Ruffed grouse combine with essential rituals for opening-day success
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Ten minutes into our first walk Sunday on the first day of the Wyoming grouse season, Rosie found our first ruffy.
We were a quarter mile from the vehicle, moving gradually downhill in a young aspen grove with a density that runs about three trees per square yard, when Rosie got birdy.
She was out front 20 yards, quartering as best she could in the tangle of fallen tree trunks, knee-high ferns and Velcro-snaggy buckbrush when her pace quickened and she became more deliberate in deciphering the coded transmissions of scene wafting up from the forest floor.
Midway through a snuffling figure-8 pattern, Rosie rose up slightly on her hind legs and came down heavily on her front feet, stomping to a stop like a startled whitetail buck. She held that pose and stared at me with a bright-eyed look that said: “Bird! Right here!”
It’s possible that in dog talk she could be more articulate than that. But we didn’t have time for full sentences.
As Rosie tore back into the cover, I lifted the 20 gauge off my shoulder and hustled after her. Good thing, too, because as she rounded a rotting stump, a ruffed grouse flushed five or six feet ahead of her, chuckling in agitation as it battered through the understory, flew across a gap in the trees and disappeared into the aspen beyond.
By the time I raised the 20 and squeezed the trigger, I could no longer see the bird. So I fired at the place it had vanished, figuring as I did that it was a wasted shot. It wasn't.
I was surprised when Rosie charged into the brush, wrestled around for a few seconds in the ferns and trotted out with her mouth full of our first ruffed grouse of 2019 — a beautiful young bird that will please my wife by bringing the essence of autumn and aspen groves to our table.
After such a fortunate beginning, there was no place to go but down, which is what we did, continuing on through that same aspen grove with the ease of declining altitude for another three quarters of a mile.
A hundred yards or so beyond the spot where the first ruffed grouse fell, Rosie flushed another while working dense cover off to my right. I never saw the bird but I heard it chortle as it rose through the branches. By the time I fought my way through the thick stuff to stand next to Rosie, she was wagging her tail slowly and gazing with a melancholy air up through a tunnel in the branches to a patch of blue -- presumably the bird’s route of escape.
“Good girl, Rosie,” I said, causing her tail to beat faster. “Good girl! Sometimes they get to win.”
Good things follow the one that got away
And that was it, as it turned out, for the first day of the Wyoming grouse season, in terms of ruffed-grouse action. We hunted through the aspen higher up the hillside, eventually working our way back through a delightful multiplicity of berries and buds and bushes and departing white-tailed deer to the vehicle, where I gave Rosie a long drink and put the grouse on ice.
I also scribbled a note and left it under the windshield wiper of a pickup with Pennington County plates parked nearby. When Rosie and I first arrived to start our hunt, two guys were getting organized for a hike up to the nearby summit. There they planned to set up and operate ham radios and, they hoped, make contact with other ham operators across the United States, and beyond.
Apparently that "beyond" has included Germany and Albania, a detail I’ll have to share with my stepdaughter by marriage, Ilisja Duffy, a native of Albania who still speaks the language, along with a couple of others.
I stuck with English in composing the windshield note, leaving my cell-phone number and asking the guys to call with a report on how they did up at the summit. Then Rosie and I headed for a summit of our own, one that is essential to our annual Sept. 1 grouse opener in Wyoming.
To older hunters, process matters more than pulling the trigger. A lot more. And our opening-day process isn’t complete without a stop at the Cement Ridge Lookout, and a visit with fire lookout Barb Peterson.
I’ve done a couple of stories with Barb over the years, and stopped by a number of times on opening day. She’s as reliably part of the season as the yellowing aspen leaves of September. Last year a flat tire and other complications a couple of miles from Cement Ridge caused me to miss my visit to the lookout on opening day. I was hoping nothing had changed.
And I smiled half a mile from the lookout when I saw Barb’s well-traveled white, four-wheel-drive Ford pickup parked under the tower. She was there as expected. All was right with the world. At least the world thereabouts.
A few minutes later, Rosie and I stood beneath the tower as Barb came to the railing above us.
“Good morning, Kevin,” she said. “And how’s Rosie?”
We didn’t go up, for good reason. Barb’s dog, Rags, a 9-year-old border-collie, blue-heeler cross, enjoys people. But she's not so welcoming of visiting dogs. So we stayed on the ground, where Rosie found some shade as Barb and I talked about the waning fire season, which has been relatively uneventful because of regular moisture.
“But it’s never boring up here,” Barb said. “There’s always something to do and plenty to look at.”
