Michigan terrain lacks drama you concentrate on particularities. For grouse you
look for thorn apple, abandoned orchards, wild grape, winter-green, budding
poplar, chokecherries; all preferred foods. If it has been especially dry you
hunt along creeks. Late in the afternoon you check the sunny sides of hills and
along logging trails where the birds come to gravel.
Setting out the
next morning, we miss the first dozen birds. It is maddening for my friend, who
is the best shot I know. Much of our grief is caused by the fact that we are
both piggies, and much of our gunning talk centers on food. We have many
recipes on tap, have purchased wines to go with them, and our clumsiness is
The guilt, not
really severe, attached to spending so much time at play can be absurd. If I'm
skunked I come home with an involved speech in my head to convince my wife that
I really hunted hard and didn't spend the afternoon at the bar. Since she and
my daughter love to eat grouse, there is no interest in excuses. I can see the
hurt look in their eyes, maybe a trace of disrespect. It's fun to bring in five
lake trout with an aggregate weight of 50 pounds and nonchalantly drop them in
the sink. But it is not nearly as effective in my home as a grouse or two.
The first 10 days
will have to be graded as a C minus. Michigan's vaunted October Indian summer
is on the verge of a heat wave. We hunt without coats and are without the
transfusions of energy-cold autumn days give. We get moderately lost in a local
swamp, thrash through the deadfalls kicking up 17 grouse, and not one ends in
the bag. Back in the car I can't meet my friend's eyes so I take him to a high
bluff along Lake Michigan that always wows visitors. It is a stupendous view
with four islands far out in the lake and the promontory of Pyramid Point to
the south. At the bottom of the cliff we see a flock of ducks, but they are too
far away to identify. Near this bluff my pointer once swam out into heavy seas
beyond sight for several hours. Neat dog. We called the sheriff and Coast
Guard, but they weren't interested. She finally returned and had a nice nap on
scenic tour yields two birds. I decide not to admit that they are the first two
birds I've ever taken here. We have a full dinner with yesterday's two grouse
and three woodcock. The woodcock are stuffed with pate, the grouse with
aromatic green grapes that are pulled after 20 minutes and replaced with a
bread stuffing. After browning the birds we usually steam them in a closed dish
in a cup or two of white wine. Woodcock are especially good for breakfast on
toast with scrambled eggs. And a glass of wine. We experiment without being too
decorative, as grouse are so delicious they don't need help. The only way to
ruin their sharp gamey flavor is by overcooking, which tends to parch their
already dry flesh.
We have a fine,
though melancholy, day's hunt with Doc Hall. Heidi is dead from the same type
of cancer that destroyed my own dog. Good dogs have an uncanny ability to
become another person in the family and their absence is deeply felt.
We have lunch
sitting on the bank of the Manistee. It is so warm that trout are rising. The
dogs are fatigued from the heat and wallow at the river's edge. Judge, Heidi's
hunting mate, has given us a number of flawless points, including one in a
clearing that imitated all of those make-believe hunting stories. Doc Hall says
that woodcock tend to congregate on the south edge of any clearing, simply
because they come in from the north and only decide on the clearing after they
have begun to cross it. This is not a simple piece of information. It will save
a lot of dead hours for me. Though Doc Hall is retired, he sprints through the
woods like a kangaroo, cross-country skis all winter and fishes in the summers.
He even soothes my hypochondria free of charge.
It is the first
of November and the weather finally breaks at midday with the temperature
dropping 20� and the wind wheeling around to the northwest, the prevailing
pattern. It is my friend's last day, and starts badly with his Labrador eating
our lunch. And we're late, out of the general tiredness that two weeks of
walking brings on.
But we are to
have an afternoon that is magical, the best afternoon of my hunting life. And
this despite a hesitant beginning, some sleet and a howling wind. We see a
dozen birds and take eight. We keep looking at each other through the trees,
now barren of leaves, in disbelief. Seven seasons to have one truly perfect
day. And two of the shots were among the most difficult of the year. On the
long drive home we are reverent rather than talkative.
that night, I remember several years back in the Upper Peninsula when a gas
station operator told me that grouse could not be hit on the wing. You had to
sit on the car hood with a buddy driving and shoot them on the trails at dusk.
As sport, grouse hunting has often seemed ill advised to me in terms of the
hours spent. But that is John Calvin creeping up again with all of his boring,
utilitarian advice. Grouse hunting is so precious because it is so difficult.
There are, no doubt, great shots who don't feel this respect, but my very
average skills bow to this creature.