It’s quiet. Six inches of fresh powder and temperatures in the teens have subdued the forest. I’ve been on the road since 4 a.m. to get a preview of the coming days. It’s a new area and what could be the start of a new tradition. Having hibernated for the five hour commute, the dogs are primed to run. I exit the cab, take a couple deep hits of sharp air to shake off the road, drop the tailgate and we head off into the white.
I’m here early to scout an area of public lands identified via timber maps and satellite imagery. But boots and paws on the ground will tell the real story. I have never hunted grouse in this much snow, so it’s all just theory for now. I can only guess how Ruffed react to these conditions and hope that the places I’ve outlined for the coming hunt are still viable when buried.
The rest of the band is scheduled to roll in throughout the evening, but the ongoing storm will likely effect their arrivals.
Other upland gatherings on prairies or alpine terrain lack some of the traditional Grouse Camp lore. But this cabin tucked away in the woods with a roaring fire and an abundance of red meat ready for the grill has checked off a number of boxes.
The guys still en route know little about Grouse Camp besides the barrel-aged bottle price of admission. Among this new crew is one first time hunter, one first time bird hunter and one first time wild bird hunter. The weather may be the least of our challenges. Successive years of West Nile Virus and harsh winters have Ruffed Grouse counts historically depressed.
There are breaks in the flurries as the dogs and I plow deeper. I follow their lead picking off edges and diving into aspen cuts. The setter, perfectly camouflaged in this environment, weaves between trees and disappears. Birds are the only reason she won’t circle back to check in — one of the luxuries of hunting with an experienced dog.
We walk for over two hours to close out a jagged scouting loop back at the truck. There were signs of just one smart, old bird that had taken temporary refuge under a pine before evaporating into the winter swirl. And now I have a good indication of what is in store for this late-season game.
This Grouse Camp won’t be defined by double digit flush counts and bag limits. Fleeting opportunities and single digit temps will be the standard.
The snow continues to fall throughout the night. The last of our party arrives a few hours before sunrise. The rest of us stayed up sharing stories and tempering expectations with spirits over rocks. But the legend of Grouse Camps are built on a foundation of camaraderie extending beyond the heft of the game bag.
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