Upland Game Bird Hunting in California: Oregon Sage Grouse
If you’re a Sage Grouse Hunter or aspiring to be a SGH California is a tough place to start, considering California Department of Fish and Wildlife has kept their sage grouse season closed for at least the last two years. And in the past when it has been open it has been nearly impossible to get a permit to hunt sage grouse. Both California and Oregon along with most western states require a person to apply for and then draw a sage grouse permit. But in California out CDFW waits until midway through August to decide if they are going to have a sage grouse hunt. This is done after they have gathered all their information from grouse counts and other gathered information. Then after they announce that they are going to conduct the drawing and when the deadline and then wait for you to put in for the hunt. Then after the deadline they announce that they are canceling sage grouse season due to low grouse numbers or wildfires in the grouse habitat. The truth is CDFW has been trying for years to close sage grouse season permanently due to complaints from activist groups and many hunters who allege that there are not enough sage grouse left in California, and California is not alone. These same groups and activists have been pushing their hatred of hunting in every state and as long as they use the word “endangered” every politician and wildlife official immediately cowers to them without questioning their information or relying on facts.
In truth the sage grouse population in California has taken a hit. There are multiple factual reasons why including loss of habitat due to human encroachment and loss of habitat due to wildfires. Unfortunately, the people they send out to count the sage grouse are often people with little to no field experience and they are not hunters with the skills necessary to locate the birds. One study back a few year ago was relying on college students studying wildlife, who had gone out and looked for birds and had only found a few so fish and wildlife felt that the population was declining. Sage Grouse are a tough bird to locate and when you do you could see one bird or fifty at a time in one group. I do know this much, if a group of people of any age get out of a vehicle and slam the doors, start chatting and wonder off away from the roads with their clanking metal water bottles while wearing their school colors they are not going to see many bird, but that’s just my “two cents”.
Its just my opinion that if you want to try and find Sage Grouse you are going to have to hunt another state other than California. I’m not saying not to put in for the California hunts, I am saying that in addition to the California hunts, put in for other states as well. Both Oregon and Nevada have healthy populations of Sage Grouse. Nevada is the place to go, but the problem with Nevada is that everyone else in California that wants to shoot a sage grouse usually go to Nevada, so you do have a lot of competition. The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is a draw area for Sage Grouse and hold a significant number of birds, but you will have to work for them.
Oregon is a sleeper for Sage Grouse. Most people think of Oregon as being covered in moss and more likely to produce Sasquatch than Sage Grouse, but Eastern Oregon almost feels like a completely different state than Western Oregon. It’s the western edge of the great basin and starting around the Bend heading east the terrain becomes broken and you end up with huge sage brush flats. By the time you travel to Burns and then down to Lakeview you end up with miles of sage flats and endless public land where these birds live almost undisturbed.
All sage grouse hunting in Oregon is by Special Permit. You apply in late July early August and the season is in September. There are plenty of permits available and although they are a draw permit, they are fairly easy to draw every other year or so. I have applied for the J74 permit 3 times and drawn twice. J74 is the area east of Lakeview Oregon off Hwy 140. This area is very good for Sage Grouse hunting but the zone is huge and hard to comprehend and somewhat overwhelming as are all of the Sage Grouse zones in Oregon. I have no problem with being specific as to where I hunt so here it goes. I hunt the BLM land east of Lakeview off the northside of HWY 140 between Plush Creek and Adel. Here you will find Crump Reservoir 42.223246, -119.998375 this is more of a damp spot than a reservoir.
No matter where you hunt Sage Grouse you must three things as a minimum. And this is a very minimum. You will have to locate Sage brush, Junipers for shade and water. If you don’t have Junipers you need some area for the birds to shade up during the day. This could be very thick high sage brush, willows or other trees or a north facing cliff or terrain change that provides shade. Like any animal heat kills and they must be able to cool off during the midday sun and although you may see some out in the middle of nowhere in the midday sun, you will find more of them near sage, water and shade.
