Featured articles, Upland West by Scott Winston

Mountain Grouse Haven… join me in September

Come September first, you’ll find me high in the Colorado Rockies at one on my favorite grouse hunts on the planet… Mountain Grouse Haven. Two species of mountain grouse overlap in the same area where I have hunted with unmatched consistency for a decade. Blue Grouse, now known as Dusky Grouse since their name change, are the largest forest grouse in North America. The adult males can get bigger than pheasants but are much more difficult to shoot on the wing, especially when flushed by an eager spaniel. They are often found on steep, forested mountain sides and almost always flush and fly downhill, making shots tricky through the thick pines at warp speeds carried by gravity.  Dusky Grouse are the best eating grouse out there in my opinion and I grew up in Wisconsin hunting and eating ruffs regularly.

The surprising grouse species also found at Mountain Grouse Haven is the Columbia Sharptail Grouse, a subspecies of the more popular prairie sharptail, but these sharpies are much smaller… in fact, they are even a bit smaller than a ruffed grouse. Columbia Sharptail grouse are covey birds and stagger flush in open sage and grass meadows surrounded by forested mountains. Their staggered flush in the open gives wing shooters consistent opportunities to take a double!  While their meat is a shade red as they are partial migrators, it is almost as good as their greyish blue forest grouse neighbors, but not as dark as their prairie cousins. I love the fact that you can find the Star of David in their feathers… they are the prettiest grouse among the sharptail species. I did a lot of homework to find this location where this rare game bird is thriving. It just so happens that there are also very strong numbers of Dusky Grouse here as well. I can’t think of a more productive and beautiful place I’d rather be in September with my spaniels, pursuing the sporting life in the uplands and carrying a double gun!

In this same area, but at a slightly lower elevation, you will also find Sage Grouse, the largest North American grouse by far. Not as good eating, but a trophy bird still. If you are there when the Sage Grouse season opens, you will have the opportunity to bag all three grouse species and complete the Colorado Grouse Trifecta!!!

Every season I set up a camp and invite a very small group of dedicated grouse hunters not afraid to hike tough country and run their bird dogs at Mountain Grouse Haven. I enjoy taking on newcomers, so feel free to call me for details. I take care of everything in the camp… my hunters always enjoy the meals, campfires, comradery and of course hunting the hottest spots! I have also posted other stories on Mountain Grouse Haven here on the SITFFR website and elsewhere. Just know this is tent camping, however I do supply comfortable cots.

In September, when the aspens in the high country are just beginning to blush with autumn, Dusky Grouse are on the hunt for grasshoppers, fat from summer and moving slower due to the colder night temps in the sage and grass meadows at lower elevations on the forest’s edge. Both mountain grouse species crave the protein grasshoppers provide. It is here, at this time, that these two very different grouse cross paths. A typical hunt starts at first light in pursuit of Columbia sharptails in open country… plateaus in between drainages offering grass and sage. When the temps come up, we head for the shade of the forest in search of Dusky Grouse. When it cools down, we might try for shapies again. If our timing is good, the grass near the forest edge will be covered up in grasshoppers and the blue grouse will come out into the open grass meadows, sometimes surprisingly far from the forest to feast on the hoppers. I have bagged both grouse species in these circumstances, sometimes within just a few steps from one another. I even had one rare moment where I bagged a double… one of each mountain grouse species! The size difference between the two species gave me an obvious choice on the flush. Back on that day I was hunting with my famous springer Mac, he was also surprised to retrieve a double containing both grouse species.

Temperatures can reach up into the seventies at mid-day in September in the mountains with plenty of blue sky, but at night, it is best to have a warm sleeping bag and a good camp fire. September is the golden month for upland bird hunting in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The weather is summer-like enough to camp out; the days are still quite long and the air is dry and comfortable. Brief rain showers can move through in late afternoon, providing excellent scenting conditions for the dogs through the following day. One season, we even had hail one afternoon. As an ominous storm mounted, ashen clouds blackened before our eyes and dumped their frozen contents right onto our camp. The storm left a whitened path in its wake but, it all melted before dark. Winter comes early to the high country and in short order, travel to these grouse packed coverts becomes impossible… this area is 4 wheel drive access only. Hunting in short sleeves during mid-day is common place, but long sleeves are necessary in the mornings and evenings. When gun dogs and hunters get overheated out in the open hunting for Columbia sharptails, it is just a short walk to the shade of the aspen and pine forests where the Duskers are hanging out.

