I’m not a bird biologist, but I think what they call blue grouse in the Big Horns of Wyoming is what we called fool hens in the wilderness areas of Idaho. They are also called spruce grouse or forest grouse. They are probably completely different species and I might be incorrect in my thoughts. What we called blue grouse in Idaho were the dusky blue grouse that were larger than the spruce grouse and wilder than the spruce grouse. That being said this is about spruce, or forest grouse, or what I call fool hens.
When I started big game hunting the Frank Church Wilderness area of Idaho in the late 80’s I would always find these real dumb grouse. My hunting buddies and I would kill them with a rock or even a stick because most of the time they would just sit there and let you whack them. They were good eating and when we were camped miles from the trail head they provided us with our own meat isle at the supermarket so to say. They can be in the thick timber areas, or they can be out in the sagebrush hill sides. If you found them in the timber areas on the ground they would usually just fly up into the nearest tree, sometimes only a few feet off the ground. I can remember times when they were just standing in the trail and would hunker down to hide in plain sight and not move when we got within a couple feet of them. Now you have a better idea of why we call them fool hens. We did find the dusky blue grouse as well, but they were usually very skittish and we couldn’t kill them with a rock.
When I first got Cruiser I did get into some of these grouse during his 1st hunting season. They were in some green brush areas within the sagebrush covered hills. The grouse were good for Cruiser because they held tight, and I was able to get him on them a few times because they didn’t fly very far on the initial flush. Sometimes with Cruiser when he was a pup we would drive road hunting for birds and if I drove by some fool hens I could stop and go back to work them. They seemed to always just sit there waiting for you, almost like they wanted to become a meal for something.
After I moved to South Dakota I went a few years with little or no interaction with the fool hens. Then I moved to Wyoming and started to hunt the Big Horn Mountains. The locals all talked about the blue grouse and how they were everywhere up on the mountain. I found this a bit strange because the dusky blue grouse in Idaho were few and far between. They weren’t around every bush like the locals said these blue grouse were. I decided I better go check it out for myself. I think the 1st trip I took Apple and one of her off spring Spike up on the mountain. I went with a co-worker and we went to a spot where there was some sage grouse, and supposed to be some blue grouse. When I got there I thought well it does look like a place for sage grouse, but not a place for fool hen, or a dusky blue grouse. I was wrong about one thing. It was a good place for fool hens. We turned the dogs loose and headed up the mountain. I said to the co-worker that there is a spring up in a draw about 1000 yards up the mountain, and we should try to get the dogs into that area to see if any sage grouse are in the area. We did get on a group of sage grouse right off the bat, and I was thinking that is all we’ll see is some sage grouse. When we got about to the spring my hunting buddy says there is some grouse. I looked up and a group of five grouse that looked just like a fool hen where wondering around in front of my buddy. He said these are blue grouse, and I said no those are fool hens. He was chasing them around trying to get them to fly just like a guy in a call back at a field trial, and then the young dog spike came running up the hill just in time to get them airborne. They flew right at my head and I hit the deck because I had never hunted with this guy and didn’t know if he was going to shot me or not, but he kept the gun in a safe direction. These birds all flew off in one group and went a long ways down the mountain and around the corner. I told my buddy most of the time the fool hens don’t fly that far, but big Spike chasing them might have made them decide to get a little farther away. We worked the mountain for an entire day with the dogs and got on plenty of fool hens. Towards the end of the day while we were hunting some open timber areas we thought we heard birds flying in the direction we had just seen the dogs. I got over there and the dogs were both pointing up a tree (a first for me). I can’t remember for sure but I think we shot one when it flew off out of the tree. We both easily got our limits that day and after that every September, and the first part of October I spend time hunting the fool hens, usually with young dogs.
Now that I have a few years of hunting the Big Horn blue grouse under my belt I have started to figure out where they will be hiding a little better than before. They don’t always show up where I think they should be, but I can usually get on a ridge with binoculars and survey the country until I find areas where I think they will be in-habiting. Early in the year I seem to find them in sage covered ridges near a water source. I have found them in the rock piles on top of ridges as well, but it seems that they are more likely to be somewhat out in the open. When the snow flies they are almost always in the timber, and usually up in a tree, and that is where they stay. I read somewhere grouse with gps tracking collars were found to stay in the same evergreen tree all winter. The season opens on Sept. 1st and it can still be pretty warm even up at the high elevations so when I go hunting them I make sure I know where the water sources are at all times. This isn’t just because that is where the grouse most likely we be, but it is for the GWP’s when they get hot. I like to hunt earlier in the day when the wind is usually blowing up the mountain and I try to stay on the ridges as the dogs work down off the sides. This has worked well for me most of the time, and that way I can stay up on a high vantage point and not go down the mountain until I know there is something to shoot. Most of the time they will all flush at once, but sometimes if the group is pretty large they might go in pairs or singles. They never seem to have any set direction they fly, (like chukars flying downhill) and they might fly a hundred yards or fly somewhere out of sight. I was out doing some training with Birdie a younger broke dog early September when she locked up out in the grasslands part way up the north facing slope of the mountain. I had been seeing plenty of sharptails in the area, and I rarely saw any blue grouse down this low on the mountain. I was quite surprised when I flushed a group of five blue grouse, but I was more surprised when they flew down the mountain and way out into the open prairie lands.
If you have a young GWP these grouse can be awesome for the dog. If you know an area where they are living you can bring the young GWP in and get them on the grouse without making the young GWP run around too long. Just come in with the wind blowing in their face and they will have a good chance to get a nice point. These grouse area not real jumpy and most likely in some brush so the young dog can get a good point without seeing the grouse until it flies. They are big enough the young GWP can see them fly for a long distance and they get a more complete idea of the point, hold, flush, and eventually the shot. Quite a few of my young dogs get to experience their 1st wild bird point, flush, shot, and retrieve on one of these grouse.