Hunting Western Ruffies

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Primetime with Pearl

Over the course of the 2022-23 upland hunting season, my 4.5-yr-old English Setter, Pearl, matured into a fine hunting dog; she was a late bloomer compared to her sister Ruby, and most other bird dogs for that matter. Nevertheless, she figured it out and hasn’t looked back since. On one of her better days, Pearl and I ventured into an aspen grove in eastern Idaho in search of upland royalty, the western ruffed grouse.

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Based on my previous experiences hunting ruffed grouse in Oregon, Montana, and Utah, I planned to locate young aspen stands surrounded by a mountainous coniferous forest. Luckily, before leaving town, I reached out to a local wildlife biologist who informed me I could find ruffed grouse in much more friendly terrain; a place where steep mountain slopes would be replaced by gentle rolling hills and coniferous forests by mixed grass-sagebrush steppe. I was a little apprehensive about trying out this new tactic, however, upon arrival my mind was put at ease. The essentials – food, water, cover, and space – were all present and accounted for; grasshoppers, serviceberries, and rosehips for food; an ephemeral stream for water; dense aspen and willow stands for cover; and the accumulation and arrangement of the three components totaled enough space or area that I figured a bird needed to make a living. 

Soon enough, Pearl and I were outfitted and headed up a well-worn cattle trail, running parallel to a stream that bisected a large patch of aspens. As we ventured deep into the thicket, the autumn sun became muted by the dense canopy above, casting a jumble of shadows that danced across the forest floor. The enchantment of this little oasis was interrupted by the beep of my Garmin handheld unit, informing that Pearl was frozen somewhere in the thicket, mesmerized by the scent of game. Busting through the brush, I approached the setter as quickly and carefully as possible. Unfortunately, before I could get within sight of the dog, I heard the bird hurtle away through the forest to live another day. 

Moments later, Pearl again went on point, signaling she had another bird ready for the taking. This time, I was able to lay eyes on the point from about 30 yards out, providing an opportunity to come up with an informed plan rather than barging in. A plan that soon paid dividends. I connected and brought down the feathered rocket before it escaped through the timber. Pearl made a snappy retrieve and immediately resumed her bird-searching duties, as if to say, “we’ve got work to do, keep up human.”

Without error, Pearl located a dozen more birds in 1.5 hours, achieving rank of “Top Dog of the Week” among my string of pointing dogs. She put on an exceptional display of bird-finding prowess, presenting plenty birds for the gun, and allowing me to round out a generous 4-bird limit of Idaho ruffed grouse. And boy did I need every bit of help I could get; thankfully, the bag limit for aspens is much more generous.

Looking for grouse recipes? Try this Grouse Schnitzel with Chanterelles recipe!

Trey Johnson

I was born and raised on a small ranch Northwest of Fort Worth, Texas. From a young age, nature always provided an outlet from reality. I have continued to cultivate this passion through formal education and creative writing. When I am not working as game bird research assistant, you can find my bird dog and I in the field chasing birds.

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