Cool morning desert air, the dry rattle of the half-turned aspen leaves and the freshly oiled action of a shotgun closing were proof enough that Fall has overtaken the West. I couldn't have found myself in any more pleasing of an opening autumn venue than the high desert of Wyoming.
It was the sage grouse opener and a group of fellow hunters and I had come together in Sweetwater County to try our luck at these pheasants of the desert.
Having never hunted what are respectfully referred to as "chickens," I was excited for the hunt. Being the youngest in the group of hunters, and a rookie when it came to sage grouse, I had taken a good ribbing the previous night from my chicken hunting mentors, Kelly Hepworth and Bill Trautman from Craig, Rodney Bridgers of Denver and Topper Brick, part-time Craig resident. The anticipation of the hunt and the slowness of a desert morning eased their jabs.
With the morning light growing more intense, promising a beautiful day, and shots echoing from all around us, we took our pre-hunt crazed labs into the sage to search for sage grouse.
The sage grouse is an interesting fowl. While it can't compare aesthetically with the pheasant, nor does it challenge the shooter like the rocketing of a ruffed grouse, it does have its own impressive qualities.
For what it lacks in decoration it more than makes up for in size and numbers. More often than not, while hunting these grouse of the sage, the first flush begins a chain reaction that causes groups of 50 or more birds to flush in staggered increments much like the timed coordination of a fireworks show. It is an impressive sight. Grouse are large in size. The mature birds are mammoth but the younger, smaller birds are coveted for their better taste.
When flushed, the thunderous wingbeats of the adult birds seem to shake the ground and send the dogs into a frenzy. The "Bombers" - as the adult birds are called - seem almost twice the size of a mature rooster pheasant.
Needless to say, we all enjoyed a great morning chasing chickens through the sage.
In Sweetwater County the sage grouse opener has all the popularity of a pheasant opener in South Dakota. It seemed that each section of sage had its own group of roaming bird hunters. The local roadside cafe was the hub for hungry chicken chasers, with hunter orange and worn dungarees proof of their sage grouse calling.
The grouse earned my respect as the hunt went on. They are not particularly easy to sneak up on and one must cover many miles of desert to collide with these winged critters. Their deceptive speed can also leave a first-time hunter standing birdless with an empty gun, taking glares from a disappointed labrador pup.
My older companions proved to be a little more efficient with their quick wit and ornamented side-by-side shotguns.
As we ended our successful two-day hunt in the shadow of the Windy River range, it was evident that the sage grouse earned my respect as a wonderful game bird. It was a great hunt with good company. A better ceremony to welcome Fall would be hard to come by.