If you’re looking for colorful opinions about Wyoming’s native upland birds, ask a handful of grouse hunters what species is best.
One might tell you ruffed grouse are kings, and you’re better off eating the board you cook a sage grouse on than the bird itself.
Another will tell you sage grouse can be cooked to perfection, and there’s no use for a sharp-tailed.
But no matter who you’re talking to, die-hard grouse hunters all agree the hunts can be some of the best.
Wyoming has four native grouse species available to hunters each fall.
Green River wildlife coordinator and avid grouse hunter Mark Zornes broke down each one, including where they are, how to hunt them and why each one is unique.
This year, bring along your shotgun when scouting for big game, or just plan a grouse hunt to see some new country. No matter where you live in the state you’ll find a species.
Dusky or blue grouse
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear people reference either dusky or blue grouse. They’re the same thing, with two sub-species. One sub-species has a light-colored band on its tail. You’ll find them from Little Mountain south of Rock Springs to the Laramie Range, Zornes said.
The subspecies with a darker tail are found in the mountains in most of the rest of the state.
Either way, dusky grouse like high ridges.
“If you want to hunt blue grouse, they’re a weird bird. The hens come all the way down off the mountain into the aspen-sage-brush interchange country to nest,” he said. “Then they do a reverse migration and as winter progresses they go uphill to the tops of ridges.”
The males will spend all of their time high in the mountains nestled largely in limber pine or fir trees where they eat the needles. The season runs from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 with a limit of three per day and nine in possession.
These are Zornes’ favorites, but he also grew up in Appalachia where ruffed grouse are the pinnacle of all game birds.
“If you’re looking for grouse hunting with a bird dog, they will flush nice and it will be like hunting grouse back East,” he said. “They’re an exceptionally tasty bird.”
They’re known for their unique drumming in the spring. Male ruffed grouse will perch on logs and flap their wings so fast they become a blur. Zornes likens the sound to an irregular heartbeat.
If you find one drumming, go back to that log in the fall, and you’ll likely find a grouse, he said.
“If you’re lucky enough to harvest him, the next year there will be another one in his place,” he said. “Good drumming sites are hard to come by.”
People in the western part of Wyoming will refer to them as willow grouse because they can be found at the interchange between willow habitat and aspen and conifers. Find them in nearly all Wyoming mountain ranges but not the Laramie, Snowy and Sierra Madre ranges. The season is from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 and the limit is three per day and nine in possession.
Plains sharp-tailed grouse
Flush a sharp-tailed grouse in early October and it might fly 5 to 10 miles away from you, never to be seen again.
But look for them in early September, when the season opens, and you’re more likely to find ones that hold to the ground.
Wyoming has two subspecies of sharp-tailed: the plains and the Columbian. The Columbian can be found roughly west of the Continental Divide near Baggs, but no hunting season exists on them because of their limited numbers.
The plains sharp-tailed grouse can be found from Laramie County, east and northeast of the Laramie Range and up to Sheridan and over to where the prairie hits the Black Hills, Zornes said.
Much like sage grouse, they breed communally on leks.
“They will roost in tall shrubs and trees, so a lot of times people will hunt them by figuring out where the roosts are and catch them coming back in,” said Zornes.
Seasons run from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31 with a daily limit of three birds or nine in possession.
Greater sage grouse
Hunting sage grouse is not without controversy. Their numbers are struggling across the West, but hunting isn’t on the list of threats to the bird’s population, Zornes said.
Seasons are relatively short, bag limits are small, and Wyoming has the highest densities of the birds anywhere in the world.
Why hunt sage grouse?
“They are the western hemisphere’s largest grouse species,” Zornes said. “They offer wonderful upland hunting opportunity for folks. I see people who hunt them with no dog. I see people who hunt them with flushing dogs, and of course people hunting them with pointing breeds.”
Hunting them also offers a chance to wander Wyoming’s sage brush country.
And whatever you hear about the birds tasting like boards – don’t believe it.
“It’s like antelope, you have to treat it a little different, but it can be really good.”
Sage grouse hunting season this year runs from Sept. 15 to 30 in Area 1, which is portions of central and southwestern Wyoming with a two bird daily limit and four in possession. The season is open in Area 4 from Sept. 15 to 17 in a chunk of the northeast corner of the state with the same limit as Area 1. Areas 2 and 3 are closed.