One Thousand One

That is how much time you have - as long as it takes to say "one Thousand one" -  to get a shot off at
 a mountain grouse.

In that time you have to hear and process the sound of the flush, stop walking or climbing or stumbling and gain some measure of solid footing, orient on the bird hoping to get a glimpse of feathered wings flashing in the sun, take your weapon from safe to fire, shoulder your gun, swing through the flight trajectory and fire. You've got to keep your finger on the kill button.

The best advice is to fire more than once, possibly until you run out of shells, because some substantial percentage of each shot is absorbed by the thick pine trunks or deflected by the dense Douglas fir or towering Larch through which Ol' Ruff just fled so nimbly. By the time the hammer falls with a dry snick on an empty chamber, the metronome in the back of your head might have gotten all the way to "one thousand two" - if you are lucky.

On the other hand, you might also be encouraged to leave one shell in the gun or to quickly hustle several new shells into the breech - rarely is there just one bird, particularly if you are out of shells. Unlike their lowland cousins the bobwhite quail, who may often flush allgoddamnatonce if you find a covey, these birds tend to flush seriatim, but in maddeningly unpredictable intervals and angles. Neither wood ducks rocketing through the cool misty dark nor doves screaming and twisting at terminal velocity compare to the difficulty of shooting that characterizes the mountain grouse on the wing in thick and hilly cover.

The ruffed grouse that we encountered - maybe a dozen or so over three days - were all fast and wild. Cover was typically thick stands of alder and larch, intermingled with emerging cedars, in draws on the northern slopes where there was a bit more moisture.

We surprised one cocktail grouse strutting in the middle of a fire road, and he hung there just long enough as if to say "look upon my glorious plumage!" until we piled out of the truck with guns at the ready. He got away.

While we didn't see a blue grouse, I do like the looks our their favorite habitat. We hunted the rocky spines of mountain ridges, relatively clear of brush with large grassy glades dotted with mountain pine and bare, crumbling stone outcrops several millennia in the making. I can imagine that a flush up here would send the bird soaring out below, an incredible mountain backdrop to accompany the shot. And just the same, a successful hit on a long bird could easily result in a half-hour effort to retrieve, even with a dog to assist. The rocky slopes were real ankle breakers, and more than once I used a hand or knee or hindquarters to assist a climb or descent.

We saw more spruce grouse than anything else. They are not called Fool Chicken in error, as they generally stand around in the road until you get ready to shoot, flush, and if you happen to miss they just light on a tree limb nearby.

Of course, maybe it is the hunters who play the true role of the Fool Chicken, hooting and hollering while trying to throw a rock or branch close enough to the bird to dislodge him from his perch. This recalls the age-old adage: "Who is the bigger Fool, the Fool Chicken or the Fool who chases the Fool Chicken."

Alas, all in the name of a "sporting" shot.

Grouse Hunting in The Kootenai

Deep within a majestic expanse of boreal forest, a stone's throw from the Canadian border and 65 miles from the nearest cell tower, lies the town of Yaak, Montana. I use the word "town" in the traditional but liberal sense - really, this is a haphazard collection of trailers, houses, sheds, and farms, which appear somewhat clustered around a single intersection but in reality are just generally strung out all along the river. There are at least two commercial establishments, the Yaak Tavern & Mercantile and the "World Famous" Dirty Shame Saloon -  actually, three - if you count the Yaak Tavern and Yaak Mercantile separately (they are conjoined but distinct).

The road in from the Idaho border winds along the north and west side of the Yaak River, with towering peaks to one side and the broad floor of the river valley on the other. We drove in around sunset, racing the last rays of sunlight as we traversed into the upper valley. The sun slipped first behind booming cumulus clouds before bursting out for a brief low angle finale just above the ridge line to the west. And then it was gone, light pink wisps of the day left the n the darling azure sky just as we turned into the cabin.

This place is teeming with life - a dozen wild turkeys and scores of whitetail deer crowded the mountain road into the valley, and ducks and geese sat quietly in a still oxbow pond as our car screamed by. Jays and squirrels chattered the tidings of our arrival to the cabin, and I am sure I heard the brief pounding flutter of a single grouse exploding out of the pines just a bit further up the hill.

We were staying three nights with Tim Linehan, in one of his self-catering cabins (seriously, stock up on steaks and beer on the way in, the Dirty Shame's kitchen was closed and we ate at the Yaak Tavern three nights in a row). Three days to the hills to chase three species of mountain grouse in this beautiful slice of country: ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, and blue grouse. Dean the Dog was along for the ride, taking the flight in stride and anxious as always to hit the treeline although its been so long since he's tasted bird I'm not sure he entirely knew what to expect.