Both dogs worked together, then separated. Echo went on point where I’d last seen two quail, while Kona worked around the backside of the giant debris pile.
I approached Echo, but no birds flushed. I called her off and we went around the pile which towered more than 30-feet into the sky, and instantly, she joined Kona on rigid point.
As I began to shoulder the gun and inch forward, three blue bombers shot out from the pile. I dropped the first bird in the middle of a tall patch of dead, brown fireweed. I missed the second shot but lucked out on the third just as the bird sped into the fringe of a Douglas fir forest.
It was a great moment, adding to the blue and ruffed grouse we’d already collected in Oregon’s Cascade Range that morning. We took a quick water break then dropped into elevation, hoping to round-out the day with some valley quail. However, the bird that’s usually the easiest to find of the fabled four eluded us.
I grew up hunting the western slopes of the Cascades, a place that, along with the heavily forested Coast Range, holds four prized upland birds: blue grouse, ruffed grouse, mountain quail, and valley quail. Over the decades, I’ve taken all four species in a single day only a handful of times. To be honest, such an accomplishment requires more luck than skill, but knowing it could happen on any given day is what keeps calling me back.
Game Bird Distribution
Both the Cascade Mountains and Coast Range run through Washington, Oregon, and northern California. While blue and ruffed grouse, mountain and valley quail live in all three states, Oregon has solid populations of all four birds with a lot of public land hunting opportunities.
Typically, you’ll find valley quail at lower elevations, ruffed grouse from creek bottoms to the high peaks, and mountain quail and blue grouse from mid to high elevations. That said, don’t be surprised to find valley quail above 2,500 feet, especially if newly logged units provide food and cover. It’s not uncommon to find both quail subspecies in the same place, especially as winter approaches and mountain quail drop in elevation.
Ruffed grouse are largely homebody birds in both mountain ranges. They love lowland river and creek habitats, but also thrive in dense, 10- to 15-year-old stands of Douglas fir. Prime ruffed habitat consists of thick cover bordering semi-open terrain with a nearby creek. These classic riparian zones also hold good numbers of valley quail.
The strain of blue grouse occupying lands from the Cascades to the Coast are the sooty, while parts of eastern Oregon hold dusky blue grouse. Many sooty hunters begin the search at the 2,500-foot elevation point. However, in recent years I’ve been seeing more blues at lower elevations than ever before and have taken several birds between 500 and 750 feet in elevation.
“In western Oregon, we’re finding sooty grouse prefer older stands of Douglas fir timber situated near clearcuts,” shares Kelly Walton, Assistant Game Bird Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re also finding a surprising number of sooty grouse occupying very rugged terrain that’s been disturbed by landslides, logging, even wildfires. Where a disturbance creates an opening in steep country, and is near habitat that holds food, water and cover, we’re finding a good number of blues, but the big timber is key.”
Of all the blue grouse I’ve taken in the past 20 years in the Cascades and Coast Range, every one has been within 200 yards of 30- to 40-year-old stands of Douglas fir; most coming within 100 yards of the tall trees. According to Walton, blue grouse will occupy different habitats across their range based on food availability.
“Early in the season, insects make up a large part of all the birds’ diets, so spend time in open areas where bugs thrive near favorable habitats grouse and quail feel safe in,” Walton continues. Walton has one year-left in a three-year sooty study that could be setting the stage for all states that play home to these birds and are looking for ways to learn more about them.
“Our spring hooting surveys the past two years are an extension of one that began 10 years ago, and what we’re finding through the use of recent acoustic recordings is very enlightening, and positive.” With another year to go in the study and loads of data to be analyzed, details aren’t ready for release.
Hunting Seasons and Strategies
Western Oregon’s grouse and quail season opens September 1 and the first six weeks of the season are your best chances for a quadfecta. Early in the season, insects, clover, grass, grass seeds, and a mix of berries are food sources to key in on.
If looking for quality, well-plumed birds to mount—especially mountain quail and sooty grouse—the middle of October marks the start of prime-time. However, this is when the hunting gets hard for the two blue bombers most hunters seek; you might be hard pressed to even find a blue grouse after November 1, though the season runs through the end of January. This is a time when blue grouse transition to feeding in Douglas fir trees, feasting on new growth. “The blue grouse are still out there, they’re just hard to find because they’re so spread out amid the forest,” Walton says.
