Yes, you read that right. There are easier and far more typical places to hunt Sage Grouse, but when Dominic Bachman invites you to go hunting with him, you clear out your calendar to make it happen. Even more so when the hunt is in such a unique and challenging environment.
This distinctive southeastern Oregon hunt must be applied for in advance, then if you are lucky enough to be chosen for this intense event, with less than a 10% chance of being drawn, you have to be prepared for high elevation. All the best hunting is right around 8,000 feet of elevation. The breath-taking views encompass Hawaiian-like canyons, dramatic mountain peaks, desert oasis’ and alpine lakes – all in one spot!
The hunting itself is incredibly challenging, even more so for me since I battled intense bouts of sciatica the entire time. The sage brush is low, compact and incredibly dense which makes walking nearly impossible. Each step is literally more akin to a high step march, with the footing of each step being questionable. This was hard and I wanted to quit, badly. But I was there. I signed up for this adventure for this experience. So, I did my best to put my big boy pants on and see it through.
I brought Ila, Fizzy and Rye along for this adventure. Up before dawn and rolling in the dark to a new location can be a surreal experience; follow the leader. With the sun beginning to light the horizon on fire, I took solace in having downloaded a lot of extra maps in my OnX. We arrived and Dom said, “This is your oyster”. A large roughly triangular shaped piece of mountain slope with a few rocky knobs. We Jimmy Jammed from the bottom to the top – straight into the sun. With sciatica firing off with nearly every step, and in some cases shorting muscles out robbing me of what little power I have. Good times. For this first hunt I had Rye and Fizzy down, once at the top, we began to roughly zigzag the rest of our “field” back down and roughly into the wind. It became clear that bird numbers where not what Dom had anticipated. I kept waiting to hear a shot in the distance… because we had nothing. No sign at all. This hunt got long, my legs a tad wobbly, and mentally I was starting to check out. I began to wheel around to the left to make what would be one of the last zigs to be made. Within a few steps, the girls began to come around. BAM. Rye froze, Fizzy froze. I completed my step, and a grouse few wild! I took a passing shot and wiffed but had the presence of mind to look back to exactly where it came from, as it was highly likely there would be more. On cue, a second bird few, and with a little more zen I took and made the shot! We were on the board. We hunted later that day, still with no success for the party.
We got the spare on, then took Dom’s truck to do some exploring and decided to hunt the hilltop above where he and Aaron had collected three birds earlier in the morning. I had Ila down, as I really wanted her to have a successful Sage Grouse hunt. As we were coming to terms with the hunt turning into a walk with dogs whilst carrying firearms a single grouse flew wild from Dom’s right. Once the grouse had cleared the dogs, he dispatched the bird with a cool dispassionate efficiency. He was done, which was good for him, as he needed to pack up and go home…he had to work in the morning. We had a good laugh over Aaron’s misfortune the morning before. Their hunt took them basically up to my tuck, where they had seen a few grouse land near. They had dropped off some of their surplus gear in my truck, and while they were farting around, Aaron had discovered an interesting perfectly heart shaped rock. He stepped on it and it gave more than he had anticipated, which prompted him to turn in over. This is when he learned I had used said rock to cover my morning expurgation. He was, mortified. This gave Dom and I a hell of a good laugh. Day two ended with a beautiful, but unproductive hike where I ran all three girls in a Hail Mary attempt to pick something up.
I was prepared to leave early to get to Burns to have the truck checked out, after all the steering wheel was rocked nearly a full 90-degrees out of whack. Not an exciting prospect when facing an eight-hour drive home. Jenna and I chatted, and she convinced me to go ahead with the plan to do the short hunt close to camp, if for anything just for the girls to stretch their legs – tomorrow was going to be a long day in the truck for them, in particular if I had to wait to be seen at the Les Schawb there in Burns. The only place in a zillion miles that could be of any help to me.
We set out, and about 30 minutes in I was about to turn back to the tuck to wrap this encounter up and there it was. A single grouse turd. Really. One single grouse turd, old and dried up. All alone. I laughed to myself. Only I would find a single grouse turd. Within a few steps an old roost. Hey, not bad I thought to myself. Then another ten feet, another roost, then another, and another. My hopes began to rise. This had been the most sign I had seen in all the hunting I had done thus far. But where were they? Up to my left a single snowberry bush stood proudly above the sage like a sore thumb. As Fizzy approached it, a single grouse flew wild, and it bombed down and into the ravine to my right. No way for any shooting there, and really there was no way I was going down after it. My brain clicked on, go to the bush! As I did Ila and Rye came around and became birdy. Rye hung around the snowberry, Ila went into tracking mode, head down, tail swishing. She was on ground scent. They were running! A bird flushed wild well out ahead of her. I shot; the bird was down! I was finished. I had done it. I had made it through the difficulties, it was a great feeling to have.
Would I do it again if given the opportunity to do so again, yes, of course. It was an incredible trip, thanks for inviting me Dom!
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I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.