Well, the dog and I went up grouse hunting this weekend, up to some high country that I've been fortunate enough to knock around in a bit. Saturday, Booker and I took a long circuit, heading out a trail along the edge of a big basin where, five or six years ago, I missed a crack at a decent buck cannoning through the timber. We went through little meadows where I've found grouse before, then headed up a steep little edge to a rim where I've watched elk and deer and once had a pine marten play hide and peek with me for five minutes or so. Over then, to a stringer of quakies that were bedding to a decent buck a few years back, one that I was fortunate to get on the right side of and that family helped me pack out. Up through the trees, recalling that birds in here have always seemed wild,flushed hard, and flew out of sight. Through that stand and over to another rim where I once watched at dawn as a young five-point bull elk stomped and bugled one frosty morning, he only fifty yards distant. Through mixed conifer and aspen, birds always a possibility, then down across a little road and a drainage, up the other side through more stringers of timber interspersed with long meadows. A few years back, halfway through one of those patches of timber, I came upon a half dozen grouse, dropping one late flusher and, while searching for another up in the trees, was interrupted by a coal black sow bear and her two cubs, undisturbed by my presence even when I fired my .22 up in the air. I left them their hillside and headed down to the truck. A few years earlier and a few hundred yards up this same swale I managed to get on the right side of a five-point bull elk, both of us surprised by the appearance of the other through the drizzle- a story for another time. This day, the dog and I fruitlessly scoured the edges and patches of timber, foregoing heading over to the little point where I crept up on another bear whilst deer hunting, the circled back to the truck. A decent circuit, but no birds.
My poor dog had never seen a campfire before, he curled the whiskers on his muzzle taking a sniff. Twice shy, but not in the least intimidated. Today we woke to drizzle, waited for a break in the weather, then essayed a lone mountain, a solitary volcanic cone, which rises some three thousand feet above its surroundings. A hard half-hour's walk and substantial elevation gain is required even to reach the foot. Another hard hour and a half brought us to the top. Despite my efforts to make noise, we walked up on an elk, but the dog called off after just a short chase. Once up top, the dog worked into the wind while I looked to the meadow to my left and down and saw a suspicious grey shape. Binos confirm, grouse laying low with more heads beginning to peer up through the grass. I call Booker to me, have him sit, then head one some twenty yards off. At the shot, another bird flushes and the dog breaks, jumping at the scent as the other half-dozen heavy birds taking flight. Birds! He runs to the downed grouse, fluttering at the head shot, and pulls a mouthfull of feathers then runs about like a crazy man, no heed to my call or anything else. Eventually, I get him on the check cord (fifty feet of 4k test rope with a heavy-duty brass snap) and we go over to the bird. Booker looks at it, and I pick it up. For a few tosses, we play fetch with the bird, his first warm example. Excellent. Now we proceed to seek the rest of the bunch. Twenty yards from the treeline, an excessively wary bird rockets out of the top of an aspen still aways back in. Off goes the Chessie, burning my hand on the line, which I drop. He hits the end (dallied on my side to my pack's waist belt) and executes a mid-air 180. He gets up and gives me an injured look as I exhort "whoa!". Into the trees, we deal with the check cord, looking for birds, and hung up by dozens of deadfalls. Coming thought the slender line of trees I see a grouse standing on a rock, peering at us from twenty-five yards out. Ten yards beyond, another bird stands on a log.
I call Booker to me (not hard when he's on the cord) and have him sit. Standing on his check cord, I lean against a handy aspen and discover that my shot is thereby obscured. Forced to fairness, I stand offhand and take my crack, rewarded as the nearer bird pitches off in the flutter of wings that announces a head shot. The dog surges, but upon feeling the rope and my "whoa", subsides. The second bird flushes, another surge and a whine. I release the dog and he runs directly to the fallen bird and picks it up. Joy! Genius!
He brings it to within ten feet of me, drops the bird, the races around like a mad man seeking more birds. I cannot get him to pick up the bird and bring it those last few feet. Ok, a good start and work to be done. We hunt a while longer through the aspens, looking for the other birds from that bunch we broke up, watching as a line of dark cloud and cold grey rain marches in from the west. The many deadfalls and fairly thick cover make the check rope a real trial. Before long, Booker is heeling at my side, the default "can't get in trouble for this" position. Good, but not ideal for finding birds. I take him off the lead, only to have another bird flush out of a tree-top and across a meadow, hotly pursued by the dog some thirty feet below. "Whoa!" has much less effect off the check rope. He flushes another couple of birds as he heads pell-mell across the meadow, turning to follow one off the ridge. I go to look for the bird that appeared to land just inside the treeline, to be joined shortly by a winded Chessie. We search a bit, then I make the executive decision that, having found some birds, collected a couple, and being faced with truly miserable times on the western (weather-ward) horizon, it was time to beat feet off the mountain. We made it to the truck just as a mist started and as I cleaned the birds it turned to a serious cold drizzle. All in all, a good day. No amazing story, no amazing bird-work, but a foundation and indication of what we're here to do and things that we will need to be worked on. First game:
Oh, and aspens are turning, the shrubby cinqefoil is turning it's ruddy bronze, and a couple of squeaky-voiced young bulls serenaded our camp for an hour or so last night. Hard life!
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