Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Grouse in the Hand? Opening day in the California Uplands, 2016

©2016 Joshua Stark

One of California's many uplands habitats -- sub-alpine and alpine country
("upland" in California goes from below sea level for gambels quail, doves and snipe, to 7,000+feet after grouse, chukars and mountain quail)

For three years, I've actively hunted grouse in my old deer hunting grounds on public lands in California, and have been skunked -- and often humiliated -- by these wily birds.  My reputation as a nimrod isn't helped by the fact that these birds are often seen trying to figure out what the chicken's motives were, obviously lost in thought and oblivious to their surroundings.

Not my experience, mind you, but I'd been told on a number of occasions that "a big, grey chicken had just crossed the road about a half-mile back"...

My first encounter with grouse occurred while hunting with that Hog Blog fellow, Phillip Loughlin, who had invited me on an archery pig hunt in the Coast Range of Northern California.  It was a traditional introduction to an upland game bird:  about a half-hour before sunrise, quietly walking through the deep dark, contemplating having to sneak within 30 yards of a herd of animals about my size and with razor-sharp tusks, a pair of grouse exploded from a branch at hip-level about three feet from me, leaving me a trembling mess.  
Not one to hunt out of vengeance (it's funny to consider, but seriously messed-up if you think about it for more than ten seconds), I didn't consider heading out after them at that point.

My second encounter was just a sound, while out fishing the East Fork of the Carson River.  A deep, low, slow drumming sound from the top of a hill. That was all.  
I had never heard it before, but I knew immediately what it was.  It was powerful.  It was a bird.  And it awakened something inside of me, as wild encounters do when you happen to, sometimes accidentally, even, be open in your heart to hearing them.

But my third encounter with these grand birds of the uplands sent me on a familiar spiral, hunting after them with gun and dog.
Ever since I bought my 20 gauge side-by-side, I had taken to putting a slug in one barrel and a load of steel No. 6's in the other during deer season.  I had fallen hard for hunting mountain quail and every time I hit our public lands above 5,500 feet or so, I'd run across coveys... while never finding a deer with antlers sticking out of its head.
On one such occasion, I had traveled up to a spot I'd known held mountain quail, and started in.  About a quarter mile down-hill, on the edge of a clearing, I saw what I first  thought was a GIGANTIC quail... it took a few seconds for me to realize that it wasn't a quail, it wasn't a turkey, and it surely wasn't a chicken.  It was a sooty grouse.

Having never hunted grouse, I hadn't checked the regulations to know if they were in season.  I chuckled to myself at the notion that I'd missed out on a big, tasty bird, but I also felt really blessed.  After all, I'd never seen one like this, in the wild, just poking around.  It slowly walked past a dead log, and into a stand of small pines.

I arrived back at the car just in time to catch a game warden drive up.  I cracked open my gun, smiled as I walked up to him, and talked a bit.  I mentioned the grouse.

"Did you get him?"

Sheepishly, "Uhmm, no... I didn't know they were in season, and I wasn't going to take a chance."

"Yeah, you still have two more weeks on 'em.  Head back down there, they'll stick around the same spot.  They're kinda dumb."

Apparently, not as dumb as some others.  I traipsed back down the hill, a bit wary of the advice, but who am I to disobey armed law enforcement in the middle of nowhere?

Sure enough -- and just like that famous scene from The Matrix, that bird was in the same, danged spot!  I raised my gun with just a bit too much enthusiasm -- frankly, flabbergasted at the exactness of the advice (it was eerie).  The bird bolted into the stand of pines, and hit the jets in full cover.  He was gone.

I left feeling as if I were being filmed for Candid Camera by the Department of Fish & Game. 
Come to find out, grouse are masters at popping out right when they have the best chance of getting away... to such an extent that I have come to believe they have some form of instinctive telepathy.
Over and over, it was a similar story: me, walked to exhaustion, climbing madly after mountain quail, taking a breather and suddenly thinking, "hey, this kinda looks like grouse cover", and BAM! A bird launches out with force to scare the crap out of me, staying just behind cover.  I even started bringing my dog with me, an exceptionally birdy rescue field spaniel named Rocio, who would get birdy and bust birds. 

But I learned little lessons from each failure.  For three seasons, I'd get up only once or twice into spots I'd found the birds, and each time, I wouldn't be disappointed. With seeing them, that is; I still hadn't actually taken a bird.

Until last week.

Last week, it all seemed to come together: a good bird dog, a mountain quail already in the bag, and a familiar spot where I'd seen birds earlier in the year.  For once, I had confidence.

The first grouse blew out of cover, and gave me about a half-second... no shot.  I immediately yelled inside my head: there goes the only bird you'll see today!  But I shut me up... and thought... what if there were more than one bird?  I kept a brisk pace.  I reminded myself, "hunt the dog", and she was birdy, breaking right and left in front of me like a good spaniel (can you believe it?). She broke left, uphill, into brush.

From behind the tree at the back end of the brush, about fifteen yards from me, an explosion of grey feathers. Again, just a second between the trees, but I was ready.  At the end of the day, I'd taken two quail, and my first grouse.

Here is one happy bird dog, along with two Oreortyx picta (mountain quail) and one Dendragapus fuliginosus (sooty grouse).  Also, tools of the trade: one 20 gauge side-by-side shotgun, with a 20 gauge shell and a 28 gauge insert for one of the barrels.  Please note that those are not burrs on my dog, they are a really sticky seed that gets brushed out pretty easily.


Mr. Fashion House said...

Josh, great work with those birds! Hope they were good eating. Speaking of which, we should do lunch sometime soon. I seem to recall I owe you one.

Josh said...

Thanks, Dave! And yes, we should definitely eat lunch. Email me with some times next week.

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RCA said...

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