Sage Grouse Tactics
The truth is, the hardest part of hunting Sage Grouse is finding them. Most people drive or walk right past them. They blend in with the sage so well that it is very hard to spot them if they are just standing still.
When your hunting these tricky birds you kind of need to decide what you want to shoot before you pull the trigger because you have two different ages of grouse you are hunting, yearlings or this year’s birds and all of the rest. A yearling is only about the size of a hen pheasant and looks similar. An adult is nearly as big as a small turkey and most people who don’t know any better would see one along the side of the road or sitting in the top of sage brush and just think it’s a grey looking hawk of some sort and not even realize they were looking at a Sage Grouse. If it’s your first time hunting them you would do your self well to look online and study Sage Grouse photos of grouse feeding or resting, not the ones all plumaged out and strutting or fighting with each other. They look completely different than one hauling tail feathers to get away from shotgunner.
This is what I like to do when I hunt Sage Grouse. I usually arrive before day break and stop about a mile or so before the area that I want to hunt. I get all suited up about a mile from where I’m hunting because all birds have great hearing and vision, so I get the noisy stuff out of the way before I start walking. I also do this when pheasant hunting. I get my vest on, put the dog collar on (on the dog not me), I make sure I have plenty of water at least twice the amount I take on a pheasant hunt for me and my dog and I only wear orange if its required by law. There is very seldom another hunter near you when Sage Grouse hunting and I’m telling you these birds can see! Then the dog and I slip back in the truck and creep down the road to the spot I want to hunt. We get out quietly and load the gun and start moving we stay in the junipers and walk the edges of the water holes until we pop up a bird. If it’s a creek bed or a small trickle of water I will do the same thing working the creek with the wind in the dog’s face and never at its back.
The first things Sage Grouse will do at sunrise is go to water. They are almost always within eye sight of a water source. By eye sight I mean their eyesight not yours, and although adult Sage Grouse do not need free flowing water for day to day survival when fresh green succulents are available, they will be found around water when the water is available and when the weather is hot and dry and there are no green succulents.
If I an going to be targeting a water source I don’t usually arrive at the source early. I wait about an hour after sunrise for the birds to get up and start moving. Also, the birds camping near or on that water source will see you in the area before they travel to it and they will just go a different direction. I also enter the area quietly no whistle blowing or bossing my dog around. She will walk at a heal or just a few feet out, when she gets the scent, she will be on them and I would rather they pop up close than fifty yards out.
If after an hour or two of beating the sage if I haven’t scattered birds, I will find a high spot in the shade and let the dog rest and glass for birds. I have spotted literally hundreds of Sage Grouse this way. They are very active in the morning and look like rabbits out wondering around in a group. Then when I spot them a make a very direct attack on them because if they spot you approaching, they will run or fly off.
In the middle of the day I like to find myself in camp under a tree with a cold one and a tired sleeping dog or driving around with the air-conditioner on scouting for an evening hunt. During Sage Grouse season it doesn’t make a lot of sense to hunt in the middle of the day. It is just too hot, instead save your energy and your dogs energy for an evening hunt. It will be more productive than midday.
When I hunt Sage Grouse, I use a 12 gauge with 3 inch #2 or 3 inch #3 in waterfowl loads that are non-toxic. If I was using lead, I would use #4. I prefer Heavy Shot only because it really breaks them down at long distance and most your Sage Grouse are up and out before your dog gets to them.
Speaking of dogs. When your hunting Sage Grouse or any hot weather bird with your dog don’t be too hard on them. One of the indictors of heat exhaustion in dogs and humans is confusion or disorientation. When a bird dog gets too hot, exhausted or dehydrated the loose some of their ability to detect scent (confusion) and will often walk within inches of a bird and not detect it or have trouble detecting it. If you notice this or any other signs of heat exhaustion shut down the hunt. Its not worth your dog’s health.