I glanced at my GPS to confirm what my burning lungs and lactic legs were telling me: yep, 10,288 feet and climbing. Determined to top the next ridge, I sucked in half a lung of thin mountain air and plodded on. Ruckus, my 4-year-old Brittany, slipped by me and then ducked into the dark pines scattered along the mountainside— seemingly oblivious to the elevation even though, like me, he’s a flat-lander.
I paused for the um-teenth time to catch my breath. This felt more like an elk hunt than my initiation to hunting blue grouse, and the fact I was carrying a shotgun instead of a lightweight mountain rifle seemed mildly surreal. I’ve hunted nearly every North American upland species, but this bird had evaded my efforts of taking the next step toward completing the North American Upland Bird Super Slam (no such thing, but there should be). I’d flushed several blues during elk and mule deer hunts, but I’d never targeted them—until now.
I’m not much of a “bucket list” guy, but when my buddy Tim Brandt at Federal Premium Ammunition asked if I wanted to join him and a handful of other writer types on an upland bird hunt in Utah, I packed up my pup and pointed the FJ Cruiser west. Two long days and 1,400 miles later, I pulled into the parking lot of the Castle Valley Outdoors lodge, where I was greeted by its operations foreman, Jim Fauver.
Nestled in the stunningly beautiful rock buttes and sandstone formations of south-central Utah, Castle Valley Outdoors provides its guests with world-class wing shooting. Part of the operation is put-and-take hunting on the 16,000-acre working cattle ranch, of which 4,000 acres of manicured bottom-land is devoted to its upland bird operations—where guests shoot pheasants, chukars and mountain quail. For those hunters who want to enjoy a “gentlemen’s hunt” with expert guides over incredible pointing dogs and a picturesque backdrop, it’s the cat’s meow.
I was the first of our group to show up, so Jim gave me the nickel tour of the lodge and facilities. I was more interested in the bird hunting and quickly redirected the conversation. “I would say the thing that makes us unique is that we manage 4,000 acres of river-bottom property strictly for wildlife,” Jim said, as he helped transfer gear from my truck to my room. “We’ve employed several wildlife biologists to come up with just the right mixes of grasses, loafing areas and food plots to encourage the growth of a good wild population of pheasants, chukars and quail. Hunting our fields you never know which you’re going to flush. You could see a covey of valley quail or be surprised by a cackling rooster or get into a flock of chukars— all while you’re walking through some of the most picturesque scenery this country has to offer.”
That all sounded great, but it was blue grouse I was most interested in learning more about. “We find that most of our guests have never hunted them and find it a new experience,” Jim said. “Hunting blue grouse is not for the faint of heart and can require some strenuous hiking. Our grouse guides, Jeremy and Katlin, were both raised in the mountains back here above the ranch. They come from a hunting background of training dogs and tracking big game. The blues typically thrive in edge cover—transitional zones between stands of evergreens and grass—and benefit from the logging in the areas where we hunt them. You’re going to love it.”
Native to Utah, blue grouse are found in most mountainous areas of the state, with the greatest densities occurring in the northern Wasatch Range. Because of the secluded, rugged nature of the mountain habitat where they live, no major reduction in blue grouse range has occurred since historical times, which bodes well for the species. Annual population fluctuations are primarily the result of seasonal weather patterns. Cool, wet springs, dry summers and harsh winters typically depress blue grouse production.
The dusky to bluish-gray plumage of males and the mottled brown color of females blend perfectly with the branches of weathered fallen logs where grouse typically roost at midday. They have a tendency of sitting tight, flushing only when danger is eminent, and a good pointing dog can be a huge asset in finding them. Blue grouse are big and bodacious, second only to the sage grouse, and are about a third again as large as a ruffed grouse. During mating season, males develop an orange comb over the eye and reddish-purple air sacs on the sides of the neck.
Blues are found at their lowest elevation during early fall—sagebrush foothills, timbered draws and meadows across their range—where they feed on green vegetation, seeds, buds, berries and insects. As fall progresses, they gradually move up-slope where, like quail, they often bunch up in coveys— the result of several broods coming together, usually to utilize a common food source. Their winter diet is primarily the needles and buds of fir trees. We were finding them at fairly high elevations during our October hunt. Basically, we would strike out from the truck, working side-hills until we found just the right habitat at the right elevation where the blues were hanging out.
At first blush, blues and the ruffs I’ve hunted all my life have a lot in common. They’re both woods walkers—more content to use their legs than their wings to get around—but capable of explosive flight at the first inkling of danger. And like ruffs, blue grouse have the capacity for only short bursts of flight, making follow-up flushes possible. The difference is elevation. It’s one thing to flush and re-flush a ruffed grouse on even ground, but quite another when several hundred vertical feet might separate you from a second flush on a blue. Typically, you’ll find ruffs in lower elevations where they share habitat with blues, but we did flush a few up high.
ONE FOR THE BUCKET
I was stepping over a fallen log when Ruckus pulled up into the beginnings of a point. I scrambled to get both feet planted back on firm ground as a grouse rocketed out from underneath a small spruce, hell-bent for election. I’ve hunted ruffed grouse all my life and know if you don’t react instantly the opportunity is gone. I shouldered the lightweight 20 gauge and caught a glimpse of the grouse as it rocketed downhill between twin pines. The Benelli double-tapped my shoulder and the grouse folded up and then tumbled another 40 yards down the mountain.
Ruckus charged down the hill and grabbed the grouse, shifted into four-wheel- drive and powered back up the steep incline, delivering the bird to hand. I stroked the dusty blue feathers, turning it over in my hands and admired the beautiful bird. My bucket was one bird closer to full.
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