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Upon the September grouse opener calls a particular mountaintop covert. The eastern aspect was burned out years ago, but a few mature pines remain. The understory boasts mixed grasses, dense burgundy ninebark, the occasional rose thicket and Oregon grape, and large snowbrush clumps encircled by all of the above. Beneath the sun’s resplendence on the shoulders of the day, the brushy cover exudes a unique vibrance against a backdrop of rugged river canyon, home to moose, elk, Rocky Mountain bighorn, and the “King of the Woods”, the ruffed grouse.
The eastern edge of the mountaintop drops precipitously into the river canyon over a basalt rim 10 to 15 feet high that runs the length of the ridge. Below the rim are blackened pine remnants and house-sized boulders and outcrops wedged into deep crevasses that are brushed in by head-high snowbrush. While the terrain and vegetation alone are worth the hunt, it’s the unique and elusive variety of ruffed grouse inhabiting this dramatic cover that nags at me come grouse season.
Finn and Yuba hit the ground running as the sun cast long evening shadows across an old road cut above the basalt rim. I had no expectations of the hunt aside from spectacular views and mental escape with my best girls doing what they love. Afterall, it had been three years since we had moved a bird here.
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With the sun warm against my right cheek, I strolled carefree, talking quietly to the girls when they would check in. Chipmunks chirped and scrambled into old stumps. Steller’s jays squawked in the pines. An alarmed ruffed grouse chirped boisterously ahead.
My mind had wandered deep into the enjoyment of the hunt itself. So deep that I initially thought I had heard a magpie. Glancing toward the canyon rim, I spied the ruff drop over the lip while Yuba came from behind, ran a wide circle, and locked up at the base of a snowbrush cluster. I had spooked the first bird from about 10 yards out, and Yuba pegged a runner about 30 yards closer to the edge.
Starting toward Yuba, I spied Finn to my left, honoring Yuba’s point. I was nearly to Yuba when the second bird blew out directly behind the shrubbery. Sidestepping to a clear shooting lane simply allowed me to watch the bird disappear into the canyon along the same trajectory as the one before. Deja Vu of Septembers past rushed in. The girls never budged, so I backed up to snap a couple phone pics before moving on.
Further south along the ridge, the mountaintop opens a bit more and the snowbrush recedes from the rim. Golden grasses and patches of crimson snowberry appear to flow around the ponderosas like a slow-moving river. I enjoy this portion of the covert the most, but the birds are never there, despite how many times I have envisioned a flush over the grasses, like a covey of bobwhites busting through the southern shortleaf pine forest.
Turning back, we walked the old road above the rim the entire length. There was an untouched area that we peeled around before flushing the two prior birds. As the mountaintop narrows, the road cuts deeper into the steep terrain and brush overhangs the uphill side of the road. It was here that Finn turned up-ridge and locked up.
As I readied my double, two grouse leapt from the hillside and bombed down canyon in a mere eyeblink, and at least 30 yards out. The birds likely moved since we bypassed them initially. Expecting a third, I urged Finn forward and picked up my pace. I was ready when the bird sailed over the road but withheld the shot. In the event that I connected, the bird may have been lost.
Below the rim, the slopes are near vertical. Shooting a grouse that close to the edge guarantees it will plumet into the snowbrush at a location that someone better with physics than I would have to estimate – at least 100 feet down. My girls don’t retrieve, and the cover would be too thick to navigate on such steep terrain. It’s not worth losing the bird.
It was here that I encountered my first gray-phase ruff. It’s charcoal tail fan glimmered in the sun as it fell out of sight with the terrain. Never has a bird escaped in any other direction. More often than not, two birds flush from nearby one another. What’s more, this covert is wholly unpredictable from my records. Some years we find one or two birds, most years none, and now five in a single hunt with no weather, temperature, or time of day correlation.
I watched the last bird drop at least half way to the river bottom before settling down in the brush and thought of chukar dropping from the cliffs along the upper Columbia River, only to come down below me on the scree slopes. Their devil-red legs would carry them to where they would flush around the sheer faces when I descended in pursuit. It seems these grouse have a little chukar in them.
Pulling the girls aside, we sat along the edge of the road with the canyon dropping away behind us. The photos of the girls on point and the three of us together on top of the world were the trophies of the day. It was our ninth season opener, chasing grouse on the rim and, so far, our ninth coming off the mountain without a bird. At this point it’s an odds game. If we keep at it, eventually, one of them will make a mistake. Until then, we’ll keep chasing ruffs on the rim.