There isn’t an animal out there that is more exciting, explosive, frustrating and satisfying to hunt than the Dusky grouse. Well, at least in my mind there isn’t. Years have gone into research and scouting in order for me to just flush my first bird, let alone to recover from the ensuing heart attack caused by it’s thunderous take-off to get a hurried shot off. You may think I’m a slow learner and I would have to agree with you, but sometimes the things hardest learned are the things we learn best. Easy money is easily lost, right? Same goes for the hard knocks of the outdoors and grouse hunting. So here is a guide to what I have learned chasing these mountain chickens every fall for the last few blessed years. You may disagree with every tactic written below, hell I would expect at least some of it to raise some eyebrows. Keep an open mind and use what you can to help you out. If nothing else, look at the pretty pictures, smile and think to yourself, “At least this guys isn’t going to wipe out the population for the rest of us.” Enjoy.
Escape - Know What They Are Thinking And Use It Against Them
This quite simply can be the single most important factor once you have a general idea of where they’re at. We’ll get to food and elevation shortly, the two other important factors in finding them. I’ve walked through perfect habits, I mean the correct elevation and a buffet fit for a grouse king and not seen a single bird. What I started to notice is that there are plenty of areas at the right altitude and food, but the ones that hold the birds alway have a quick escape route close by. And what constitutes an escape route for these bombers consists of is quick elevation change. They love it steep, pure and simple. They are used to being chased by coyotes more than humans, so the trees is a logical spot to avoid them. If they can flap their wings five times and make it to safety, they’ll call it good enough and do just that. So the steeper the ground, the quicker they can get to the tree tops (think back to those trigonometry days… you there yet? Wow, you were quicker than I was, good job!)
A nearby cliff works just as well. I find they are more likely to be in flatter grounds if there is a cliff within a couple hundred yards. Same laws apply as above.
So how do we take advantage of this information? One way is to get in-between them and their escape route. Walking uphill and flushing them can throw them for a loop and make them a good bit easier to shoot at. Coming at them from this angle usually forces them to fly straight up to clear you (or your four-legged friend) before they maneuver themselves downhill and nine times out of ten, they will fly downhill. This helps us look like rockstars behind the scatterguns and keeps the pooches happy when your not shooting inches over their head. This works as well with cliffs by having your dog or hunting buddy kick them out and you cut them off. Important Note*: Careful hunting your dog around drop-offs for obvious reasons, they don’t always think before they go chasing after the retrieve. (Yea, yea, get your dog steady to wing and shot and this isn’t a problem. My pup’s current Union contract clearly states that these rules don’t apply to him.)
Elevation Usually Equals Food
Reverse migrators, a quirky habit of these guys. When you start your season you’ll be chasing them in the lower elevation sage brush/aspen edges. Just as the snow starts coming in they pack their bags and head up higher to the conifers. Now, I never claimed they're logical creatures. But I guess in a certain way it makes sense. They are following the food. It goes something like this. Bugs, berries, leaves then needles. Now this isn’t an exact science. I’ve seen bugs, leaves and berries in the gullets all at the same time. So this is useless information right? Not really. Here is a breakdown on where and when I hunt them. Please note this can vary according to where you live. I’m in Colorado and hunt the Western Slope. This is also assuming it is a “normal” weather year (I know, there is no such thing in Colorado, let’s make pretend). It could be totally different in Idaho. So I won’t give you exact elevations, but I think you can put a good guess on what it will be like in your area according to this:
1st - 3rd Week of September: I hunt sage fields that have have aspen patches nearby. Again, some type of angle to the land is crucial. Escape always applies. If you see grasshopper jumping about, you’re in a prime food location and they should be around. Berry patches (currants) are a slam dunk as well. Look for small trickling streams. This is super important this time of year as it can get damn hot out and they like to cool their throats down. If the heat is cranked up, I also look for nearby, small patches of conifers where they tend to hide in the shade, attempting to cool off.
4th Week of September - 2nd Week of October: I’m getting into the denser/taller aspens by now. I never really find them in the sapling aspens like I hear that Ruffed grouse love so much, but rather the bigger trees where they can get a purchase on a solid branch after they flush. The trickling stream isn’t quite as important as they’re feeding on leaves that probably give them enough water at this point. If there are any berries left, hunt around them.
3rd Week of October - Mid November: All the good tasting stuff is gone so we’re in the pines. This is their primary food source for the winter. Again a good angle seems to be the preference. If there are aspens mixed in they will tend to fly towards the pines for cover. If there are no leaves on the aspens they don’t usually fly to them because they will stick out like a sore thumb while sitting on the bare branches. If there is snow on the ground you can sometimes find their tracks. If you do, get ready, as they are nearby. Unless the tracks are completely iced over (therefore being old) I almost always find them nearby. This may be a little counter intuitive if your a pheasant hunter, because when I’m out in the plains that’s all I see; tracks but no birds. Grouse don’t run like pheasant do so you’ll often find them close to their tracks.
*** A little tip for you: When you find them, stay within that relative elevation. Once I find them, I’ll mark it on my GPS for future studying and then just follow that contour. It works pretty well.
Weather and Time of Day
These two factors draw many similarities. If it’s stormy and the weather is just breaking, they tend to act as they do in the morning. Under these conditions they tend to clump up in their coveys. This is when you have the best chance at a covey flush. As the day progresses and they feed uphill, they scatter and you’ll get into them one at a time. Again, I’m generalizing here.
In the evening they will fly downhill to roost in the trees for the night. Many an evening while getting camp set, I was dive-bombed by a squadron of grouse making their way to their sleeping quarters.
All of the above information is well and great, but if you’re not in the same zip code as these guys, no amounts of pounding the terrain is going to help you. You need to find good habitat and then apply the above information. In steps technology. Some complain about it (it’’s not like the old days!) but I love it. There’s no denying it’s benefits and it’s here to stay, so jump aboard gramps or get left in the digital dust.
Those satellites whipping around above that we all think are spying on us (is your life really that interesting?) can prove to be beneficial. We now can see just about every tree in the forest. I’ve even found camp spots ahead of time by seeing other campers parked in the woods. Big brother is watching, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to show up on Youtube out there. While we’re on the subject of technology, I figured I’d stay with the times and use it to help show how I use it to find my potential honey holes. Watch the video below for the breakdown of how I find my spots. I’ll use a generic area that everyone knows about so no on gets butt hurt. If you think this is your secret spot and the next time you go there it will be swarmed in a sea of orange, you obviously hunt with your eyes closed. There’s more orange here than in a October pumpkin patch. So here’s the breakdown.
There’s the short of it, in all her glory. Feel free to comment below with your advice to those frustrated beginners out there in need of a little guidance. Grouse hunting is a brotherhood (and sisterhood of course), there’s not many of us that take in the joys of hiking miles of vertical terrain for the potential chance of shooting at one of these glorious birds. Lets hear what your thoughts are on the subject in the comments section.