As I rolled out of my sleeping bag, the first rays of sunshine were beginning to peak over the surrounding mountains, spilling down into the valley below and accentuating the colors of early autumn. The maples had already taken on their fall form of deep red, while the tips of the aspens were fading from dull green to a brighter shade of yellow. There was a slight chill in the air that would soon be chased away by the rising sun. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 80 degrees by 1 PM, meaning it would have to be a short day of hunting in the grouse woods.
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After scarfing down a granola bar, I grabbed my gear, slipped a GPS collar on my little English Setter, Ruby, and took off down the trail in search of ruffed and dusky grouse. Stepping out of the clearing where the truck was parked, it seemed like a grouse was liable to flush at any second. The cover was “textbook” western ruffed grouse cover, resembling that described by the subject matter experts. I walked along a trickling mountain stream as Ruby meandered through the cover, casting into the dense stemmy aspens and occasionally breaking out into mixed mountain shrublands of sage and serviceberries. Somehow, however, I managed to walk for an hour, without so much as a false point or any sign that a grouse had ever stepped foot in those woods.
Coming to the end of the trail, it was time to turn around and head back to the truck. Halfway back to the truck, I stopped to take a drink of water and catch my breath before making the final ascent up to the campsite. At that moment, I heard a deep thumping noise that was foreign to me. I thought in confusion, “had Ruby bumped a bird?” Checking the Garmin, I determined she was 60 yards in the opposite direction of the commotion. I heard the sound again, this time starting slowly and gradually increasing to a rapid burst. Then, it clicked. It was a drumming ruffed grouse, the first I had ever heard!
I immediately toned Ruby, recalling her and sending her in the direction of the drumming. Just 20 yards off the trail, amongst the aspen saplings and serviceberries, Ruby slams on point, staring face-to-face with her first ruffed grouse. As I approached, the grouse, standing tall atop his drumming log, quickly burst into flight. Not quick enough though. No sooner had the first grouse hit the ground, when another bird took to wing. Again, not quick enough. Swinging my Ithaca side-by-side through the aspens, I managed to connect with the second grouse. Ruby broke at the shot and retrieved the second bird while I located the first. With 2 gorgeous birds in the bag, I was ready to head for camp. But, before I could take a single step towards the trail, my Garmin unit reported that Ruby was on point once again. Nearing a pile of deadfall in front of the setter, a third grouse, this time a red phase, erupted from the forest floor. Pulling the old 20-gauge through the bird, I pulled the front trigger prematurely, and promptly located the back trigger. At the report of the second shot, the grouse folded and fell. “What a rapid turn of events”, I thought, “I guess you can never be too sure how a day in the grouse woods will unfold.”
After admiring the exquisite plumage of the grouse and snapping a few pictures to cement the memories, we clambered out of the woods and back to the truck. Sitting on the ground with my back against the tire of my F250, Ruby placed her head in my lap. She was hot, tired, and ready for a nap, and so was I. As we dozed off, I smiled as I thought of the events that had transpired earlier. The birds just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.
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