This past season on one trip, I was blessed to share this unique mountain grouse hunting adventure with my son Andy. He had hunted with me at Prairie Grouse Haven in the past with great success, but this was his first time at Mountain Grouse Haven. He fell in love with the place and wants to return. He is a great shot, loves the adventure and the dog work. There is one afternoon that stands out for us… Andy and I were working a very steep (a 40 degree pitch) mountainside where wild raspberries were growing in and around open rock scree, mixed with forest. We already had bagged a couple birds each and had thirty flushes so far for the day. He had hiked straight up for about a half mile, stopping often to catch our breath. I knew from experience that all the big males hang out at higher elevations than the hens and their adolescent chicks. We were traversing a steep pitch near the top. Sunny, my youngest spaniel and I were up above with Andy positioned strategically below, ready for any fleeing shots at these big male grouse hurtling themselves through space downhill through the dark timber. When Sunny got birdy, she tracked into some thick ferns and flushed two big males hanging out together. They were too fast for me and zig zagged in between pines upon exit and I promptly missed.  Andy’s shots rang out below, followed by a whoop. One of the big males rocketed right over him and his first shot was like an English driven shot… straight up and over head. He missed and quickly arced his gun over head for a Hail Mary shot downhill. Sunny and I of course went down to go help with the retrieve. Andy said the big boy went down gliding, but his momentum had carried him some fifty plus yards way down below.  Sunny and I cut down a bit too far and we searched for some time. Andy circled around above where he had marked the bird down and found it, wings spread out on the forest floor… head up. “Here he is, bring the dog” Andy hollered out. We climbed up and Sunny scented the big grouse ten yards above the bird, but surprisingly when she went for him that grouse took off wings beating hard! Sunny is a Frisbee dog at home and from her uphill advantage combined with an explosive run at the bird, she launched off a rock mouth open and snagged the grouse right out of the sky about seven feet off the steep forest floor below! Wide eyed, Andy and I both looked at each other in amazement and praised Sunny. Andy’s comment: “Wow that was so cool… we would have lost my bird without Sunny”! Upon further inspection, we discovered only one pellet hit on the bird’s back.

The landscape here at Mountain Grouse Haven is rugged and vast… compass required. In between the peaks there are cold clear creeks that run out into the open and are often packed with willows. On one hunt a couple of years ago, I bagged a Wilson’s snipe that flushed up out of the creek bottom willows. It surprised me at first as I never expected to see a snipe at such altitude. I am always amazed with the erratic flight of a snipe. I do not hunt them exclusively and it is only by chance that an opportunity like this presents itself. When Izzy, my smallest and quickest spaniel ever, flushed it in the bright sunlight, I knew instantly what it was and didn’t want to blow it for her, as this would be her first snipe. It zig zagged with sharp turns, flying low and back across me to the left. I was lucky to knock it down as I had to wait a bit to allow for a broader shot pattern. It dove into tall, thick grass and apparently dug its way down deep under the grass as it made a last effort to escape. It took some time to find, even some digging, but Izzy finally recovered the tiny bird. “Snipe – an extra bonus to the hunt” I announced, holding it so Izzy could take another good sniff and I could behold its unique plumage. I felt blessed to have had such good fortune and thanked God for this magnificent mountain game bird mecca.

Night time lows in September here urge the flowing forth of fall colors, which can quickly transform the landscape. Bright yellow, orange and red catch the sunlight and project a shade of the surreal throughout the forest. The light in the forest is beautiful and unique on these golden days during the first few weeks of September. The woods seem to take on a whole different feel, reflecting rich fall colors into the hunt.

