By: Randy Tucker
We sometimes call them “blue bombers,” but I’ve declared a personal moratorium on hunting Wyoming sage grouse. These magnificent denizens of the prairie have been in sharp decline over the last decade or so.
Depending on your political viewpoint, their decrease has been caused by global warming, habitat infringement, or the unpredictable cycle of drought and recovery that has dominated the Wyoming climate since records were first taken back in the early days of the 19th century at places like Ft. Laramie and Ft. Bridger.
Whatever the cause, the birds are in distress.
Wyoming remains one of the most beautiful places on earth. We locals wish to keep it that way, but the stark bounty, isolation, and endless horizons are the stuff of dreams.
Sage grouse were plentiful just a couple of decades ago, and I was a regular hunter of the “prairie chicken” (another name we give these durable birds).
As a college kid, we’d load up in my 1969 Rambler American, and in my senior year, a 1978 Ford Fairmont, and head north towards Medicine Bow. There were areas of the Shirley Basin north of Rock River and east of Medicine Bow that had plentiful leks, or a sage grouse nesting area.
My trusty 1916 single-shot 12-gauge Iver Johnson shotgun was the perfect choice for taking sage grouse on the open plains of eastern Wyoming.
There isn’t much cover, and sage grouse are cagey birds. Like any large bird, such as turkeys, they prefer to run rather than fly, but they can quickly flush, followed by a controlled glide up to 200 yards away before they return to earth.
With a full choke, the fullest I’ve ever encountered, the Iver could reach a long way. Shooting two-shot lead pellets, I had my three bird limit in just a few minutes. My college roommate Frank, an outdoorsman from the wilds of southern Minnesota and later, North Dakota, used a pump action 16-gauge that worked almost as well.
We quickly discovered the best eating birds were either hens or the young roosters. Some of the larger roosters had meat with a bluish tint, hence our “blue bomber” terminology. It took special preparation to get these older birds palatable, but palatable they were.
The University of Wyoming was a rough and tumble college when we attended. There wasn’t much room for the political correctness wrecking the world, and from the kids I speak with attending school there today, there still isn’t.
UW was a small school of just 8,000 students in those days. Frank and I gained a reputation as the guys to ask if you wanted to go hunting and fishing. The majority of students on campus were from back east, California, or Arab, Korean, Indonesian, and Filipino engineering majors. The foreign kids weren’t into hunting that much, but the Americans traveling to the high plains on the foothills of the Rockies were drawn to the romantic image of the Old West. We tried to keep those dreams alive as we took scads of novice hunters and fishermen out in the wonderful Rocky Mountain wilderness just a few minutes’ drive from the center of the campus.
Those were my salad days. Unencumbered by the golden handcuffs of deadlines and commitments, the world was my own. The path was up to me, and as a 20-something, I was arrogant, aggressive, and sure of my physical abilities to a fault. I miss those days.
During my senior year, an incoming freshman from California named Dwight stopped me one afternoon on the way to class. He was a defensive end on the Cowboy football team, but he’d taken a scholarship to Laramie for the hunting and fishing, not the football. Dwight wanted to hunt.
Frank and I took Dwight to the narrow canal connecting Lake Hattie, with a smaller unnamed lake adjacent to it. Dwight had a double-barreled 12-gauge, not the best choice for bird hunting, but the kid was accurate with it.
We all limited out on a mixed bag of green-winged mallard drakes, redhead drakes, and a couple of mergansers. Dwight was ecstatic; this was why he came to frigid, 7,200 foot high Laramie from the warmth of California’s Mediterranean climate.
Dwight suited up for home games, but didn’t play his freshman year. One home game, we sat close to the Cowboy sideline to watch the game. Dwight saw us in the stands and made eye contact, but didn’t wave or say anything. That was a big no-no back in those days.
One drunken idiot next to us noticed Dwight’s number, 98, and began heckling him. “Hey 98, you must really suck not to get into this one,” the clown said.
The Cowboys were getting pounded by San Diego State that afternoon.
Dwight turned around and stared at the guy.
“What are you looking at moron,” the drunk yelled.
We let this guy abuse Dwight for a few minutes, then I leaned over to him and said, “He’s memorizing your face buddy.”
That took the guy back a bit, but he soon began hounding Dwight again.
Jump ahead four hours, and Frank, Dwight, and I were squeezed into a booth on the second floor of the legendary Buckhorn Bar between 2nd and 3rd Street in downtown Laramie.
Dwight was barely legal in those days at 19.
As we downed a few draft beers and talked about another duck hunting trip the following morning, Dwight got agitated and yelled at us, “Hey you guys, move, get out of my way.”
We had no idea what the big kid was up to, but we slid out of the booth.
He walked across the bar near the stairs and drove a haymaker punch right into some guy’s forehead, right between the eyes.
The guy fell back, rolled down the stairs, and didn’t come back.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“That’s the clown that was working me over at the game,” Dwight said. “What time are you guys picking me up tomorrow morning?”
That was it: frontier justice in an era when a big mouth could get you a big fist punched in it.
No reporters, no grief counselors, no network news talking heads lamenting the demise of the American college student, just a guy getting what he asked for from a kid who’d had enough.
We picked Dwight up at 5 am the next morning and had our decoys set before dawn. If I remember correctly, we limited out again.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.