I have always considered hunting season to commence when forest grouse and dove season opens. Although Utah’s bow season started two weeks ago, to feel like hunting season, the mornings at high elevations need to be cool enough to warrant a long-sleeved shirt. Given the short-term forecast, most hunters will be wearing at least a sweatshirt when they start climbing hills in search of forest grouse starting Aug. 30 in Idaho and Sep. 1 in Utah.
For those of us who truly enjoy hunting forest grouse, the fall season doesn’t just start in the United States, as this group of bird has a Holarctic distribution. Dusky, sooty, ruffed and spruce grouse are found in the New World but capercaillie (the largest grouse weighing up to 15 pounds) and black grouse are found in the Old World. I imagine Finnish hunters have the same hope we have at this time of year, that a new season will bring success. Then there are willow ptarmigan, called red grouse in the British Isles, that can be found on both continents. Because of translocation efforts, it is possible to hunt white-tailed ptarmigan (as long as you get the free permit) in Utah’s Uinta Mountains. Most members of the grouse family tend towards northern latitudes but populations of prairie chicken and sage grouse get as far south as Texas and southern California.
Cache County is home to Utah’s best forest grouse hunting. Harvest in this county is more than twice any other county and accounts for one in four forest grouse shot in the state. Exact harvest numbers are harder to come by in Idaho, but I see the same number of grouse on both sides of the border. The average harvest in Cache County is slightly more than one bird a trip with a season total just over 4 birds.
My observations of lots of forest grouse being widely distributed across National Forest lands to the east of Cache Valley has been supported by the work Skyler Farnsworth did in completing his master’s thesis at USU. Based on his collections of grouse wings from hunters at the mouths of canyons, he found people were successful in all areas. These collections suggest the majority of the effort occurred during the first couple weeks of the season, with few hunters still in the field by the end of September. Work done to garner this degree also showed forest grouse were observed more often away from trails and when walking along the boundaries of deciduous forests and sagebrush meadows.
One surprise in the wings he collected was their indication of a higher harvest of ruffed rather than dusky grouse. This contradicts the state’s surveys which suggest harvest of these two species is about 50-50. Both understate my observations, as three out of four birds I shoot are dusky grouse. These differences are due to how individuals hunt. If you search the valley bottoms with thicker cover using dogs, you are more likely to encounter ruffed grouse. In contrast, hunt the pockets of aspen and maple along or near the ridges and you harvest more dusky grouse.
This season should be good as I have seen several large clutches of birds on my late summer dog walks. With the summer heat, most of the groups I have encountered have been near water. As the mountains received several good rainfalls in late May and early June, there was considerable grass for these birds to take cover in and to produce an excellent crop of grasshoppers as forage. These conditions appear to have increased the survival of this year’s hatchlings.
Early in the hunting season when the mid-day remains hot, it will be best to hunt in the mornings and afternoons, to take lots of breaks, and carry lots of water. This will be even more important advice to follow if you hunt with a dog as they cover far more ground than you. Going slow when it is hot can increase the number of birds you encounter as it is often difficult for dogs to detect the scent of birds when it is dry.
Dove season starts September 1st. If you plan on shooting dove you need a hunting license and a HIP permit. One positive outcome of a warm fall is the dove may stick around a bit longer. Doves are found on the valley floor rather than the mountains so it can be difficult to get access to private lands where most these birds are located. The best locations to hunt are ponds fringed with dirt edges and a few nearby trees.
Be safe, stay healthy, and good luck.