SI Vault
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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We drive several miles to another spot along a defunct railroad and quickly pick up three birds, all within sight of a general store. But we are still wondering what the hell happened to all of those birds under the tree. Grouse have an uncanny ability to keep a tree between themselves and a shooter after the flush. In one particular thicket I have flushed grouse on a dozen occasions and seen them only twice. I keep going back, trying to figure out a way to outwit their ability to keep the density of the thicket between me and their path of flight. Sometimes a bird will break directly at you, sailing over your head, then turning. I've never made one of those twisting shots.

Now the season is in full stride. My shooting has even improved. Last weekend I got two grouse and a woodcock in a hundred-yard stretch and without a miss. Unfortunately, the next day I missed seven in a row, so my glory was shortlived. I've estimated my success at about one out of seven, while a truly superb wing shot like Doc Hall will get one out of three. But he has a marvelous English setter named Heidi and another named Judge that is well above average. Heidi is somehow the most graceful dog I've ever met, extremely feminine and a hard worker.

I no longer own a dog, having lost my English pointer to cancer when she was five. I simply don't have the guts to go through that sort of pain again. And she was a worthless grouse dog, though beautifully stylish with field-trial breeding. Even in her last month she would race across a hayfield in long zigzag casts and stop on a picturesque point on a butterfly or tweety bird. She could jump higher than a bookcase or over a car hood. On the one occasion I saw her with deer, she wasn't chasing them but running some 10 yards ahead. I dedicated a novel to her, and people who don't understand such things are upset, as they assume it was a child who died.

Since I usually hunt without a dog and without the splendid early-warning system they provide, I become lazy hunting behind a good dog. With them I don't need the continuous state of readiness that I own when hunting alone.

If you are walking through the woods thinking about pretty girls or maybe an argument you had with your wife or, more likely, how you will cook the two grouse in your bag, you are going to miss every shot. If Zen monks had any predilection for the sport they would clean up.

After a fine start with a bird apiece we entered an area that had been pulped over the winter before. It was an unbelievable tangle of poplar tops but we had a honey bucket location to hit on our circular swing. Two hours later we emerged exhausted from the tangle. Each of us had fallen three times and Pat had a sprained finger and cut hand. Pulping is good for grouse because it allows new growth, but terrible for a hunter when the tops are left in disarray. Since this is state land on timber lease you wonder why the yo-yos can't be forced to bulldoze the waste into piles. Though we flushed 10 birds I wouldn't walk back into that place at gunpoint.

The other day I talked to Doc Hall about seeing his log, the record of his hunting since 1946. It contains daily accounts of birds flushed, birds shot at, birds bagged and general remarks on habitat, weather and dog work. The locations are given code names. Here we encounter the same secrecy found in the trout or tarpon fisherman. You will not exchange secret places with someone who will abuse the area by overhunting or divulging it to others. Doc Hall has so many places that he can afford to be a little careless. Last year we traded spots, though I suspect he already knew about mine.

We got lost in one of his favorites, but only because the shooting was so interesting that we hunted past twilight. So we floundered around in the dark with Doc lighting matches to see the compass mounted in his gunstock. We kept reassuring each other that we weren't lost, but we couldn't find the car.

Getting lost lacks humor. I once spent an entire afternoon trying to get off a hairpin flat in the Manistee River. First the river was on my left, then, 15 minutes later, it was on my right. It was very warm and I was wearing chest-high waders and carrying a bamboo rod. Michigan's swamps and flat pine barrens are comparatively small, but it's best to have your wits about you. I flushed a lot of birds, aimlessly pointing my fly rod at them and yelling, "Bang!"

A hunting friend arrived from Florida today, hoping to catch the woodcock migratory flights and shoot grouse for two weeks. There's something fascinating about introducing a person to the sport. It is partly finding out what you know, having to be precise in your information. Though my friend has done a great deal of quail and pheasant hunting, ruffed grouse and their heavy cover are new to him. The similarity to teaching someone trout fishing is striking, where the ability to cast competently can be learned in short order and still produce no results. You could shoot a 98 in skeet and flunk miserably in the woods unless you had taken the trouble to find out how grouse live.

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