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Sierra Bullets
Rifle Magazine
January - February 2004
Volume 2, Number 1
ISSN: 0
Number 7
On the cover...
Cover Photo Ron Spomer
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Opening morning of elk season is always exciting, and this one was no different. We stalked the game trail quietly up to the edges of Bull Ridge. They were almost always there, the big brutes that had given up on the girls and taken up the bachelor’s life on top of the world. The ridge falls away into a huge meadow on the west and into steep, dense thickets on the east, while its rounded top is covered
with fir thickets, with tamarack benches just below. Sunrise was close now, so close there was enough light for the express sights. It was time to begin the last climb, time to peek into one of the best big bull pockets on earth.

Luck was fine this day and three giants fed gently toward the thickets. Now I had a decision to make. There were two ways to make the stalk. The wind quartered from our right front, so both options were there. The first was one I would have almost always used: to move gently from tree to tree in the partly-open, big timber, moving until 300 yards became 200. This was a perfect approach for a man with a modern scoped rifle, but this day and hunter were different. This gentleman carried a .577 Express double rifle. It would ask us for 150 yards or less. To be absolutely sure, to cover every base, to not let the huge 6x7 get away, I chose door number 2.

This meant a small move to our left, meant using a super-dense fir thicket for absolute cover so we could work under the wind and just in front of the feeding bulls. When we poked our noses out, the range would be 50 yards, and 170 grains of black powder would drive the 600-grain lead bullet home. We were about 15 yards deep in the jungle when the first big blue cock flushed right over our heads. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and the good doctor wanted CPR. But not to worry. We were a little less unnerved by the second flush, and by the eleventh we were use to the commotion – but I knew. I knew the old bulls were not stupid, were far more wide awake than any whitetail buck. They would not take kindly to the knowledge that something was in that fir thicket, be it cougar, bear or man. They did not spook, did not bolt, but they did walk fast enough to offer us only a very tantalizing glimpse of long ivory tops as they slipped over the ridge and into the steep world below – never to be seen again! I spoke unkindly to the ancestors of every blue grouse on earth and promised to return, shotgun in hand to take revenge!

The blue grouse in my new home had offered an education on several fields. I had thought of them as being similar to the spruce grouse we often encountered in Colorado. The spruce grouse is the “fool hen,” the one hunters can and do kill with sticks. But the blues of Oregon were a different critter entirely. I like his scientific name, Dendragapus obscurus, for he who named this bird had tried to see him and probably hunted him. There is an emphasis on that “obscurus” part! Unlike the dopey spruce grouse, this fellow is about as wide awake as any bird I have ever pursued, and he flies like a rocket. For the first several years on Elk Song, all the grouse, including the ruffed, had been in a low population cycle. But by 2002 there had been a monumental return. That the unconscionable logging practices and overgrazing had come to a screeching halt in our hands, just before the grouse returned, might be coincidence, but it might not!

One might as well make the best of a bad situation and, yes, some problems are very luxurious ones. With the explosion of the grouse population came the daily, sometimes hourly “frights” when the big birds exploded from the firs as we hunted through them. A rooster pheasant will get your attention, but imagine stalking with every nerve on edge, tiptoeing in pure silence, straining every sense to see the big bull elk and whirrrrrrr. For us, it almost became a game, trying to decide if there was a “shot.” And for sure, most of the time there was not. But with elk season past, it was time to test the theory in reality. We dug out shotguns, called the Labradors and returned to Bull Ridge.

Rich chose his pet Greener, an old one with Damascus barrels and improved-rigor mortis chokes. I picked an old W.C. Scott live-pigeon gun with a little less severe boring in the right barrel, just in case I got an easy one. We were so confident in the results that neither of us took a pack or vest, not even a thong to carry a dead bird. By noon the sun was high and the sky clear, and in an unprecedented way the ground was neither frozen nor white. It was more like early October than November. It would be a glorious day!

A few things came to mind as we stalked through the timber. First, what a luxury! We could step on a stick, stumble over logs and just generally not pay attention. The hours of toiling strain associated with a still hunt for elk were gone. All we had to do was be ready, very ready. But the anticipation of a flush dragged on. Had the varmints gone south? The first 300 yards were fine cover, heavy fir, some gone riot with mistletoe infection. The grouse had hammered us here almost daily, but now the woods were silent.

The gentle cow elk bolted and we did not care, but we did stop to soak up the big, yellow-sided bull as he nibbled a rose. We waited for him to make a peaceful exit and moved over the edge a little where the ground was no longer flat. By now we had relaxed, there were no grou – booooommwhirrrrr. The grand, old rooster exploded out of the far side of the tree, wing rolled to the right and disappeared. There was the feeling of pants around our ankles. Okay, I bet the next one cannot pull that off.

But win she did, as did all of her clutch by cleverly flushing on the far side of the trees and banking quickly down the mountain. We moved a little farther apart, with Rich taking the lead, about 20 yards to my right and some in front. The big cock flushed on the far side of a fat fir and banked, kicking in his afterburners. At the moment of despair the Greener boomed and old Kodi launched himself from heel. Did he know something I did not? And, yes, he did! The old hound returned with the glorious bird in his lips, stopped 10 steps away dropped the grouse and carefully licked a drop of blood from his feathers. It could be done!

