Name another state where you can hunt five species of native
grouse in an easy day's drive. (I threw in the "easy" because you
might find the five species in Montana but you would play hell
trucking your way from one kind of bird country to the next and
still have time to hunt the same day.)
by Ed Mitchell
In the southeast of Idaho, you can find sharptails in the
Curlew Grasslands around Malad, sage grouse in the brushy hills
surrounding the grasslands, then head east toward Wyoming and
jump all three species of forest grouse before dark all on one
tank of gas. But if you're more of a specialist, there are other
places to go and a few things you might want to know.
If there is one bird and one kind of bird hunting that says
"this is Idaho", it is sage grouse. America's biggest grouse at
up to eight pounds and two feet tall, this big tough bird can
live a decade or more in some of the starkest habitat of any in
this country. He can go days without water and stay healthy
through the harshest winter eating nothing but sagebrush leaves.
He seems unperturbed by searing summer heat and -30 degree
winters. Most old-time Idaho bird hunters feel a special kinship
with this symbol of desert wildness.
Where you find them and how you find them puzzles most
first-time sage grouse hunters. A perfectly camouflaged brown,
gray and white bird in a brown, gray and light-colored sea of
sage often without a prominent feature for miles seems an
impossible quarry. Look harder. The desert hides subtleties. A
low ridge may be the roost where the birds start their day. A
tiny patch of green can mean a minute seep, offering a bird a
drink and a succulent salad on a hot, dry day. Where the brush
bunches a little tighter might be cover for a flock that knows
you are after them. Any time before fall moisture lets the birds
find an easy living at random, streams and spring and hayfield
edges deserve a stroll.
My own time-proven method for finding a place to start is to
drive the desert slowly until my faithful Indian guide says "this
looks grousy", then get out and walk. This is not infallible but
works about as well as anything else I've ever tried.
Sage grouse hunters argue whether dogs give any advantage or
not. Many hunters fear confrontations between dog and snake. It
is true you can walk sage grouse up without a dog, making this
one upland game bird the dogless hunter can enjoy.
However, four feet cover more ground and carry a useful
nose. And locating a downed sage grouse, especially one that may
have run a few feet from the spot you marked, can be a
frustrating and time-consuming search for the human hunter.
Besides, it is hard to deny pup the joy of a noseful of grouse.
Big as they are, sage grouse are not hard to hit nor
are they difficult to bring down with a standard pheasant load.
What bumfuzzles the unschooled or unwary is the near-silent rise
of a fleet of bombers from some place that appears no different
from anywhere else in the last three miles of desert. I've
watched an experienced pheasant hunter unload a five-shot pump
without touching a feather as his first flock, 20 sage grouse,
rose in twos and threes on all sides. He has never been quite the
Seasons and limits have been trimmed for this fall's sage
grouse hunt because populations have declined in Idaho (and
throughout the rest of the bird's range) over about the last 10
years. The reasons, as usual, are complex and interdependent but
drought has played the most dramatic role in the short term;
subtle, gradual habitat changes have long-term implications.
Because sage grouse live long lives, cutting back the hunter's
take can have more impact than it does with other upland birds.
Mortality studies indicate hunting makes only a little difference
but it is the one thing we can easily control. So Idaho sage
grouse hunters have asked for and received a change from 30-day
seasons with three in the bag and six in possession.
This year we will be hunting a seven-day season with one
bird in the bag and two in possession in most of Idaho east and
south of Interstates 84, 86 and 15 from Oregon to Pocatello and
Montana. Part of Owyhee County south and east of the Mud Flat
Road and west of the Bruneau River will have a 23-day season, two
and four. That same season will apply in the Magic Valley north
of the Snake River and in most of Custer and Lemhi counties. In
the Big Desert east of the Great Rift as well as in Birch Creek,
the season will be closed to study the effect of hunting on low
(We could have a nice debate about whether shortening the
season, in and of itself, will mean more birds on the desert next
year. At least it demonstrates concern for the resource on the
part of hunters. If it does not distract us from doing the hard
things that make a difference in the long run, cutting the season
does no harm.)
The table quality of sage grouse is indisputably excellent
if the bird is a young one. A big old bomber requires extra care
in preparation, but don't let anyone tell you they are not
edible. The meat is dark and rich on the breast, light in the
legs. Field dressing as soon as possible is a rule.
Idaho retains the biggest population of Columbian sharp-
tailed grouse in the country. Sharpies have done well indeed in
recent years, largely thanks to the Conservation Reserve Program
in southeast Idaho.
Sharp-tailed grouse must have big grasslands to prosper.
Before CRP, they were scattered in small pockets where grasslands
were protected from being cut up or chewed up. They were a
remnant and declining species. As soon as grass began to grow
tall and thick on CRP ground, taking sharp-tailed grouse went
from an odd event to a thoroughly worthwhile undertaking.
Concentrations of sharpies are found on private CRP lands
and some public lands in the same areas of southeast Idaho. Arbon
Valley and the Malad country are good areas. The Tex Creek
Wildlife Management Area is another fine place to start.
