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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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Tonight it is March, a very long way from bird season. In the middle of a Michigan winter it is hard to believe that there ever was an October, with her violent colors, or mornings when you pulled on your boots and walked into some Renaissance painting: blood red to a dusky, muted red, burnt sienna hills, umber grass and the waves from a bluff far above Lake Michigan so green and tossed that it was not inconceivable Botticelli's maiden would step out of a shell. This is only to say that you favor autumn, and winter up here looks like nothing so much as a giant marshmallow factory. On long walks when snowmobiles pass, you think that the only virtue of these machines is that they smell like motorboats, and motorboats remind you of the fishing you're going to do in the Florida Keys in a few weeks. There is a ski resort half a dozen miles south, but your boredom with that sport has reached such a point that you avoid driving past the slopes where all of those people are actually having fun with winter.

So you take walks. And hope to see a grouse, though the terrain around your small farm is favored with few of them. The snowmobiles pack a trail, and you offer them grudging thanks for making the far reaches of winter accessible. It's no fun to flounder in drifts, and most of my friends who brag about their snow-shoes never use them. Often you stand on a trail and wish that yesterday's snowmobile had headed down through that swale. You want to go there, but it is impossible. You think of maybe drawing a map for the neighbor boy so he can cut some new areas for you on his Arctic Cat. You have agreed to buy one when they make less noise than a dripping spigot, a sleeping gerbil, an oak leaf when it falls on wet ground, a morel growing.

But the occasional grouse. Its thundering flush in the cold air. The involuntary lifting of your arms as if they cradled a shotgun, the noticeable pounding in your chest. Grouse are always a shock, as if you brushed the electric fence while throwing hay to your daughter's horses. A subtle, aerial shock not to be confused with seeing a grizzly while backpacking. That is like grabbing the fence with a wet hand. The grouse are a hundred yards away before you actually think, beginning with a low dodging flight through the trees, then often they hook like an inept golf shot. Why the hook? I don't know. They have to go somewhere.

Ruffed grouse have become to you the ultimate in shooting. You still hunt woodcock, but mostly because you stumble upon them in the search for grouse. You can tell you don't prize them nearly as much because when you miss, you don't feel very bad. For ducks you have to get up at dawn and the beauty of your last teal four years back spoiled it. You might deer hunt a single afternoon but, to be truthful, it has brought no real excitement for more than a decade.

But grouse. Grouse are the trout of the woods. Flushing a grouse is like seeing a good brown trout rising to a mayfly. And the first days of trout season in Michigan invariably coincide with the drumming sound of male grouse in the swamps calling up their harems. The speed of their flight can be understood by the energy of their drumming. In your winter walks you see few of them because the snow is deep in the swamps where they stay for shelter, and there is thin ice on the water. But each one you do see brings the memory of past seasons, and though you have hunted seriously only for seven years, these seasons are confused with each other. The event is more interesting than the year. All of the seasons merged together would not be an idealization but an intensification. And that is the way you remember them, anyway. The seasons are too heavy with failure and the comic to make the stuff of dreams. Sport, when honestly rendered, is scarcely ever dreamlike. If it is a string of unremittent successes, it isn't sporting. Here, then, is a season, concentrated; add six parts water.

The first day is uncomfortably warm: mid-September, and it looks like July with the greenery heavy on the trees. We've had no kill frost and the ferns form a waist-deep layer over the floor of the woods. It is absolutely obnoxious to walk through the ferns because you can't see your feet, and you stumble over the rotting, deadfall poplar.

Pat Paton and his son Shaun are 30 yards to my right just across East Creek. We heard a lot of drumming in this area while trout fishing in the spring, and since grouse tend to spend their lives in a comparatively small area, we thought we'd try hunting the creek bottom. We kick up half a dozen birds, but have no shots. The brush gets thicker and the tag alder branches whip against your face. When you pause, mosquitoes and black flies cloud around your head. This isn't grouse hunting, it's a jungle movie called The Green Hell. A woodcock flushes, and you snap shoot at the sound, seeing the brown blur disappear into the foliage.

"Get him?" Pat yells.

"Nope."

You hate to hunt with people who are always insisting that they "might" have got a bird. This is a neophyte's trick, and causes a lot of aimless poking in the shrubbery. And it is bad for a dog to look for nothing. Dogs get discouraged when their credulity is pushed. Their noses tell them that the dead bird isn't there. It's bad as a general rule to hunt with anyone you wouldn't camp with or introduce to a secret trout-fishing spot. You remember the time you hunted with a dolt who shot a porcupine and the spirit went out of the day.

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