Wednesday, September 21, 2016
There has been some name-calling recently among some of the wingshooting bloggers. The monikers of braggart and poser have risen. Well, to avoid being called the former, I should reveal how I recently came home with my tail between my legs from a recent Colorado outing. I spent over $1000, drove over 1,200 miles and came home with one bird. That bird was a lowly blue grouse, a species that I could have bagged over my lunch hour at home. (oops, that sounds a bit like bragging)
My plan was to drive the 12 hours south, to look for ptarmigan in Colorado. It was definitely a bucket list bird, one of those trips you just can't put off for another year. With seasoned 10-year old and 12-year old dogs, I had wished my interest would have taken hold a year or two sooner. It would have also been nice to take along my Dad, who hunts as hard as anyone at age 70, but it wasn't meant to be. I decided to leave town alone, only with Abby, the younger setter.
I got to Aspen late Saturday afternoon, without enough time to scout the area. I had some leads on areas to explore, more less a direction to start, not with GPS coordinates from someone else who had the good fortune of ptarmigan sightings or kills. I didn't bring binoculars either; I wanted this to be a true bird hunt, with the dog doing the bird-finding and me doing my part with the 20 gauge.
Heading to my Rocky Mountain High, I knew just a few important details: ptarmigan were mostly above 11,000 feet in elevation, roughly 350 birds were harvested annually, and often they were found in wilderness areas. The last detail meant that all dogs were required to be on a leash. I cheated and grabbed a really long leash, a 30 foot check cord, but what a hassle that would still turn out to be. I was in decent shape from running all summer, but I was more worried about Abby's paws, as a lot of our hunting would be in sharp, unforgiving rock.
Like a football coach's playbook, day one was according to plan. I drove to the highest pass possible, about 12,000 feet above sea level and took off with plenty of liquids, beef jerky and a sandwich. My usual MO is to keep walking until I find birds. The walking wasn't bad. The bird finding proved to be difficult. I hunted up to about 13,400', back down to 11K, and up again. I told myself if they were still in their brown plumage, maybe they were hiding in rocks near ridgelines. Nope. The lush willow and tundra ground cover seemed inviting. More food, more insects for young birds. They didn't seem to care of any of that business either. I don't think I ever cussed so much that day. Not because of the hiking or lack of birds, but because of that #$@$!*& check cord which would repeatedly get caught up in the boulders or stunted trees. Who makes these rules anyway? I walked from 8AM-2PM and called it a day. With one ten year-old dog, I knew I couldn't run her into the ground on the first day. I returned to my vehicle, confusing some tourists that were appalled that I was hunting in their nature preserve. I wanted to tell them that this wasn't Yosemite National Park, but I bit my tongue and headed back to my over-priced Aspen hotel.
Day two was more of a bust than day one. I had taken a lead from a local who had seen birds up a certain drainage a year or two earlier. The road I chose never came close to tree-line and became a two-track nightmare before I turned around. The wild goose chase ended up costing me three hours of my second and final day in CO. I returned to my previous day's destination, hunting in a different direction from where I parked the Toyota earlier. I was an hour into my walk, when thunder from a cloud at my very elevation spooked me back to the car. Being on the top of a bald ridge at 13,000+ feet was the worst possible place to be. Game over. Checking ptarmigan off the list wasn't meant to be.
When the quick-moving storm passed, the blue grouse I did shoot gave me a split-second of excitement when Abby became birdy. But, I knew I was too low for it to be a ptarmigan. I also saw a good-sized black bear, but most importantly, I saw a high-altitude bowl that I vowed I would return to some day. Unfortunately, that day will be when I am one year older, most likely with a dog that is just learning the ropes. While in the short term I regret my lack of success from a cost-benefit perspective, I look forward to the challenge again some day.