feature By: Michael Salomone | July, 20
One change North American bird hunters have had to accept occurred in 2006 when the American Ornithologists Union (AOS), the ruling body for all things bird, presented genetic testing to support dividing an extremely popular game bird, the blue grouse, into two different species Here is where diehard bird hunters may recoil. For many of us, grouse will always be blues.
Large, gray-blue grouse found throughout the Rocky Mountains that have previously been referred to as blue grouse have now become dusky grouse, according to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife small game hunting brochure. This is a drastic change for locals who grew up in the mountains and for devoted bird hunters who travel to hunt here. And the blue grouse found throughout the Pacific Northwest have been reclassified as the sooty grouse.
For close to a century, hunters throughout the western half of the United States have pursued the regal blue grouse. However, when the AOS divided the popular game bird into two separate species, birders and bird hunters had to abruptly make a change and scramble to adjust life lists and harvested species. The result of one swift decision: Devoted grouse hunters picked up two new game birds to pursue while one prized species was “extinguished” without a massive die-off.
There are ridges along the skyline where fathers taught their sons to look for such signs as the downy gray feather of a mature grouse that sticks to the wet nose of a Labrador. Or finding a small depression in the grass with numerous grouse pellets that indicate a lek — an area where grouse families develop — a prime area to hunt early in the season. Young birds will be intermixed with larger males that are maturing but have not felt the urge to separate from the covey. Females and this year’s brood use these areas extensively until food changes and snows come, forcing the birds to make a change.
Far-ranging pointers are the bird dogs of choice for early season success. They cover multiple miles of terrain, more than any bird hunter could cover, and discover the best habitat and hidden birds no hunter could ever find on his own. It is in that extra legwork where blues are found. Early season calls for taking long walks, carrying a lightweight shotgun and coaxing your dog into the direction you want to hunt.
Miles are longer in the early season. Boots seem heavier and knees weaken, for the number of footsteps between flushes expands exponentially compared to those taken in late season hunts. Quite simply, hunters work harder for their birds in the early season, covering more miles of difficult terrain.
The birds change location regularly and rapidly. Birds found yesterday in the lodgepole pines above the freshwater spring on one day in September could be in the sage flats a quarter mile away chasing grasshoppers the next.
One of the best tactics for covering as much terrain as possible without wearing out both hunter and hound is to use a two-vehicle approach. Parking one vehicle along the forest service road or in a BLM camping area and carpooling to the top of your targeted location saves knees from much unnecessary climbing. Guiding the pointing dogs through the best terrain and developing a tighter focus as they gain scent give hunters the best opportunity for locating some blues. Leaving the lower vehicle in the sage flats near aspen stands focuses the last bit of the hunt on grasshoppers and ripe early-season berries. Hunting from the top down is a wise way to deal with the drastic elevation change.
When a blue grouse flushes and a hunter scrambles to gain purchase and focus a shot, the report of the gunshot often sets the second and third birds to wing, startling the hunter and forcing another hurried, errant shot. But a tactic we’ve developed over the years has the hunter bellow out a call signifying a bird has flushed. Like South Dakota pheasant hunters calling out “Rooster!” we let loose with an aspen-shaking “Blue!” The loud, boisterous call often gets the second and third birds into the air without a hurried, forced shot. This tactic just doesn’t seem to work as well with yelling “Dusky” or “Sooty.”
Early in grouse season, the best habitat for blues in Colorado has a mix of aspen and sage. Scrub oaks, choke cherries and service berries provide moist forbs and hold the insects that grouse desire for prime feeding as well as the fruiting berries. As the season progresses and snow accumulates, when all types of berries are gone and grasshoppers are no longer around, we need to adapt our hunting strategies once again. Food sources have changed, and the birds have changed their location. Most birds have moved to the high country — really high. They are eating pine needles now. Walks are shorter when hunters concentrate on smaller areas on ridges and cliff edges. Steep country and high elevation cliffs provide quick escape routes for educated birds.
Many hunters change the dogs they prefer to use in the late season. Flushers are our hounds of choice where the birds are often singles or small groups of twos or threes. A flushing dog’s proximity to the hunter eliminates bumping birds out of gun range.
Large male blue grouse are predominantly solo survivors who come late in the season seeking food and security in the lodgepole pines and Douglas firs of the high country. Big males spend time where escape is easily achieved with a few wing beats and rapid elevation change. The blues become fleeting visions glimpsed through tree branches and disappear over cliff edges and out of sight.
Snow becomes a factor but also a telltale indicator of birds in an area. Blue grouse, especially the big boys, like to walk around everywhere, only taking to wing when danger is present. Snow holds the feathered footprints of large male grouse. An area without bird sign is a prime reason for hunters to change locations.
Blues are big grouse: Large males — both sooty and dusky — can tip the scales at more than three pounds. Both male species of these grouse produce a soft hooting sound, but it is more prominently heard from the sooty grouse. Observant hunters listening intently in the field know the birds are close when they hear this quiet calling.
As much as we would like to carry our 20-gauge shotguns, the winter realm of the blue grouse requires 12-gauge and corresponding shot sizes. Whereas ruffed grouse hunters routinely target large birds with light 20-gauge guns and no. 8 shot, hunters chasing blues need to pack heavy-hitting no. 6 shells in their vests.
Double gun hunters have the option for two chokes as well as two shot sizes of shot. Taking advantage of those qualities offers the best opportunities for harvesting a forest grouse. A no. 6 shot shell, followed by a hard-hitting no. 4, can reach out and touch a bird fleeing on the wing. And open chokes multiply the effectiveness of your shotgun when hunting blues. Chokes of choice run from improved cylinder through modified. The versatility of my 12-gauge pump shotgun allows me to easily change barrel lengths and shaves crucial weight. Lightweight over-under and double-barrel shotguns save shoulders from distress after a long day afield.
The tail fan of a blue grouse is a spectacular trophy for a devoted bird hunter. It is often the last fleeting image grouse hunters have burned into their memories. A successful hunter holding a blue grouse tail fan can have almost double the number of tail feathers of a ruffed grouse fan, another indication of the massive size of the male blue grouse.
A season spent chasing the mountain grouse of either the Pacific Northwest or the Rocky Mountains is packed full of changes. A hunter unwilling to adapt is left with a disadvantage in the field. Those willing to change as conditions dictate will experience repeatable success for both dusky and sooty grouse. Let’s face it, those names are official now, but for those of us who have been baptized along the highest ridges of the Rockies, they will always be blues.