When I was writing this just before Father’s day, I called my son Andy and asked him for his best bird shot memory of our adventure at Mountain Grouse Haven and he shared this: We were hiking down out of steep country headed for water in the valley below, where we were sure to find a family clutch of blue grouse. As the terrain opened up into small meadows surrounded by aspens, it also flattened out a bit. Sunny and Fiona alerted us to the grouse scent on the ground. Suddenly, the forest edge exploded with grouse energy and birds were flushing out in three groups of 3-4 birds each… I later coined this experience “A cluster flush”! Andy’s best shot came from my left, the birds flushed left to right through a small opening. The dogs were getting them out of the tall grass and shrubs with mixed aspens. Andy was very quick on his mount and had a great instinctive shot, dumping his bird hard with one shot! Sunny was on it within a few seconds and in the process bumped a second group off to the far right. Andy’s luck must have rubbed off onto me because I had almost the identical shot, left to right through a small opening and I also dropped the bird in one shot and with a good instinctive shot I might add. Neither one of us had any time at all for a second shot and a possible double.  

In the days before Andy arrived, I had been hosting an out of town hunter, Dave Compton who was focused mostly on taking his first Columbia Sharptail grouse. As it turned out, I took the first sharpie in an area where I had seen a ton the previous year. Dave had multiple opportunities, but his first Columbia sharptail came not without a bit of frustration and a surprise ending. We were hunting an open plateau above a willow choked creek bottom. Sunny flushed a covey of a half a dozen sharpies from the sage and grass mix on the top edge overlooking the creek below. My bird went in the opposite direction from the rest of the covey. Dave shot too. My bird went down over the hill into the creek bottom.  It took my spaniels, Sunny and Fiona, way longer than normal to sort things out before Sunny finally found it and came gleefully prancing to me, delivering it to hand. So, I already had my 2 bird sharptail limit and Dave had been looking for his first for some time by himself when we arrived. We spent 2-3 times as long looking for his bird in and around the area he had marked the bird down. We could not find that bird. Now, I was really feeling bad for him. After about forty minutes, he suggested we give up. So, we left the area altogether when I noticed Fiona missing. I stopped and announced to Dave, “This can only mean one thing… Fiona didn’t give up”! So we just waited a minute for her. Sure enough, here she came with Dave’s bird in her mouth from about seventy yards beyond where we had been searching!  I shared a story with Dave from the previous year here about two hunters I was hosting from California… the same thing happened… Fiona saved the day on a sharpie we had already given up on. Dave and I walked on just a short distance and the dogs flushed another covey and he quickly had his limit of two mountain sharptails. The following day was a repeat success on sharpies, but we also added a limit of Blue grouse to our bag with over thirty flushes that afternoon on blues in the forest. Dave actually shot a whole box of shells that day! Even though Dave came to hunt with me for Columbia Sharptail Grouse, he will tell you that he had one of the best shots of his lifetime at Mountain Grouse Haven on Blue Grouse. We were up high hunting for males when Sunny flushed a mature bird out and into the open and over the rock scree. This shot came in very steep country and when his twenty gauge connected, this bird already had a tremendous amount of momentum going when it folded. This was quiet the spectacle with a bright blue sky backdrop against the mountain, the largest North American forest grouse in the open crashing into the rocks far below.

We saw glorious golden days at Mountain Grouse Haven for sure! Gorgeous weather, in a magnificent mountain setting, fine double guns, excellent dog work, close camaraderie, delicious food and some decent shooting made for a festive atmosphere in camp. We ended most days with our grouse limits that made their way into our coolers or the pan. To say that this place is on top of the world is not just an understatement, it is a pun. The Milky Way at Mountain Grouse Haven stands out large in the night sky and a million stars shine brightly in this remote location at altitude. Campfires are warm and inviting and set the stage for the inevitable one-upmanship and of course, the story telling from the day’s successes. Laughter echoes out from our camp, penetrating deep into the forest as an overt record of our adventure. If you would like to go… please join me. Call me, Scott Winston for details at 303-250-0302.