Pete Zimowsky: Head for the hills - hunting season is starting

Grouse are everywhere, but you still have to find them.

August 28, 2013 

Don’t forget to look in the trees when you’re hunting forest grouse. You never know how many you might be walking ­under.

PETE ZIMOWSKY — pzimowsky@idahostatesman.com

Frrrrrrrrrr! The sound of forest grouse flushing through the deep, dark hallways of a Douglas fir forest is, well, the staccato percussion sound in a September symphony.

Combine that with the sound of rustling of aspen leaves, the wind whispering over the mountain ridges, and you’ve got a full-on mountain symphony.

I love hiking in the high country in September and October, and yes, a benefit is that forest grouse season opens Friday.

It’s one of the first upland bird hunts to open in Idaho. Dove season opens Sunday.

HIT THE TRAILS

My wife and I and the dog will be hitting mountain trails somewhere north of Boise. I have a circuit of trails far and wide where I’ve seen and gotten birds over the years. I try to hit as many of them as possible in September.

Things change each season. I’ve been skunked in a place where I got a few birds the previous year. In some years, I’m totally surprised when I find the birds in a spot where I never thought they’d be.

MILD WINTER

We had another mild winter, and biologists suspect there was a high survival of adult birds during the winter. We also had a normal spring with no late cold snaps to put a damper on nesting success.

So, there should be a good amount of grouse out there, according to Idaho Fish and Game.

“I’m guessing forest grouse hunting should be good to great, especially in areas that had berry crops,” said Michelle Commons Kemner, Fish and Game biologist.

No matter what the outlook for grouse, hunting them is still like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The birds are spread out over millions of acres of mountainous terrain, so you usually end up doing a lot of hiking. Some hunters scout trails on dirt bikes.

I mostly hunt for blue grouse, which are officially called dusky grouse. I like the old name and will probably never stop using it.

Blues are more common grouse in the mountains of south-central Idaho.

I never get tired of looking for them because it combines mountain hiking with hunting.

REVERSE MIGRATION

They’re a fascinating bird because they follow reverse migration.

While critters like deer and elk come down in elevation as late fall and winter weather sets in, these birds go up in elevation. They eventually get on high-elevation ridges by winter where they feed on the needles of fir trees.

But in the early part of the hunting season, they can be anywhere from the mid-elevation sagebrush edges of the forests to the higher ridges. And, like I said, it’s tough to find them.

So, I’ll be hiking on trails early in the morning at about 6,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation, looking for the birds.

We’ve actually gotten into some spruce grouse in the Sawtooths while looking for blues. The spruce grouse is found in dense conifer forests, generally from the Salmon and Payette river drainages north, according to Fish and Game.

Idaho’s other grouse, the ruffed grouse, is another favorite of hunters, especially for their wild flying capabilities in thick, brushy creek bottoms.

You’ll find them along streams and rivers and in moist, brushy mountain areas.

Actually, I came across one in a high mountain area last fall that totally surprised me.

A lot of folks ask where’s the best hunting.

That’s a difficult question with grouse because even though they’re located throughout Southwest Idaho, you’ve just got to put in time scouting specific areas.

I’ve always wondered whether Fish and Game is hot-spotting grouse hunting when it puts out its blue barrels along mountain roads. Does a blue barrel mean good hunting?

The barrels are put out so hunters can deposit grouse wings. Biologists get a lot of information about the birds by inspecting the wings. The data help with population studies.

Anyway, you can’t miss the blue barrels if you’re driving mountain roads.

Country hiking with a shotgun and a working hunting dog crisscrossing through the woods means hunting season has started.

Good shooting.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Roger next week.

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