The Legend of the Sage Hen Hat


I let the arrow fly quicker than I thought I could. The grouse, a big sage hen tom, had busted up directly in front of me at about 20 yards. My arrow flew a little right but came remarkably close to hitting the bird. Then I watched as my arrow sailed from one hilltop to the other. But my shot was close enough to get my hopes up, I was hoping to finally be able to create a Sage Hen Hat.

Now, to be clear, I do not have a weird fascination with crypto-taxidermy. I am not making some weird form of clown costume.  What I do want to do is create a custom piece of camouflage out of sage hen feathers. That’s not weird, right? Stick with me here…

In the canyon lands that I call my home sage hen frequent the gully washed valleys and so do the mule deer. I creep below the lip of the gully, using its elevation change as one of the only forms of cover. Generally, when I hunt those washes, I can get within fifty or so yards from the deer before I am busted. Stick bow in hand the deer scatter before I even knock an arrow.

It is not the wind that signals my presence to the deer. It is not my camo. It is not my stalking skills. I am usually busted because the top of my damn head has to peer over the rim of the wash to check the location of the deer. No matter the face mask or the camo makeup I were deer do not like the shape of a human head next to them.

It was after one of those busted stalks, perhaps around the campfire with a little firewater, that my father came up with the idea of a sage hen hat. You see a deer is not frightened by a sage hen. In fact they are best buds out in the desert. The Leks, breeding grounds and common meeting locations for the birds, are ideal watering holes and food sources for deer. Hell, I shot a deer with my bow one time over the top of a flock of sage hen. We conceived the idea that a sage hen would not make the deer nervous allowing us to peek over the top of the rim. Basically, use a dead bird as a decoy on my head so I could shoot more deer. Good idea, right?

Look, I know for about a week a year this is quite possibly the worst idea ever. I have no intentions on getting shot by a fellow sage hen hunter. But, I think this hat idea has legs – so to speak.

To make a sage hen hat I first needed a sage hen. In Idaho the season is only a few days long and the bag limit is one per day. Add to that I have a huge head, like cannot find a cowboy hat that fits my dome without a special order sized melon. So a little yearling sage hen would not work. I needed a big tom for my hat.

Blasting a grouse that I plan to use for camo during archery season with my 16 gauge sounded a little cheap. So, I clearly need to shoot the bird with my bow. With a plan hatched I headed out with my buddy Hank and my brother Kris.

As we reached the bottom of the gully, that often holds birds, Hank dusted a nice yearling hen. One shot, one kill. I quickly surveyed the area and charged directly up a sage coved hill. Tom sage grouse do not hang out with the main flock. They tend to hold 50 to 100 yards out from the group. Often in pairs. As a father I understand this urge to let the kids play while I hang out with a buddy at a short distance off. These birds are kind of like my spirit animal in that way. In that same vein the toms will be 4-5 times the size of a yearling – nearly the size of a hen turkey.

I nocked an arrow as I got closer to an open grassy area. A bird will bust before he runs through grass most times. Then I waited.

Being dog-less in the desert means you need to learn patience when hunting grouse. They will often hide, feet from you, and let you walk right by. A good vantage and some patience can lead to a flush that might not have otherwise happened. This was the case with my bird, but alas I missed.

The next morning I awoke up before sunrise, grabbed my 16 gauge and slipped out of my tent to a nearby pond. Grouse often get a drink first thing in the morning. I waited. Then eventually as more light came the rocks around the pond began to move – the rocks were grouse. As the first rays cracked over the top of the mountains behind me I dusted a small yearling for the pot.

The hat will have to wait until next year.



This recipe calls for ground grouse. Sounds odd, right? But what about all those grouse legs? It is a shame to just toss them, unethical really. Or those breasts that are shot up a little too much? I use those for the ground grouse. It might take a small rabbit or something else to be added to bulk up the meat if you only have a single grouse day. Like most of my grouse hunting days are…

Grouse Meatballs with Elderberry and Red Wine BBQ


1 pound ground grouse

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1 egg

1 teaspoon cumin

1 small onion, diced fine

1 teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon red chili flake

½ ear corn, kernels removed from the husk (about ½ cup)

Salt and Pepper

Pan Spray

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Add all the ingredients, except pan spray, into a medium sized mixing bowl. Mix all very well by hand. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls.

Spray a cookie sheet with pan spray and place the meatballs on the tray. Space them about 1-inch apart.  Bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through.

Wash the mixing bowl. Add the meatballs back into the bowl when they are done cooking. Add about ½ the elderberry BBQ sauce (see below) to the bowl, gently toss to coat them all. Place meatballs on a tray, garnish with the remaining sauce. Serve.

Elderberry Red Wine BBQ

2 cups ripe elderberries (depending on your altitude these ripen about the same time grouse season opens)

½ cup brown sugar

2 cups red wine (I use merlot)

1 bay leaf

2 cloves garlic

Pinch of salt

¼ cup “store bought” BBQ (I use Sweet Baby Rays)

Wash the elderberries very well. Remove all stems – the stems can be slightly toxic if eaten, especially raw. Next add the elderberries, brown sugar, red wine, bay leaf and garlic to a medium sized sauce pan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Lower heat and reduce the mix until it is just slightly thick. Strain the mix through a fine mesh sieve (strainer). Squish, technical term here, the elderberries into the strainer to get the extra juice out of them.

(At this point the elderberry syrup is a “concentrate” and good for lots of stuff. Add it to Caro syrup and you have elderberry pancake syrup. Add it to cream and you have a great sauce.)

Reserve and measure the amount of syrup you have. Combine it with a 50/50 mix of BBQ sauce and elderberry concentrate. Roughly ¼ cup to ¼ cup ratio will give you plenty of sauce for this recipe.

The concentrate will keep for months in the fridge.

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