Deep Canyon Blues

Strike "eagles" from that cry of the adventure some about going where only eagles dare. Replace it with "blue grouse" and you begin to get a sense of what it's like to hunt those crazy game birds of the Rocky Mountains.

Denying that blue grouse are weird is like saying bears don't you-know-what in the woods. Instead of heading for lower elevations with the approach of winter (like most forest creatures in their right minds) blue grouse go in the other direction. If you take up the challenge to go where only blue grouse dare, expect plenty of mountain hiking. Hiking? Yeah, right. Maybe for a six-legged goat wearing blue suede Gore-Tex sneakers. For a flatlander it's more like a hand-over-hand, wheezing, gasping, sputtering, hip-jarring Herculean trek to the top of Mount Olympus. But it's worth it.

FIRST YOU HAVE TO FIND THEM

Blues prefer mixed timber and ground juniper--juniper berries and needles are their favorite forages. Grasshoppers are to blues what gumdrops are to children, and the windswept grasses along open canyon rims bordered by timber are full of the insects. Forage and cover are two of the big three factors key to blue grouse survival. The third is water. Blues are not long-distance fliers. They need a nearby water supply, even if it's just a seep found on a canyon floor.

One of my favorite grouse corridors is the rugged Toltec Canyon rim in Colorado. One day last fall I was working the rim 5 yards into the timber, weaving in and out and concentrating on the forest floor and the dried bunch grasses on the rocky rim. Blues are not covey socialites like quail; still, it's not uncommon to jump a group of young, first-year birds.

WATCH WHERE YOU STEP

Just as I made a zig back into the timber, three blues, wings beating and sounding like all the demons in hell, exploded at my feet. I landed on my back in a scrub juniper bush, kicking and screaming for deliverance from whatever leather-skinned beast must surely be poised to finish me off.

Once it dawned on me what had happened, I made my way for the tallest spruce, where I thought at least one of the blues had flown. I worked around the base, hoping that when the bird made a break for it I'd be on the best side for a clear shot. Amigo, it flushed all right, in typical blue grouse fashion: straight out over the canyon in a descending arc that put it 800 feet down the nearly perpendicular slope. I won't swear I heard cackling laughter as I stared after it, but something down there had a merry old time at my expense.

Expect such frustrations when hunting blue grouse along canyon rims. Expect great rewards, too. Just as I turned away from that bottomless pit, two more birds lit out side by side from the top of the same spruce, but they headed away from the canyon. One shot busted them both. I'm not bragging, but hey, I'd just been laughed at by their buddy who went off chasing after eagles.

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