The long drive to Wyoming required at least a short nap, it was still dark, and the front seat of the Wrangler was not at all conducive to sleep. However, shear tiredness has a way of dropping one into a deep sleep. As my groggy vision begins to clear and the colorful sunrise comes into focus highlighting a sea of sagebrush extending all the way to the distant mountains; Where, exactly, are we going to start looking for sage grouse? Never in my wildest dreams did sage grouse pop up as something I needed to hunt. Heck, before the Federal Government proposed listing them as an endangered species, sage grouse were not on or in my mind. If a species might become endangered, but still has a hunting season for them; then what is the best thing to do? Hunt them, to save their population.
Time to wake the curled up lump in the passenger seat, my 14-year-old grandson, who will require food immediately. Vic is staring at us with the intensity he points a bird. He slept nearly the entire 1400 miles, so his energy level is quite apparent, and by the looks of this 100 square miles of sagebrush to search, he’ll need it.
Sagebrush turned out to be more agreeable to walk through than it first appeared at least during the first several miles then without a single sage grouse rising the brush seemed to require more effort. As the sun sank towards the horizon, Vic froze, pointing intently, his first point of the day, we circled to get in front of him in a feeble attempt to “pin” the subject of his attention. Vic charged ahead, racing between us as if he was going to scatter a turkey flock and then froze pointing 90 yards on the other side of the barbed wire. My grandson eagerly raced under the fence and was quickly alongside Vic trying to get a flush. I moved to and through the gate just as sage grouse started rising. The young one fired a couple of shots, but alas, target panic set in with all those big wings scooping air around him. One grouse circled back around me to become my first sage grouse. Vic’s eyes glittered his satisfaction as he grabbed that grouse for the retrieve, oh well won’t be mounting that boomer.
The Grandson and Vic head for the top of the hill to attempt a reflush while I stayed put directing my lungs to use the scarcely available oxygen available at 6,700-foot more efficiently. Shots ring out as another covey of
grouse take to wing, and a lone bird glides downhill crumpling to my broadside shot.
The eastern sky shows off all the colors of the spectrum as the sun rises from behind the snow-covered mountains, a hot cup of coffee is at its best at these moments. This morning would be completely silent if not for the snoring of my hunt companions. Surprised they didn’t wake up when I smashed the ice in the water bucket for coffee making. It’s all good and puts a contented smile on my face.
Kids will be kids, even while hunting. My grandson has a powerful urge to get into the snow; he is an avid snowboarder, and thankfully we did not pack his snowboard. Being an easy touch grandpa, I readily agreed we need to take a trip up to the snow line after all its things like this I bought the Rubicon for. I had assured myself as I plopped down the cash for what was a shiny-new Wrangler that I had no intention of rock crawling with it. Not only did we crawl over stones we did several water crossings and wallowed our way through some of the stickiest mud the earth has to offer. It was all worth it.
As we hunted our way down the mountain, Vic pointed a covey of grouse that held tight as Walker moved around to the front of Vic. With the five birds pinned they exploded straight up above dog and kid whose shot was right on bringing to hand his first sage grouse.
Hunting was good even though we were not hunting in a sage grouse core area which of course caused us to wonder if grouse hunting would be any better in a core area so as in the old saying “Go West…” we packed up and headed further west. In hunting, the experience and adventure are just as relevant as bagging the game, maybe more important.
Tired and looking forward to a restful camp; we turn off the highway and spot Rick with his old reliable English pointer. So many times stories circulate about selfish, thoughtless hunters, I believe them to be mostly false narratives repeated again and again. Rick is a shining example of the many excellent hunters. Rather than tell us there were no grouse around he took us into his sage grouse tutelage. Enthusiastically explaining sage grouse is one of the last remaining old west experiences that may soon be coming to an end. He has been hunting them for a half a century.
Rick made sure a restful camp was not coming our way until well after sunset; he took us out grouse hunting all the while explaining the subtle difference in sagebrush along with the mix of terrain sage grouse require to prosper. We entered the brush with dogs locked on
hardpoints and coveys of grouse taking off in waves, a restful camp faded to a distant memory. After all, first things first, right? My grandson shot another grouse and then another to take his daily limit. We experienced an old Western hunt complete with the smell of sage, a peaceful sunset and that welcome feeling of tiredness at the end of a good day’s hunt. Our camp was set up after dark surrounded by stars that appeared to be a mere arm’s length away. I looked forward to what the morning sunrise would reveal.
Rick explained there is no reason to rise early for sage grouse; they roost on ridge tops and fly away as soon as they see danger coming. Then as the morning warms the grouse move down into the cuts and draws to start feeding where it is much easier to hunt them. Dogs will scent better, and the sage grouse tend to hold tighter at the dog’s point.
We spent several delightful days hunting and learning with Rick. All too soon we felt that melancholy of a season coming to a close. We bid farewell and headed off in opposite directions for our homes.
Each day of hunting provided us delicious lunches of sage grouse, as much as we could eat. Contrary to what I’d heard sage grouse are excellent eating. They are dark-breasted birds so caution must be used in preparation not to overcook. The grouse meat is naturally seasoned with a mild taste of peppery sage.
Sage grouse do not have a significant following; this puts them in danger of remaining a low valued species. Low valued species have a long history of not being appreciated and when decisions about habitat are made those species with high value will always be taken care of first, i.e., antelope, deer, elk, etc.
We highly recommend you enjoy some sage grouse hunting.