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People who 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 vision.
Stamina is 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 hunter twice.
And the 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 grousers about.
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� hours."
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.