Mountain quail are also abundant but hard to locate as the season progresses. “Both male and female mountain quail incubate a nest, and when they hatch, they join as a family unit,” notes Walton. “They’ll even join other family units. These birds can hold so tight, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
It doesn’t take long for coveys of mountain quail to grow wise, and with big game hunters in the woods starting in August, pressured birds simply hold tighter as human encounters rise through the fall. Logged units, burns, brushy roadsides, and spur roads overgrown with tall, dry grass are places to focus hunting efforts. “Mountain quail really love shrubs that come up right after a wildfire,” points out Walton. “So do valley quail.”
Most hunters drive roads in search of birds, then turn the dogs loose. The edges of logging roads are places all four species can be found in the morning and evening, gathering food as well as grit. Gated roads that allow non-motorized access are some of my favorite habitats to hunt. I like taking off on a mountain bike, letting the dogs work ahead. Electric bikes are another option, and they’re quiet. This is big country so don’t expect to go out and shoot all four birds in a day. It’s not uncommon to go a week or more without seeing a single mountain quail or blue grouse. Ruffs and valley quail are encountered much more frequently. With these birds it’s all about covering ground and putting in time.
If you’re fit to hike and your dogs can cover ground, focus efforts along old cat roads—rudimentary roads that were punched into the forest to access logging sites. If located near older stands of timber and logged units, these crude roads can hold all four species of birds. Don’t waste time hiking up and down mountains, as you could spend weeks, even months, looking for birds. Instead, focus on hiking along the edge of ridgelines that have broken habitat, be it meadows, avalanches, burns or logging. “If you don’t see birds, it doesn’t mean they’re not there,” offers Walton. “In some areas, mornings are better than evenings, and vise versa.”
Ruffed grouse, valley quail and blue grouse hold very well for a dog. The only scent I’ve seen get a dog more wound up than that of blue grouse is a turkey. Early in the season, blue grouse hang close together as they feed. These are big birds that leave a lot of scent. I started hunting early season blue grouse with Kona when he was 12 weeks old, and he tracked and stuck points on these birds multiple times.
Catch a mountain quail in logged units with brush and slash piles they can escape to, and they’ll hold. Come upon them on dense forest fringes and you’ll be lucky to get a shot, let alone a look, even with good dogs.
Watch Out for Wildfires
No matter where you choose to embark upon a do-it-yourself forest slam, do the research before leaving home. As I write these words in early August, there are 15 wildfires burning out of control in Oregon’s Douglas County. Douglas County is perhaps the best place to achieve the forest quadfecta.
There are also hundreds of thousands of acres of prime upland forest habitat still closed to public access due to recent wildfires. But don’t let that discourage you, as there are plenty of excellent places to hunt all four species of birds at once in the Cascades and Coast Range.
Finding Forestland to Hunt
Oregon’s Southwest Coast, from Coos Bay to the California border, has been solid for years, and there are good public lands to hunt near Central Point, Roseburg, and around Mount Hood. Before packing your bags, however, call regional fish and wildlife in the state and regions you’d like to hunt, seeking the latest information on bird trends, wildfire offices, and access information. These elements can change from season to season, even day to day in the early weeks of hunting season, so stay flexible as there will always be a place to hunt.
The Ultimate Public Land Guide
Another option is purchasing a private timber company access permit. Most of these, like those offered by Weyerhaeuser, offer year-round access. If serious about tagging all four upland species—especially blue grouse and mountain quail—it might be worth the investment to get one of these permits and hunt every day for a couple weeks straight. Camping is allowed in many of these areas, making pitching a tent easy, economical, and an enjoyable way to see some breathtaking land.
Whether you’re an addicted upland bird hunter looking to check off a bucket list species, or simply yearn for a unique experience, consider heading to the Northwest. After more than 45 years of pursuing these forest gems, it’s still one my most eagerly anticipated bird seasons of the year, with good reason