Where manificence stretches off in all directions
Yes, just looking around is plenty. If you haven’t been to the lookout, make it a point to go. It’s a fairly easy ride by way of Tinton Road south and west of Spearfish, then Forest Service 105 west until you reach a fork at 804. You go right there across the Wyoming line, down a hill to 854 and and the narrow road up to the Cement Ridge Lookout. A sign marks the way.
Take it slow. And if you’ve got a pickup or SUV, take that instead of a passenger car.
But whatever you drive, take in the view. That’s what Dan and Melinda DeMarest of McCook Lake in southeastern South Dakota were doing, for the first time Sunday. They walked up to the lookout tower as Barb and I chatted and, not having a dog, went upstairs for a look around. The DeMarests were also making their first UTV trek through the hills. Our chat included tips on points of interest in the high country and challenges at the much-lower elevation at McCook Lake, where Dan is president of the McCook Lake Association.
The lake is a charming oxbow that was once part of the nearby Missouri River. The association keeps it full by pumping from the river. And that stretch of the Missouri is one of those infested with zebra mussels, an aquatic invasive species recently confirmed in Lake Sharpe, too. The mussels came to McCook Lake along with the river water.
Dan said the mussels haven’t been a big problem so far, although they do warn swimmers in McCook Lake to wear water shoes to prevent cuts from mussel shells. That’s a warning that could become more common in South Dakota, if the mussels continue to spread.
But there were no worries about aquatic invaders up at Cement Ridge yesterday, just the making of new acquaintances, the renewal of old and the repeating of opening-day rituals 6,647 feet above sea level.
Up there you have to stop and take a look around at 360 degrees of magnificence — Old Baldy over there, Terry Peak off that way, Inyan Kara out there and Crow Peak way off beyond toward Spearfish.
And closer by, there’s the road down Rattlesnake Canyon, which will lead you to the the slightly overstated Grand Canyon of eastern Wyoming and, after a fairly long and very winding gravel road through the canyon, to Sand Creek and historic Ranch A. Good stuff all.
At least, that’s the route we tend to take on opening day of the Wyoming grouse season, which begins the fall hunting season for Rosie and me each Sept. 1. It’s usually pretty warm. So we usually don’t hunt very hard or very long. It’s just a beginning. And part of the ritual of the day is Rosie enjoying a post-hunt swim and a chance to do some trout “fishing” in Sand Creek, before we get on I-90 at Beulah for the hour drive home.
FInding a better way to the top, and a ride, too
We did that, in our way, with a couple of detours. First, as we were driving down the trail from Cement Ridge to Rattlesnake, we stopped to pick up a young dad who was out with a UTV group and got impatient with their extended stop to enjoy a view along the trail.
“I got tired of waiting and knew there was a better view up here, so we took off,” he said.
He was carrying his pre-school daughter on his shoulders when I stopped and rolled down the window.
“Want a ride to the top?” I asked.
“I guess I wouldn’t turn one down,” he said, with a grin.
So I drove them up to the lookout, learning along the way that his name is Jake Etzkorn and that he works at a family pheasant-hunting preserve near Pierre.
“You must be related to Terry Etzkorn?” I surmised, referring to the founder of a commercial goose-hunting camp along the Missouri River in “The Pocket” southeast of Pierre that began operation, oh, half a century ago or so.
“Yeah, he’s my grandpa!” Jake said, with a bigger grin.
I asked after Terry, and learned that he’s 83 and “still working as hard as ever.”
Jake loved the fact that a stranger who happened to pick him up on a trail in the Black Hills high country knew his grandpa from long-ago goose-hunting days back on the central South Dakota prairie half a state away. We even decided that Jake might have served me a time or two in the little cafe and store the Etzkorns ran near the camp.
And I concluded, once again, that I love living in a state where such random encounters are so common, and mean so much.
We both grinned in our goodbyes.
I was savoring that additional gift as we headed down Rattlesnake once again. And part way through I decided to take a detour up, over and down Williams Gulch, figuring to have a short hunt near a water hole favored by Rosie and by ruffed grouse. But there was a pickup already parked near the water hole. So I decided against disrupting what I assumed was an archery elk hunt in progress. (The elk like the water hole as much as Rosie and the ruffed grouse do.)
Besides, the temperature was edging up toward 80. And under the bright sun without a breath of breeze it already felt hotter than that, which is way too hot for a hard-charging hunting dog at work.
We had a ruffed grouse on ice, and lunch to eat. And Rosie had earned her annual stop at Sand Creek to swim and fish.
That’s an essential part of the first-day hunting ritual, too.