Out West, one of the oldest traditions of big game hunting is harvesting the occasional grouse when hunting for antlered game is slow. You could say that grouse are an elk hunter’s consolation prize.
Previously, I never thought much about how I went about killing those birds; I just used whatever weapon was at hand—often just a rock or stick. So, imagine my surprise when I learned I had been breaking the law ever since I moved to Montana decades ago.
Here’s Montana’s law, under legal methods of take for forest grouse: “Blue, Ruffed and Franklin’s Grouse may be taken with a shotgun not larger than a ten gauge; a long, recurve, or compound bow and arrow; a crossbow; or a firearm. All other means of taking are prohibited.”
I checked with Warden Captain Lee Anderson: “There are legal means of take that have been defined, and killing one with a rock is not a legal means of take. It has been that way for as long as I can remember,” he said.
“While the use of rocks for grouse is something that has been going on since I was kid, it is technically not a legal means of take. I am not aware of anyone being cited for this violation; however, it is illegal.”
Turns out hunting with rocks started nearly 2 million years before Lee and I were born. But hold that thought.
Montana’s rock-throwing ban is not universal. I grew up in Idaho, where the regs clearly allow “slingshot or hand-thrown missile” along with arrows, shotguns, and rifles for forest grouse. Colorado regulations allow air rifles and slingshots for blue grouse and ptarmigan, but don’t mention throwing items by arm. Other states vary widely on this practice, with many prohibiting rock throwing.
If you are unfamiliar with Rocky Mountain forest grouse, including dusky, sooty, ruffed, and spruce grouse, let me elaborate. First off, grouse are tasty. The only valid reason to kill a grouse is to eat it. And there’s nothing better to eat on a cold night in the backcountry.
Second, forest grouse dwelling in more remote locations are often dubbed “fool hens,” and for good reason. How foolish are they? I’ve had them peck at my shoelaces. The common defensive moves deep-woods grouse facing a predator make are to either remain motionless or hop onto a low branch then remain motionless. These tricks may be effective against lynx and goshawks, perhaps, but not people, which leads to a wide variety of methods of take.
Here are some common methods of incidentally harvesting grouse on an elk hunt that are legal in Montana. Make sure to check your state’s regulations.
- .22 caliber handgun.
- Shooting the bird’s head off with a large-caliber rifle.
- An arrow, commonly one tipped with a judo or bludgeon tip, specifically placed in the quiver for that purpose.
- Decapitation by .410 shotgun.
Here are others I have tried, which are illegal in Montana:
- An air-powered pellet rifle or handgun.
- Slingshot. The internet sells high tech varieties, but folks also make them with a stick and a piece of inner tube, using rocks or ball bearings for ammo.
- Bolas, a primitive South American weapon made of two weights connected by a string that is twirled and thrown like a lasso. I made one out of lug nuts and paracord. It works, but you have to be careful you don’t knock your own head.
- Throwing rocks.
- Throwing sticks.
- Whacking with sticks.
- Grabbing the birds with your hands.
The fact is, it’s hard to get more traditional than procuring protein with a rock.
Archaeologists tell us archery is perhaps 10,000 years old, maybe older. Atlatls were invented about 30,000 years ago. Spears are a good bit older, perhaps 250,000 years old. For perspective, anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens, are only about 200,000 years old.
Before true spears were invented, some 400,000 years ago our hominid ancestors hunted game with blunt throwing sticks, that were basically clubs with both ends pointed. These were evidently hurled at small game to kill them outright or large game to drive them towards traps or cliffs. The fact that sticks were tapered at both ends suggests that these hunters had a rudimentary understanding of ballistic co-efficiency.
But even throwing sticks are high tech compared to stones. Research suggests that early Hominid prototypes of humans began collecting and throwing rocks at animals approximately 1.8 million years ago.
Anthropologists have found piles of uniformly small, round stones piled up next to the butchered remains of Ice Age animals going back 1.8 million years to the time of Homo erectus. According to theory, feisty bands of these short pre-humans would use rocks to drive lions, hyenas, and saber-toothed cats off their kills in order to usurp the meat.
This evolved into a long line of communal hunting patterns that we still recognize among humans today. In essence, a bullet is simply a rock we have figured out how to hurl at 3,000 feet per second.
The anti-rock throwing law ends a hunting tradition dating back about a bajillion hunting seasons, but perhaps the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission is right and we should leave some primitive weapons to the history books.