discount hunting as a sport—a competitive game of skill, strength and
chance—have never gunned for grouse. Ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse in
Northeastern thickets of thorn apples, alders, wild roses, maple saplings,
poplars, briars and chin-high weeds.
The skill is in
finding the birds, in spotting the blur of their leaf-brown wings against a
tapestry of leaf-brown trees, in mounting a shotgun in a tangle of pucker-bush
and in shooting—often among tree trunks and branches—at a whirring, vanishing
required to walk five, 10, perhaps 15 miles through seemingly impenetrable
briars, over fences, across swamps and through acres of slash, jumbled like
giant jackstraws dumped haphazardly on the forest floor.
The chance is in
the birds themselves, creatures of habit whose habit it is never to fly the
same way, eat in the same place, hide in the same covert or be seen by the same
competition? Oh, the competition is so subtle. No records are kept—the greatest
number of birds shot, or largest grouse killed by a 20-gauge shotgun in the No.
9 shot category; there are none of the statistics so important to the big-game
hunter or fisherman. The competition in grouse shooting is much more
sophisticated. It can involve hiding one's car from other hunters when working
a favorite covert; in always remembering—and retelling as often as possible—the
precise details of every bird shot; in owning a dog that never but never breaks
point (in front of anyone); in hosting a grouse supper and offering everyone
seconds. Subtle but fierce competition, that.
There is great
sport in grouse hunting, all right, and dedicated grouse hunters pursue it with
all the fanaticism of golfers or tennis players or joggers. And, like the
majority of those enthusiasts, most grouse hunters are a mediocre lot.
If grouse hunting
were scored like golf, par would be flushing a dozen birds, shooting one and
missing all the others—but missing them with grace. There would be few scratch
The Ruffed Grouse,
the 915-page bible of the game published in 1947 by the Conservation Department
of the State of New York to report the findings of 16 years of grouse research,
says this: "The average seasonal bag of grouse per grouse hunter has varied
from .95 to 4.9 birds per hunter in New York State.... The daily bag of grouse
hunters on check areas was about one-third grouse per actual hunting day of 5�
One-third of a
grouse per day. Truly mediocre. And even though those statistics are 32 years
old, nothing indicates that they would be any different today—grouse are
certainly no dumber or more numerous; hunters are no smarter. One-third of a
grouse: far from scratch grouse.
But, as in other
sports, there are a few who play the game really well. Like golfers on the
tour, tennis players on the circuit, and runners in the New York or Boston
Marathon who draw those single-digit numbers, there are grouse hunters who
excel far beyond the reach of the masses. Consequently, they become the heroes
of the game.