ROUTT NATIONAL FOREST —The hefty bird burst from behind a bush in a startling eruption of wings and feathers, muted shades of gray and white briefly visible through thinning autumn foliage.
"Grouse!" I shouted and began to shoulder the 20-gauge, quickly realizing the futility of the action. Thick cover obscured the bird to the point of uncertainty, prompting an amendment to the original call before even thumbing the safety. "I think."
Seconds later, a blast rang out from my left, followed quickly by another.
"Man, I hate those shots," Terry Stegehuis grumbled from the edge of the thicket. "That one was so close, it nearly flew right into me. That's the second time that happened."
It was my first day in C.J. Kausel's "grouse camp," and already it had become obvious that Stegehuis was something of a bird magnet. While the rest of us labored over the same steep, wooded hillsides in search of the elusive upland game birds, dusky grouse apparently were throwing themselves at Stegehuis.
"I think it has more to do with Mocha than Terry," David Oine of Aurora noted after Stegehuis had bagged his sixth bird of the weekend. "I think Mocha just knows where to find them."
It certainly wasn't the first trip around the block for Mocha, an aging German shorthaired pointer, or his owner from Arvada, both return visitors to the encampment Kausel has established deep in the woods of northwest Colorado for 35 years now. Indeed, the annual autumn gathering might be considered "grouse dog" camp, with a rotating cast of friends from the Colorado Gun Dog Association and potential members of the new Sporting Dog Club of Colorado Kausel recently co-founded congregating around the campfire to talk dog between walks in the woods.
Mocha was among half a dozen of man's best friends in the crowd.
As a rule, the grouse dog works differently from other bird stalkers. Dense habitat calls for a different hunting pattern than pheasant or quail, and a good dog works slower, closer, more methodically. With a decade of hard hunting and field trials to her name, Mocha had grown into her grouse skills. She didn't go far or fast, mostly just moseyed and sniffed as Stegehuis followed close behind.
"She locked into a beautiful point, and all of the sudden seven or eight birds just exploded out of nowhere," Stegehuis said after flushing a covey on an otherwise unproductive Sunday morning. "I got one and the rest flew into the trees."
Dusky (or blue) grouse are notoriously unpredictable, sometimes flushing wildly, other times holding tight in thick cover under the noses of both dog and hunter. For that matter, they may fail to show up at all in outwardly ideal habitat.
With birds so evasive, it helps to have a point of reference to start the hunt. Fortunately for his friends, much of the puzzle that is finding dusky grouse in Colorado had been solved by Kausel long ago.
"You can't just look at a place from across the valley and say there's going to be grouse there. You don't know until you get in there with the dog and look around," said Kausel, 70, who sells DVDs on the topic through his company, Hunt Smart Productions. "You need to have the right mix of oakbrush and trees for cover and the serviceberries, chokecherries and huckleberries to eat. And, of course, they move uphill when it gets colder."
Kausel and his pointer, Shawnee, found their September honey hole right around the 8,000-foot mark, working up and down the remote ridges and draws littered with deadfall beneath Routt County's signature cloak of quaking aspens. With a bounty of quality habitat, Routt County accounted for nearly 10 percent of the estimated 11,800 dusky grouse harvested by hunters statewide last year, more than any other county in Colorado. But like almost all blue grouse country, the most productive habitat is neither easy to get to nor to hunt.
"This is rough country," Oine said as he chased his 2-year-old lab, Rocket, up a steep ravine back to camp. "Heart attack country."
Yet the effort involved is likely why wingshooters continue to reap dividends from the site after all these years. It keeps most other hunters away, and last weekend was no exception.
"We harvested about a third of the birds we flushed, which is pretty typical. Sometimes we'll do better," Kausel said. "It depends on where they flush. We could have hit more this time, but they are fast fliers."