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2002 2022
Geez, It’s Been 20 Years, Candy October 2022
Dan Martinez  

I was not drawn for any fall big game hunts this year. A fall hunt of some sort every year has been so much a regular part of my life for so long, that a fall without a hunt just seems weird. To remedy that situation, I once again signed up for another “Small Game Challenge” with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

This time it was the “Mountain Small Game Challenge”. That consists of taking five of seven of the following species: Cottontail rabbit, Red squirrel, Abert’s squirrel, Kaibab squirrel, Chukar, Bandtail Pigeon, and Blue Grouse. I figured that the four furry creatures would be easily achievable, but that getting one or more of the birds would be the bigger challenge. Of the three birds, I chose to focus on the grouse, since I had at least seen Blue Grouse over my hunting career. I had never seen Chukar or Bandtail Pigeon.

In my quest for a grouse this year, I took two trips up to the Hannigan Meadow area, and one trip to the North Kaibab Plateau. I enjoyed the camping and the hiking, but didn’t catch even one glimpse of a grouse in the Hannigan Meadow area. However, I did tag (figuratively) my mountain cottontail and a Red squirrel on those trips.

For at least Kaibab squirrel and Chukar, I knew that a trip to the North Kaibab would be required. Since I still did not yet have a Blue Grouse under my belt, I decided to head to the highest elevation area of the Plateau because I knew that Blue Grouse lived there. It was on a turkey hunt there with my boys, 20 years ago, that Sam was able to take a Blue Grouse at age 8.

Though I had been back to the Kaibab several times since then, I had never again camped in that part of the Plateau. 20 years later, I didn’t even know exactly where we camped. But with a little Google Earth sleuthing, I was able to make a good guess. I remembered enough about the surroundings of the camp, the roads, the nearby meadows, to figure out where we camped.

Sam is now out of the Army and is living in St. Paul, MN, working for the 3M company. Older son Ben still lives nearby, here in AZ. Ben volunteered to go up to the Kaibab with me to help find grouse, Chukar, and/or Kaibab squirrel.

We put the two-seater quad ATV in the bed of the truck and hitched up the A-Frame camping trailer to the rear. The plan was one day of driving up, three days of trying to find critters, and one day of driving home.

After a long drive, we following some GPS breadcrumbs through the forest and arrived at our camp spot of 20 years ago. Despite having been there only once before, so long ago, I was able to immediately recognize it. It was a good feeling to be back here.

20 years ago, the boys and I were exploring, cruising the nearby dim forest road in our Polaris Ranger, when we were surprised by two grouse in the road about 75 yards in front of us. I immediately stopped the UTV.

Ben and I both had turkey tags, but Sam was still too young to hunt “big game”. This was the perfect opportunity to let Sam join-in on the hunt. We pulled out Ben’s short-barreled 20 gauge Mossberg turkey gun, and let Sam stalk forward for the grouse.

As Sam snuck forward, the grouse walked into the forest on the left side of the road. We hung back and watched Sam take the turn from the road, then lost sight of him behind the trees. BLAM! Sam soon emerged with grouse in-hand!

It worked before, so this was our grouse-finding plan for 2022. Instead of using the Polaris Ranger though, we brought the two-seater Polaris Sportsman ATV this time.

On the morning of the first full day of hunting, we took off from camp and started rolling down the road at about 7 MPH. After travelling about a half mile, we saw a grouse-size bird lift up from the road in front of us and fly into the forest! We stopped the ATV, piled off, grabbed the shotgun and went in pursuit. When spooked, grouse will often fly up into a nearby tree and just watch you from their “safe space”. We were not able to find that bird.

Grouse Camp 2022

On the morning of day two, we repeated the plan. We got all the way out to the end of the road, a distance over 2½ miles, then turned around. About half-way back, it happened again! This time we saw three birds lift up off the road. Two flew into the forest on the right side of the road, and one flew up into a tall Ponderosa on the left side of the road.

I grabbed the shotgun and started stalking forward. I turned around and asked Ben to grab the scoped 10/22. I needed the optics to verify what I was looking at up in the tree. After looking at the bird through the scope, we were convinced it was a grouse. I continued walking forward, but the bird was starting to dance around up there on the branch. He was looking like he was getting nervous. I pulled up the shotgun and released a swarm of #6 shot! A cloud of feathers started drifting down, and we were able to see the bird drop about half way down the tree until he was obscured by the foliage of other branches. The bottom line is that we were not able to find him at the base of the tree, nor stuck up in the tree. We searched for a good 20 minutes.

Day three was luckless both for grouse and Kaibab squirrel. The chukar canyons were a good 25 to 30 miles away, and we never went there on this trip. Despite the lucklessness of the trip and season, I still got the opportunity to get out into the hunting fields this Fall hunting season with family. That’s really what it’s all about.

Looking back at the photos from 20 years ago got me wondering what happened to those little guys that were with me back then. If you have young ones, cherish your time with them. Time moves quicker than you think.

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