It’s once again time for bird hunting season to commence. Monday, Aug. 30 is the opening day of Idaho’s forest grouse season, while Utahns have to wait until Sept. 1. Dove season in both states opens on the 1st.
Although the region is home to four grouse species, dusky, ruffed, sharp-tailed, and sage grouse, only the first two are considered forest grouse. The other two species inhabit grasslands and sagebrush and occur at lower densities that result in more restrictive limits and seasons.
The daily limit of forest grouse in Utah and Idaho is four. This is an aggregate number, so it can consist of any combination of dusky and ruffed grouse as long as the total does not exceed four. While dusky and ruffed grouse have similar chicken like appearances, they come from different ends of the grouse family’s taxonomic hierarchy.
These two species have been wandering down their own evolutional path for the last 10 million years. This divergence has allowed these species to develop their own habitat preferences and keeps them from hybridizing. Based on regional harvest data, you’re equally likely to encounter either of these species when hunting the Bear River Range.
To give some perspective of how many forest grouse may occupy the surrounding mountains, we can start with the state’s estimates of about 8,000 of these birds harvested each year in Cache County. If all these birds were shot on Forest Service lands — which isn’t true given there are other federal, state and private lands with populations of forest grouse — that would work out to one bird harvested for every 270 acres.
This low harvest rate has been documented despite it being possible to make a two- or three-mile hunt through the hills and flush 15 to 20 birds. If your dog is working a 100-foot-wide swath in front of you during a three-mile hunt, that works out to covering about 36 acres. As most birds are shot within 100 yards of a Forest Service Road or trail, it is likely the vast majority of the forest grouse in our region are never flushed by a hunter or their bird dog.
In my trips to the woods prior to last week’s rains, it appeared forest grouse had done well producing offspring. I saw one brood of dusky grouse with what appeared to be 10 young birds. This is a large quantity as the average number of eggs laid by these birds is six or seven. With the recent rainfall, grouse broods will have spread out into locations with and without local sources of water.
Most of my forest grouse hunting occurs in September. This is despite both states’ season for these birds running until Dec. 31. I focus on the early part of the season because there are other things to hunt later in the year, and this is the time when grouse behavior is most predictable. Ruffed grouse are rarely found in or near conifer forest and are most common in deciduous vegetation along wetter valley floors. They occupy the same areas throughout the hunting season.
In contrast, early in the season dusky grouse will often be found at the edge of conifer and sagebrush especially along ridges. In these areas they will be feeding in patches of berries (which looked to be having at least average production this year) or searching for grasshoppers. Once these foods disappear, dusky grouse move to different areas that are steeper and consists of more forest cover.
My favorite grouse hunting loads are 1 ¼ oz of 6 shot fired through an improved cylinder choke. These birds often flush within 20 yards but you need bigger shot to bring a bird down before it can sail into the next valley or disappears behind thick brush. The wide choke limits the number of pellets you have to pick out during the cleaning process but is enough to knock a bird down as it traverses a dense patch of bigtooth maple.
When hunting, make a habit of covering the best habitat while hiking uphill. In these situations, a flushed ruffed grouse will often flitter and land just out of sight giving you multiple opportunities to encounter it while dusky grouse will often turn an arc back over you in their effort to escape. In both situations, this strategy will put more birds in your vest.
As a reminder, if you are going to hunt mourning dove you are require to participate in the Harvest Information Program (HIP) as they are migratory birds. Good luck and hunt safely.