Wild Birds, Wild Places

People walking along a ridge

I checked my brush-battered smartwatch. The pedometer read 14,673 steps, 7.5 miles and the equivalent of 80 stories of elevation. It’s an older model, and its battery was already starting to run low—and so was mine. It’s not that the walking was hard, just that there was quite a bit of it. I’ll confess that my will had started to waver just a bit as our guide, Ryan Aune, and friends Reid Bryant and Kyle Leard with Orvis Adventures easily bounded up the steady incline back to the truck. 

I checked my watch again. It was 11:48. In the morning. On the first day.

The justifications started rolling. A spring bout with Covid had knocked me down longer than expected. Work had been equally taxing, leaving less time and energy for early season conditioning. In less than a day I’d jumped from 240 feet above sea level in New York’s Hudson Valley to 5,000-feet-plus near Cody, Wyoming. I was carrying a gun, ammo and my Canon SLR with a 70-to-210mm lens. Doing some quick math, I figured I was old enough to be Ryan’s father. And, finally, though I’d known that weather in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin (in fact throughout the Cowboy State) could be unpredictable, I had never expected 86° and sunny on September 28. Again, all of these thoughts and doubts by 11:48 am on day one.

But this was what I’d come looking for—big, expansive skies, endless vistas, stunning elevations and, of course, the exquisitely challenging mix of hunting greater sage grouse, chukars, Hungarian partridge and, if we got greedy, blue grouse. And all of it within a day’s drive and in a setting that would make Taylor Sheridan, the creator of Yellowstone, think twice about where to set his next neo-Western series.

It had been more than 20 years since I’d hunted sage grouse and Huns in the West, and I’d been looking to get back ever since. I had been eager to again chase wild and wily birds—the kind that would test even the fittest and most capable wingshooter—so when I’d learned of guide Ryan Aune and his Wyoming Wings & Waters, I’d been intrigued. The truth is that guides like Ryan are as hard to find as mature male sage grouse. After learning his trade through the family business (his father and uncle are both seasoned Wyoming hunting and fishing guides) and sharpening his intellect at Montana State University, graduating in 2016 with a degree in biological sciences, Ryan got to work guiding and investing in his own business. Perhaps launching Wyoming Wings & Waters at the outset of Covid wasn’t ideal, but already Ryan has made a name for himself. Occasionally enlisting his father and a friend as part-time guides, he has earned a coveted Orvis endorsement. He is sensible, earnest, hard-working and incredibly smart. In a world that loves to criticize Millennials, Ryan is a compelling counterpoint. 

Man aiming gun down sights
Wyoming offers the opportunity to hunt a variety of gamebirds in expansive, stunningly beautiful country.

And so on day one, following an early-morning, stomach-size breakfast burrito at The Station, in downtown Cody, we climbed into Ryan’s RAM 1500 and headed out of town. We had decided to try for sage grouse first, so 20 miles north of Cody we veered from the asphalt and began climbing higher and higher, opening and closing cattle gate after cattle gate on a mix of private leases and public land. Our pulses quickened when we saw a covey of 15 or so Huns sneak off the dirt road in front of us and later watched a magnificent 6x6 bull elk climb out of a creek bottom and make haste toward the Absaroka Range and Yellowstone National Park, just 30 miles west.

Around 8 am we began our walk with Ryan’s English setters, Lucy and Lady, quartering in front. We navigated rolling hills covered in a mix of sagebrush and grazed grass, tackling the occasional steep ascent to reach another sage flat. We’d been walking for a little more than a half-hour when Lady snapped on point. We hustled closer, and a lone sage grouse flushed about 30 yards in front of me. As is too often the case, I dithered between mounting my gun and reaching for my camera and ended up watching one unscathed sage hen vigorously and safely fly up and over the nearest ridge. 

Through the sagebrush we continued, the dogs working the draws and occasionally getting birdy and alternately creeping forward. Eventually both locked up, and when a good-size covey of Huns took flight, Reid bagged the first bird of the trip. We continued walking until a covey of about 30 Huns flushed and Reid took a second bird. Then more walking, another covey and, yes, Reid bagging a third Hun. In less than 90 minutes we’d flushed more than 60 Huns and saluted one sage grouse. Satisfied that we’d broken a sweat and started filling Ryan’s game pouch, we returned to the truck and drove a couple of miles down the road.

Hunting dogs and people
Early season warm temperatures on Wyoming's sage flats can sap the energy of hunters and dogs alike.

Then the real walking began behind Ryan’s German shorthaired pointer, Ranger, and a tri-color setter, Doug. At first we climbed comfortably uphill as the sun started to intensify. We flushed a covey of eight Huns as we breached a barbed-wire fence, shooting behind as they sailed downhill. After we’d circled a knob and began a steady descent, both dogs got birdy and began creeping forward. Forty yards out a sage grouse flushed, and I dropped it crossing at about 45 yards. The dogs kept working, and soon another grouse flushed and I folded it at about 35 yards quartering away. Then Kyle’s 20-gauge Caesar Guerini barked, and a young sage grouse dropped at nearly 50 yards. In a heartbeat I had shot my limit and Kyle—an East Coast native who now lives and works in Denver—had bagged his first Western bird. Reid had decided to watch during this portion of the hunt, satisfied to let us try our hands at sage grouse. 

