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MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
Jim Harrison
November 04, 1974
The pursuit of ruffed grouse entails days of beating through swamps and flailing in thorn-apple swales, but with every success there is joy and tooting of horns
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November 04, 1974

Marching To A Different Drummer

The pursuit of ruffed grouse entails days of beating through swamps and flailing in thorn-apple swales, but with every success there is joy and tooting of horns

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The jungle walk becomes preposterous. You can't even see Pat's dog, a springer spaniel named Tammy. A dumb name, but a good dog. You know where the dog is only by the waving of fern tips. We've had enough of our swamp trek and emerge into a wide pasture for an easy walk back to the car. Out in the middle of the pasture is a huge, lone cow. A holstein. The cow watches us as we walk and Pat studies the cow. "We've got a problem," he says in a near whisper.

The cow is a bull. The bull begins to toss his head and paw the ground like his brothers do in cartoons. I slide into the brush in order to cross the creek before I realize that a creek does not offer a formidable barrier to a bull. So we stand there listening to some awesome bellowing, with the animal's neck craning up and outward so that we may better hear its warnings. The music stops and the bull begins a classical trot toward us, gradually picking up speed. Maybe it thinks it's a Cape buffalo. Pat fires two warning shots in the air. The bull picks up speed. Pat lightly rakes the animal with No. 9 skeet shot. The bull does a wonderful rodeo buck, then turns and trots in the other direction.

Late in the afternoon Pat picks off a single bird that separated from a brood and flew across a clearing. We go to a bar and over many glasses of beer agree that early grouse season is as bad as early trout season, when you might very well tear your waders on ice. Maybe you think you have to go through it to deserve the rest of the season.

Still no frost as September wanes with the heat of summer. No one wants to go hunting. They are wailing to concentrate on a few weekends in October. So I hunt alone in a four-section swamp and blueberry marsh. I am careful because I've found it easy to get lost within this four square miles. Again, I've been here in the spring. My mother wanted to see warblers and she woke me before dawn thinking I shared her interest in these wee birds. I do love warblers, though I prefer to see them out the window at lunch. Anyway, we heard grouse drumming and I have high hopes while walking along the pulp trails. There is also a bear in this swamp, though I'd prefer not to see him for reasons of cowardice.

I round a bend and begin to descend deeper into the swamp. I see something in the middle of the trail. It is the very rare sight of a grouse simply sitting there looking at the hunter. I raise my gun but pause, deciding to be fair. The grouse flushes, and for a millisecond I regret my generosity, but the bird falls with the shot.

At our last Grouse Society meeting Doc Hall impishly asked us to raise a hand if we had never shot a sitting bird. No one did. If you have a bad streak, say of missing 15 birds in a row, it is easy to see a sitting bird as a boon, a gift from Mother Nature as a reward for your sweat, the countless miles of walking and anger and frustration.

You have to hunt a long time to fully understand the degree of difficulty involved. This is especially true of bad years when the bird population, which is cyclical, is down very low. The worst year in my memory was 1967, at least locally. I hunted for a week that November, though mostly I looked for my bird dogs. In the absence of birds they chased leaves and snowflakes and each other. Late on a particularly cold and blank day a friend and I shot at the same bird simultaneously, and both instantly yelled, "I got him." Our friendship was maintained by finding two different sized pellets in the grouse when we cleaned it—my .16-gauge and his .20. The bird looked meager on the platter at dinner with six adults trying to act offhand about eating it.

The first week in October we had a hard frost, then rain and a strong wind, which made the leaves begin to fall. I certainly haven't waited for the weather but it is appreciated: I've averaged less than a bird a day, though most often I only hunt a few hours. When you hunt alone and are not distracted by others, the time moves more slowly. You are more totally aware of what you are doing, and the experience becomes much more intense.

Pat calls, and we decide to spend a day hitting favorite places. Some of them were discovered in 1965 when the grouse were at the top of their population curve and birds could have been found almost anywhere. Certain spots are chosen for strictly esthetic reasons, though few grouse hunters would admit it. We begin the day in an area along the Manistee River that is redolent with memories. I shot the first grouse of my adult life here. (In my boyhood I potted a fair number by sitting in a swamp until they came clucking out of the cover, no doubt mistaking me for a stump.) The place, though, has an unpleasant aspect. I slipped on the wet clay of a cliff overlooking the river and spent a month in the hospital in traction. Some fun.

Crossing the pasture we hunt a bog and pick up two snipe. Then we head for the series of gullies choked with thorn apple and cedar that abut the river. You have to snapshoot in these gullies or the grouse get above the river, and it's pointless to shoot. It would be monstrous to see a bird wasted in the river. Perhaps a hundred yards away we see a brood sitting under a thorn apple tree. This has never happened before, and we immediately have a strategy session. We painfully sneak through the brush along the river and up the hill through the briers. We burst from the cover with our shotguns ready. No grouse. We comb the immediate location in widening circles, without luck. We didn't hear them flush. It is the stuff of a sporting nightmare.

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