The next flush was mine, five young birds from the ground about 30 yards in front. I fired both barrels and saw one feather flutter down. Hmmm, buck fever over a bird! Okay, time to bear down. As we worked the ridge we counted the birds we heard or saw and were up to 35. Three cartridges had been fired, and Rich packed the single prize. Ah, well! She came out high and fast from a 100-foot tree, but she came straight and in the clear. It was time to shoot. I swung the Scott to enough lead and then doubled it. The wonderful bird folded against the cobalt sky. We called it a day, and worked our way back to the tall pine forest on the ridge, made a little fire and thought about the most difficult bird we had ever hunted.

As the next year passed we began to wonder again about the grouse hatch. We had heard them boom in the spring, but with only bad precedent behind us, it was difficult to be optimistic. However, in the fall of 2003, the blues once again startled the elk hunters and again saved the life of a really big bull. The hatch had been better than ever! Perhaps there was something to the idea of good environmental management, at least all of our hundreds, perhaps thousands of feathered wildlife-biologists said there was.

Two days after the bull season, we were recovered and ready to try our skills against the blue rockets of Bull Ridge. The conditions were different, with 4 inches of new snow blanketing the mountain, clouds and the thermometer stuck at 20 degrees. It was nothing less than a winter wonderland. We chose different guns also. Rich carried his first shotgun, a wee Francotte 12 bore, made for a lady. Its thin Damascus barrels taught him to shoot and taught me that Damascus was very strong indeed. I carried a radical, new friend, a Westley Richards 20-gauge Fauneta. To put it in perspective, it will be my elk “rifle” this year also. (Stay tuned!)

The first mile was perfectly silent, silent exactly where a week previous the birds had driven me crazy. We were on top, where the ground was flat, when the first bird finally flushed. I jumped, thrust the little 20 to my right, with just a glimpse of a tail feather. It was only then I noticed the other one that flushed left, flushed 20 yards across my front in clear air. I noticed him as he disappeared into the timber. The next one beat Rich to the right. He tried a long snap shot, without success, when a blue crossed a tiny gap in the firs. That was it, three birds flushed in two miles – but there was the steep, north face to come.

Just before we turned around, we walked into an opening that gave us a vista into the big meadow far below. Eight young, five- and six-point bulls grazed through the snow. And as if that were not a grand show, when we crossed the ridge and looked a half-mile across the valley with the towering, snow-covered Eagle Caps in the background, the seven monsters who had beaten us all last week slept in a beam of sunshine. They were bedded below the cliffs, above the timber. The wind protected them from above and perfect visibility shielded them from below. Yes, seven really big bulls, all untouchable – just as they should be. But we were, after all, doing something very serious, we were grouse hunting.

The snow was particularly disagreeable, sort of like ball bearings on the steep slopes. I realized just how slick it was when I tried to hit the bird that flushed right over my head and powered down hill. He was the high-house No. 1, skeet shot, in sort of a magnum way. If I put either pattern within 10 feet it was by accident. Rich missed a couple more long shots through the timber, but it really did not matter – killing a grouse that is. We had flushed close to 40 birds and were soaking wet from fighting the climb and horrible traction. But if winning was not important, they would not keep score and there was a half-mile of good hunting to go.

They roared across my front, maybe a little too far, but still in honest range. Unfortunately the space through the trees was not quite as wide as the lead I thought I needed. Both shots missed. I had just touched the top lever and heard the ejectors ping when she flushed. Yes, flushed 10 yards to my left and idled like a basketball in front of the empty gun. Ah, well, tomorrow was another day.

It was not only another, but different. If the thermometer was to hit 20 degrees it would have to hurry, but the sun was bright and the sky a beautiful blue. We waited until after lunch, waited perhaps for the conditions to be ideal, however that might be defined. We worked the south side of the thickets where the sun warmed the trees enough to melt the snow, where there was bare ground under the heavy fir. I was exactly where the grouse had spooked the bulls the previous year, when the pair jumped from behind the dead log. They were low, straight and easy, but Rich was somewhere on the other side of the thicket, so I could not shoot. Are blue grouse charmed?

We crossed the ridge and were working toward the steep ground. I have never seen a more impossible target, that was well in range. He broke out of a tree that could grace the White House lawn at Christmas, in fact I had been admiring the perfection of the white fir when it began to happen. The flush started about 4 feet from the ground, rip-ped into a wing roll headed down the mountain between some brush and firs. The radar gun would have said 250 mph; well, no that is optimistic, it was really 500. My first shot was sort of okay, but missed. I smacked the back trigger as fast as possible and thought just maybe I saw him flinch as he disappeared. I took old Kodi on a deep plunge below where the bird sucked into the abyss and had about reached where I last saw him when the young apprentice, Bugle, barged into the dead limbs of a downed fir. The grouse flinched because I had centered him, but at 500 mph they just seem to keep flying!

Three hundred yards farther up the hill, I heard the bird leave the thicket in Rich’s direction, followed by an immediate shot. It had happened too quickly to be good news, but then I heard “back!” Young Mr. Bugle had grouse feathers on his lips again.

They are grand birds, ones worthy of anyone with a shotgun. Their range extends from Southeast Alaska down the Cascades and Sierras into California and down the Rockies all the way to New Mexico. They like fir and in fact the apparently inedible fir and other conifer needles are their diet in winter, with more variety in the warmer months. Despite their turpentine intake, they are lovely table fare, soaked in a little Italian salad dressing and grilled. Oh, by the way, don’t invite a lot of company before you have the birds in the freezer.

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