A good grouse cover is like the Bermuda Triangle. Grouse appear and vanish like apparitions. Pointing dogs lock up staunch, then suddenly peel off, only to be stymied by the explosion of a bird behind them. A bird they assumed was never there at all.

The fall of 2019 was my best grouse year on record if you count finds and flushes. About average if you figure I never managed to squeeze off a shot. Having three legitimate opportunities among a dozen flushes, I succumbed to panic.

My last hunt of December placed my middle pup Yuba and I in scraggly ninebark flanking a young red alder stand. The slick, greenish tinge of the alder shone a brilliant contrast to the dark timber along the Tucannon River. Candy-apple red rose hips shone radiantly like Christmas lights amid the dim forest. And Yuba, a stocky tri-color Llewellin setter, stood firm, etched into the fabric of the forest.

Thinking it a “grousey” spot, I circled around for the flush only to see Yuba reconsider and peel off to continue her search.

“There has got to be a bird in there.” I thought as I stood atop a small mound, staring daggers into the shrubbery maze.

 At once, a glorious male ruff rose from the crisp, ocher leaf litter with three swift wingbeats. Either the savage gleam in my eye spooked him or he was never actually there, but for the first time that season, both barrels of my L.C. Smith 12-gauge covered the bird immediately. Tracking as closely as a fighter jet target lock, I swung with the bird. I have never taken a male ruff, and still haven’t to this day.

My youngest Llewellin, Zeta, takes a break on a September hunt.

Shocked by its lazy escape and the unbelief that the bird even existed or that my superstar Yuba betrayed her own instincts, I stared down the barrels at the coal-black neck ruff, finger poised on the trigger, begging to energize the modified-choke barrel. The handsome gent evaporated into dense fir, my finger still pressuring the trigger. Befuddled, my cognitive ability failed to disengage the safety. Yuba and I shared a look of bewilderment and called it good on a season of lessons.

Nearly a year hence, having practiced my mount and prepared mentally for the grouse game, we set out to discover new covers. Running my oldest and youngest, Finn and Zeta, we traversed a creekside snarl of cottonwood and young fir flanked by thick hawthorn and serviceberry. I could sense the bird, clutching my 20-gauge CZ Bobwhite (The Bob) as Zeta encircled a fir on the edge of a clearing.

The ruff made a 10-foot leap, coming down quickly between the dog and I. Darting between trees, scrambling for a clear shot, the bird came up again, a big male, and The Bob was on it with alacrity. To my delight, I pulled off the shot in a fraction of a second, then stood mystified, gazing into the riparian jumble as another male ruff slipped into the safety of distance. Reaching into my vest, I retrieved the two high-velocity #7 loads that I recalled with certainty closing tightly in the action upon exiting the truck.

Years of frustrations. Screw-ups. Shoddy bird numbers. Ghost birds. Dog blunders. All for the sake of a bird that commands respect only to offend at will. Feeling at times like the peasant among royalty, begging for a meager chance to gaze upon the delightful plumage of the elusive ruffed grouse. My girls and I made a mockery of an upland team.

King of the Woods or Lord of the Louts? Perhaps both.

My middle Llewellin, Yuba, with one of the occasional grouse to grace our game bag.