If there is a gentleman among grouse, it is the sharp-
tailed. They tend to travel in small flocks that hold
magnificently for a pointing dog, then flush for a fast, straight
Until you are familiar with both species, sharp-tailed
grouse are easy to mistake for sage grouse. This is especially
confusing because their habitats often overlap. But the sharpie
will not go more than a couple of pounds and about 19 inches
long. His polka dot pattern and pointed tail distinguishes him.
Sharp-tailed grouse grace any table. Some of us will declare
ruffed grouse the best eating of any fowl on earth but we will
not argue too long with anyone who gives that title to the sharp-
Seasons have been trimmed this year, not because sharpies
are in any trouble, but because they do overlap with sage grouse
and too many folks cannot tell the difference. So in the interest
of protecting sage grouse, we will spare the sharp-tailed as
well. Do not look for this to increase numbers of the smaller
bird much; he has probably filled the available habitat about to
If eastern bird gunners think Idahoans have no respect for
nobility, it is because of the way most of us here treat ruffed
grouse. In eastern and upper midwest states, hunters spend the
price of a nice sedan on a proper scattergun for ruffs,
the "king of gamebirds". Here, the king is more likely to be
clotted in the head with a stick by an elk hunter (no noise to disturb elk that way) and tossed in
the dutch for supper.
Like our other two forest grouse, the ruffed is traditional camp meat for big game hunters.
Those of us who make a special trip to chase forest grouse are regarded as being a little odd by
old-style Idaho hunters but our numbers are growing slowly. We know that the day eastern bird
hunters learn about Idaho's forest grouse numbers will be the same day all incoming airline flights
will be full. The reason our ruffs are so ridiculously easy is simply that they are rarely pursued.
In those few areas where a fair number of hunters specialize in grouse, our Idaho ruffs
behave the same as their cousins back east. Then we share the challenge of hitting ruffed grouse
after they explode from the shrubbery, fly behind the first tree they come to and escape into the
We find ruffed grouse in Idaho in pretty much the same sort of country as they inhabit
in Michigan. Plant species may vary from place to place but the bird's habits do not. Rather than
dense conifer forests, look for ruffs in mixed stands. Quaking aspens give both food and shelter,
so hunt these stands carefully. Ruffs favor fruits when they can get them; choke cherries and
service berries attract them. In the dry of early autumn, springs and riparian areas hold grouse.
Any forested area of Idaho can harbor ruffed grouse, so pull out a map and place your finger on
any green spot but do not go far into the black timber. This bird prefers edges and small clearings.
Dogs and ruffed grouse were meant for each other. Pointing and flushing breeds produce
about equal numbers of birds.
Open chokes also were meant for ruffed grouse. You're not likely to get more than one
shot and it will be close. By the time the ruff puts any appreciable distance between himself and
you, vegetation will have intervened to his advantage. With anything tighter than improved
cylinder, you just demonstrate your commitment to preservation of ruffed grouse.
The king truly reigns at the table. It just doesn't get any better than ruffed grouse.
The blue mountain bomber, largest of American forest grouse, blows out of the thicket
behind you for a thunderous flight across the canyon. Every fiber of your being acutely aware that
these birds share their space with bears, he may be settled in again before you remember your
shotgun. Or he may hold his perch on a limb 10 feet away and stare. There is no routine with
Blue grouse are so named for their dusty blue-gray plumage. Adults go about two feet in
length, more than that in wingspan, and may weigh three pounds.
Blue grouse generally act quite a lot like ruffs. They hang out where it is cool, usually near
water in the early fall, and eat choke cherries and berries where they can. Often, the little flats on
an otherwise steep slope hold blues. Their oddest habit is migrating upslope in real winter
weather. They feed on evergreens then and are not considered the best eating once they shift their
diets late in the year. Early season blue grouse, particularly the young of the year, will rival ruffs
for flavor. The biggest old bird will be a little tough.
Every forest in Idaho from Nevada to Canada contains some blue grouse but the
northcentral and northern mountains really favor them. Find a logging road that goes the direction
you want and walk it slowly, watching carefully.
Spruce (Franklin's) Grouse
All forest grouse are called "fool hens" sometimes but the spruce grouse almost always
deserves the name. Sit awhile and one may share the log with you. Walk along a logging road and
you may have to boot one out of the way. This is not America's sportiest bird.
Fair numbers of spruce grouse end up as camp meat every year in Idaho and, for that, are
appreciated. Hardly anyone hunts them on purpose.
The eating quality of spruce grouse suffers in comparison with other grouse species
because they feed heavily on evergreen buds much of the year but they have fed many a hungry
hunter without drawing complaints.
Probably because they lack wariness wholly, spruce grouse are usually found only in
remote areas. Unlike the others, they may well be back in the black timber.
Forest Grouse Seasons
All three species of forest grouse in all areas of Idaho may be hunted from September 1
through December 31 with four in the bag, eight in possession. It is legal to take them with rifle
or shotgun, archery, slingshot of handthrown missile. Whacking them in the back of the head with
a stick is also allowed. The 1996 Upland Game Rules will be available in mid-August and can be viewed on-line at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game web site.