You know what they say about the musky: fish of 10,000 casts and all that.
Well, they could say this about the Black Hills ruffed grouse: bird of 10,000 steps. And they’d be pretty close to correct, for me at least.
It would be far more than 10,000 steps for my springer spaniel, Rosie. She has twice as many feet to figure into the equation. She also covers twice as much territory. It’s tough territory, too, usually steep slopes with thick ground cover that includes branches and shrubs and stumps and fallen logs, often arranged at diabolical angles and turned water-slide slick by morning dew.
It’s a great place to fall on your face. I have. I do. I will.
It’s not like hunting grouse out on the prairie, where a buddy of mine liked to proclaim that he never really felt like he’d hunted until he had “five miles on my boot leather.” I shared the feeling. But it’s easy to walk five miles behind a dog loping through wispy prairie grass out on the flatlands. It’s a much slower grind up in the angled obstacle courses of the high country.
Usually I don’t cover five miles during a typical ruffed-grouse trip. I stop too often for water or snacks, to catch my breath or consider the world around me. Aspen groves, after all, are magical places, especially in autumn.
The groves are really colonies, with complex rhizomatic root systems that can reach out underground 100 feet or more from each parent tree, sending up baby trees along the way and sometimes creating a “clone” cluster with trees that are virtually identical.
An aspen colony creates an inspiring understory of color and shapes and plant diversity that serves as a smorgasbord for wildlife, including ruffed grouse.
There aren’t many ruffed grouse in the Black Hills anymore because there aren’t many aspen. Where you find aspen — a lot of aspen, acres and acres of it — you still find some ruffed grouse. If you’re willing to do some looking, and walking, and some more walking.
Two or three miles is probably a more common ruffed grouse hunt for me, slogging through the thick stuff behind Rosie as she snuffles up something to follow.
So you could argue that the ruffed grouse is more like a bird of 4,000 steps, or 6,000 steps. Except that we don’t get a ruffed grouse every trip. If we get one every other time, I feel pretty good.
That was exactly what we averaged last season. Rosie and I went out 10 times and came home with five ruffed grouse — never more than one per trip.
I had one wildly successful ruffed grouse hunt a few years ago. I shot a limit of three ruffies in one day. Never did it before. Haven’t done it since. But after those three ruffed grouse, I didn’t kill another one that season.
In South Dakota, hunting for ruffed grouse begins on the same day as hunting for the more plentiful, more popular, but-not-as-tasty prairie grouse — sharptails and prairie chickens. Traditionally that’s the third Saturday in September.
But grouse hunting begins on Sept. 1 in Wyoming. So Rosie and I get an early start, with a non-resident season permit that costs $74 and a $12.50 conservation stamp. Well, I also threw in $10 for the walk-in-hunting program, and another $12 or so for the Wyoming Wildlife Magazine.
We’ve been to Wyoming twice so far this season. The first time Rosie made a beautiful flush on a ruffed grouse that crossed a clearing 15 yards away. I didn’t shoot, because I wasn’t carrying a gun. I wasn’t carrying a gun because I’d forgotten to bring my shells.
Next hunt, she gave me another shot. And this time I had my gun and my shells.
So, we’ve been out twice and killed one ruffed grouse. We’re right on average, for a bird of 10,000 steps.