18 September 2007

Montana Snipe Hunt

It is fall. Mornings are frosty. Bull elk are whistling. Aspen leaves are turning color, and the cool nights pull sugars to the surface of the leaves. You can taste the change of season.
Ranchers are moving their cattle down from the National Forest and State Game Ranges:

My friend Wayne Hadley gave me a gentle ass kicking because I had not been grouse hunting. In my years in Pennsylvania and New York, I could not have imagined going a year without hunting upland birds. The year we lived in Germany, I thought I would die of anguish as summer turned to fall and I walked the woods with no shotgun in my hands. No little Model 12 20 gauge pumpgun passed on to me by Gramps. No Browning A5 Light 20 autoloader, bought with a few hard-earned dollars each week taken out of my paper route money. No Winchester 101 28 gauge overunder, my favorite for skeet shooting and the only gun I kept from my competition days.

Here in Montana, though, I'll go several years at a time without grouse hunting. There just aren't many most years, it seems--at least not when compared with the lush, grown over, orchards and fields of abandoned farms in upstate New York, or the open meadow woodlands of the Allegheny Plateau. It was not unusual to flush a dozen or twenty birds in a morning's hunt, and to come home without grouse was almost unthinkable. The one hunting season I lived in West Virginia, it was even better. Spoiled rotten, those eastern grouse hunters.

But Wayne insisted this was an exceptional year, and he generously suggested that early morning grasshoppers and snowberries would mean blue grouse. I especially appreciated the tip about snowberries, since I had not known these were a gamefood:

Blues are much larger than ruffed grouse. When I see them among the white bark pines while elk hunting, my mind's eye flashes back to young turkeys in the Pennsylvania hardwoods. Well, they're not that large, but relative to ruffs they are giants. Luckily they tend to flush close (if they flush at all--I think they are born wearing sneakers), so I've never had any trouble killing them with #7-1/2 shot.

I found an area with snowberries, Oregon grape, aspen, Douglass fir, red osier dogwood, willows, and sarvis berries. But no grouse. On the way out, however, I made a loop around the lowlands and some beaver ponds, just to let RTD cool down from the mid-morning heat and long hike over the ridges and high meadows:What a pleasant surprise to flush and shoot a few Wilson's Snipe. Like their eastern cousin the Woodcock, these are among the tastiest of wild game. Unlike some dogs I've known, RTD showed no aversion to finding them in the tall grass. All day, I've been drooling over the appetizers for tonight's supper. Wished I'd shot six or eight, enough for a real meal. Of course, you are supposed to hang them until they are quite high, but that ain't likely to happen unless I become a bachelor and indeed could well cause me to become one should I ever try it.

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