Colorado’s dusky grouse capital draws hunters to Routt National Forest

It’s a heart-stopper, every time. The thunderous eruption of wings and feathers bursting from behind a bush or beneath a tree as hunters hike the forest almost always catches us off guard. And while they may not be the first two words that come to mind as you choke down the unexpected shot of adrenaline, that gray and white explosion actually has a name: Dusky Grouse.

Whether you’re stalking big game or on a dedicated bird hunt, it’s likely you’ll stumble across at least a few dusky (or blue) grouse in the hills of northwest Colorado. With lush forage tucked beneath its signature cloak of quaking aspens, Routt National Forest northeast of Craig traditionally accounts for a significant percentage of all the dusky grouse harvested statewide by hunters. More of the game birds are harvested annually in its namesake county than anywhere else in Colorado.

The grouse hunting season spanning from Sept. 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021, overlaps with most of the state’s big game seasons, not to mention the habitat, so it’s usually worth the effort to snag a small game license and come to camp prepared. Many big game bow hunters will add a rubber-tipped arrow to their quiver, which offers ample impact to bag a bird that doesn’t demand much in the way of killing.

Most others rely on shotguns of various gauges, often with an even-keeled dog at their side.

Good grouse dogs are something of a rare bird themselves. Breeding aside, they tend to ease into the role, as if developing instincts with age.

By necessity, a grouse dog works differently from other upland bird stalkers. Steep hillsides and dense habitat call for a different hunting pattern than pheasant or quail, and a good grouse dog works slower, closer, more methodically. They don’t run far or fast, mostly just mosey and sniff as the hunter follows close behind and awaits a signal.

“She locked into a beautiful point, and all of the sudden seven or eight birds just exploded out of nowhere,” Arvada resident Terry Stegehuise said of his late German shorthaired pointer, Mocha, recounting one of her final dusky grouse hunts in the Routt National Forest. “I got one and the rest flew off into the trees.”

The birds are both inconspicuous and 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 otherwise ideal habitat. With birds so evasive, it can be difficult to find a point of reference to start the hunt.

“You can’t 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 C.J. Kausel, who has successfully chased grouse in northwest Colorado for more than 35 years. “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 has found his Routt County honey hole right around the 8,000-foot mark, where he works up and down remote ridges and draws littered with deadfall beneath September’s golden aspens. But like almost all dusky grouse country, the most productive habitat is neither easy to get to nor to hunt. Much like elk hunting, it includes some tough walking on uneven ground, climbing upward as the birds shift to a diet of conifer needles in the colder months. Some refer to it as “heart attack country.”

Find the birds and you’ll know why.