This is probably a good time to talk about the state of sage grouse, which currently are designated a “near-threatened” species. It is estimated that there are 200,000 to 400,000 greater sage grouse in the “sagebrush sea,” an 11-state expanse within the Great Basin. From the eastern boundaries of California, Oregon and Washington to the western portions of North and South Dakota, the birds are facing a series of threats from invasive grasses, changing wildfire patterns, livestock and, of course, land development. In the midst of it all Wyoming is something of a stronghold for the bird, the state holding, according to some estimates, 38 percent of the world’s population. Although wildlife biologists differ on the belief that sage grouse numbers rise and fall on a six- to eight-year cycle, in 2022, after a downward five-year trend, the Wyoming Game & Fish Department estimated that the number of leks—areas where sage grouse congregate and mate in the spring—were up 6 percent from 2021.  

The fact that Wyoming has carefully stewarded this charismatic bird along with the uptick in bird counts had convinced me that this would be an ethical hunt. The season lasts all of 14 days within two of the state’s four hunting zones. Daily limits are two birds, with a total of four in possession. With my two and Kyle’s single, we felt satisfied and began the long, uphill climb to the truck, looking for Huns along the way. The trek proved productive, as we came upon a small covey on the edge of a steep draw. Four flushed, and I dropped one. Shortly thereafter we found a large covey of at least 25 birds that I was content to let Reid and Kyle chase over hill and dale, as my legs had started burning and the heat had begun taking its toll.

Eventually we made it back to the truck, and Kyle laid out a lunch of antelope summer sausage followed by a delicious creamy potato chukar stew. Although it was only a little after 1 pm, the heat, exertion, birds in the bag and knowing we had a two-hour drive back to the motel left us all feeling satisfied that we’d logged a successful first day. 

With Kyle having departed for a wedding back East, Ryan, Reid and I decided to mix up our second and final day of hunting. I’d never had a chance to chase wild chukars, and Ryan boasted about the healthy and relatively easy walking the area offered. After a 5 am wakeup and a 50-mile drive to an area east of Cody, the three of us piled out of the truck and looked out over an immense vista of the Bighorn Basin. As far as the eye could see was the floor of what had been the vast Western Interior Waterway, splitting North America during the Late Cretaceous and Earliest Paleocene eras (as many as 100 million years ago). And now as we gazed miles across the expanse, we strained to find—and thankfully couldn’t—a single sign of human development.

We began the walk, starting high and descending toward the floor of the basin, as we watched Lucy and Lady work a series of step washouts. It wasn’t long before they were on point, and Reid dropped a single chukar as I tried in vain to capture hunter and quarry in the same photographic frame. Repositioning, we continued, Reid keeping a rapid pace to remain near the dogs. His effort paid off with a single and then a pair of chukars. Just as I was beginning to wonder if I would bag a bird, both dogs went on point. And when the covey of about 10 gray birds got up and swept down the draw, I swung with it and connected on my first wild chukar. 

man with bird
Guide Ryan Aune—shown here with a sage grouse—has earned a reputation for being hard-working and knowledgeable.

Feeling heartened by our success and realizing that it was still only 10:30, we weighed the options for how to end our hunt. We could keep chasing chukars, confident that we’d continue finding coveys along the slope, or we could, as mentioned earlier, get “greedy.” Blue grouse could be found in the Bighorns farther east. It was a risky call, and Ryan warned that the odds were low. It wasn’t an ideal time for blues, plus it was a decent drive to the hunting area. But in the end the chance to add another species to the bag was simply too tantalizing.

And so away we went—cruising mile after mile of gravel roads, with antelope, jack rabbits and mule deer appearing regularly. By 12:30 we had gained a few thousand feet of elevation and were in the conifers of the Bighorns’ alpine ecosystem. It had been a stunning transformation—from ancient seabed to thin mountain air in a matter of an hour or so.

We ate a leisurely lunch of pulled-chukar burritos while taking in the mountain pastures dotted with grazing cattle. Then we began climbing . . . and climbing . . . up through the magical forest chasing what ultimately proved to be an unattainable bird. That afternoon we had to settle for empty game pouches as we picked our way downhill. Still we were thrilled with what we had accomplished: in less than 36 hours three species of wild gamebirds in thoroughly wild places. 

Ryan Aune operates Wyoming Wings & Waters out of Worland, Wyoming. Guests can book a hunt that includes lodging or take care of their own accommodations. Either way, most hunters stay in or near Cody, which is home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and an eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. We opted to stay in the town of Ten Sleep, even though it meant more drive time during our hunt. Ryan handles meals in the field, often utilizing wild game, with other meals eaten at local restaurants. While the walking is not overly strenuous, hunters should be in reasonably good condition and have quality boots. For more information, visit wyomingwingsandwaters.com.

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