Cascade Grouse Craze
Author: Scott Haugen
Be it blue or ruffed, the Cascade Mountain Range holds both species of grouse. The best part, they can be hunted in tandem.
It began as a routine day of grouse hunting. I'd hit a brace of ruffed grouse early, as they dined on clover along the edge of an old logging road. I had to work a bit harder for my last bird, giving chase in a thick stand of willows bordering a beaver dammed creek. It was still early, and rather than call it quits, I searched for quail.
Noon approached, and before I knew it, I'd climbed from 500 to over 3,000 feet. I was still in grouse country, just a different species. Craning my neck to locate blue grouse, feeding on the needles of Douglas fir trees, I now covered timbered land heavy with old conifers. By mid-afternoon, my Remington 870 worked its magic, and I had my limit of three ruffs and three blues. What started as a normal day, ended in my attaining a unique bag.
Having been raised in the shadow of the Cascade Range, I've hunted grouse here for over 20 years. What I've learned, to be successful on these birds in their mountain domain, is that you must know them well.
Ruffed Grouse In their mountainous home in the western U.S., ruffed grouse are survivors. From clover, to Oregon grape, to willow buds and more, ruffed grouse feed on just about anything they can find. I like examining the crop of the first bird I kill, to see what its been feeding on. This will often be my guide, directing me to where I should concentrate my hunting efforts for the day.
Grouse are naturally distributed from the southern regions of the Yukon and Alaska south through Alberta, Idaho, and Montana, to northwestern Wyoming and parts of Colorado. The key to finding them is largely tied to altitude forage base, gravel and habitat. If you find the right combinations of these elements in any of these states, you'll soon be touching off powder.
Typically, birds in this region undergo a slow migration. Early in the season, they occupy fairly open, wooded lands and second growth settings. Hunting birds in these areas means hitting logging roads, either by truck, mountain bike or on foot. I prefer focusing on spur roads that have had little or no traffic, with grass growing to maybe a foot in height. Such scenes are typically rich in clover and harbor enough grass to provide sanctuary for feeding grouse.
Roads are also a prime location early in the morning and late in the evening, as they provide valued gravel needed by grouse to grind their food. Ruffed grouse are crepuscular in their feeding and grit collecting nature, being active at first and last light, something that can work to the hunter's advantage.
As winter approaches, ruffed grouse tuck themselves into the safety of thicker foliage found at lower elevations. In November and December, I've had good success hunting river banks winding their way from the mountains. This habitat is rich in food, thick with willows and difficult to hunt -- but the birds are there.
I also spend a lot of time covering power line right-of-ways. These semi-open habitats are rich in food and often team with birds late in the season, typically offering up valley and mountain quail as an added bonus. While walking and driving these secluded stretches late in the season, I've rarely gone birdless.
Old apple orchards can also be a prime location, especially late in the season. Not only have I found birds pecking on fallen fruit, but nipping remnant grass seeds off tall stocks that have been beaten down by winter rains. These spots can be hit and miss however, as birds are usually quite predator shy late in the year.
Unlike most fowl, blue grouse are vagrant migrators; moving up the mountains in winter, down to lowlands during the breeding season. I've seen blues from nearly sea level to over 5,000 feet in the Cascades, and have heard of hunters nailing them at 12,000 feet in some of the rocky mountain states and Canadian provinces.
Blue grouse move up in winter, as their diet consists almost entirely of needles, seeds and conifer buds. Firs, spruces and pines make up the majority of their diet and the heavy foliage gives added protection against predators. Due in part to their uncharacteristic movement, blues are greatly under hunted. Add to the fact that they suffer only an estimated 20% winter loss -- compared to approximately 70% loss for ruffed grouse -- and it's enough to make you want to go find these birds. Lots of blues are out there...you just gotta find 'em.
I've hit most of my blue grouse while the birds are gritting or feeding. When gathering grit, birds may be spied smack in the middle of logging roads or along mountain scree. I've also run across them in well used hiking trails, where bits of gravel lace the edges, providing valued grinding material. The semi-rocky slopes above tree line can also be good bets, but one must be in good physical condition for this, as birds may be hard to come by.
I've also had good success searching for birds as they feed in fir boughs. From early to mid season, it's not unusual to find flocks of a half-dozen birds or more feeding in one tree. When feeding on needles close to gravel roads, I've also observed these birds dropping to gather grit throughout the day. Catching birds in these areas of heightened movements is the key you're looking for.
Blue grouse live secluded lives. They are far from foolish, as many live and die without ever setting eyes on a human. Their reclusive lifestyle makes them a challenge to hunt, and gunners should take advantage of these birds wherever they may be found.
Mountain hunts for blues and ruffs are exciting. Rays of sunlight slicing through coniferous forests, echoes of ravens carrying throughout the land and the distinctive silhouettes of grouse all combine to make this a memorable habitat in which to hunt. For a dose of blues and ruffs -- and some of the tastiest meat in the upland world -- take to the hills this season and quench your curiosity on these worthy birds.
Scott Haugen was born and raised in the outdoor world. Before he was old enough to walk he was carried into Oregon's blacktail woods on the shoulders of his father. At age four, he caught his first limit of steelhead. Haugen's journeys have taken him to Africa, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Asia. He's traveled to over 20 countries and has chased wild game throughout North America.
Haugen's recently released book, Hunting the Alaskan High Arctic, is available directly from the author. To order your copy contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.