The dawn’s first beams of sunlight crept through the window as I drew open the blinds. The dark, silent veil that settles in during the night was suddenly lifted and I was all at once overtaken with a sense of urgency. I should already be in the woods, or at least drinking coffee on the tailgate as dogs were readied and shotguns were brought out for inspection. I had already been up for hours making sure all my gear was in order. The dogs were fed and kenneled in the back of the pickup truck where their impatient whimpering along with strong black coffee only added to my anxieties. It was opening morning of grouse season and I needed to get on the road.
The duties of fatherhood have made an impact on my time spent afield, but I am lucky enough to have a very understanding wife. On a normal day during the season she would have been able to drop our daughter off at school, or at least pick her up, but a surgery the week prior left her recovering and unable to operate a vehicle. We had made arrangements that I could go out for opening morning as long as I was able to drop our daughter off and be home in time to pick her up that afternoon. With little hesitation I agreed to the terms and I made plans with my friend John to meet at my traditional opening day spot by 9 am.
After double and triple checking my shotgun shells, bells, whistles, and many other gadgets that serve some purpose or another, it was finally time to wake my daughter, Juniper, and get her ready for school. Her clothes were laid out the night before and after a quick breakfast we were halfway out the door when she reminded me we forgot to brush our teeth. A quick brush and a rinse, a couple of deep breaths and we were finally in the truck. On the short drive to her school Juniper was saddened by the fact that I was going “up north” with our dogs and she wasn’t. She was comforted however when I told her one day soon she would be able to accompany me on opening day. I led her to her classroom, hugged her goodbye and proceeded to make my way to the grouse woods.
The hour long drive was made longer by my anticipation but after a few cups of coffee and a pipe-full of my favorite tobacco I was pulling in behind John at the aforementioned location. He sat patiently waiting with camera in hand, documenting the splendid sights of a morning in the grouse woods. We needn’t make mention of the short time we had to hunt as we hurriedly loaded shells and collared dogs. I took a deep breath and one last look at the compass to get our bearings before plunging into the cover. Despite the unseasonably warm temperatures the first air of autumn was finally here, and with it came grouse season.
John and I were brimming with excitement as we dove headfirst into the aspen. My best grouse dog, a setter named Georgie, was on the ground braced with my Ryman pup Emmy Lou, who although thoroughly vetted on woodcock had yet to have a grouse shot over her point. As we hunted our way through the first strip of cover I had the feeling that the sound of rustling leaves and snapping branches would be interrupted by noisy beeper collars and beating wings any given minute. It was a good half hour into the hunt however before we finally had a weary grouse flush from a tree top overhead. This was unusual for a covert that in years past has been found on opening day to have been bursting with broods of young birds.
Hunting under a canopy of aspen in September before the first frost browns the ferns and sends leaves falling to the ground gives one the feeling of navigating a tropical rainforest and with morning temps already in the lower 70’s this hunt was no exception. Barely an hour had passed, my shirt was soaked through and the dogs were panting heavily. We were on our way to the edge of a small stream so the dogs could cool off when Georgie slammed on to her first point. John and I approached deliberately, trying to push the bird toward an opening but the bird broke for cover before we got into position leaving me with a longer shot than I had anticipated. I loosed one barrel of the Parker and then the other, catching the grouse with my second shot. It was a large mature cock bird, I remember thinking it quite unusual as I normally see mostly young birds early in the season. I smoothed back the birds feathers and took in the moment while letting the dogs cool off in the shade. After a quick drink from the stream we made plans to turn around and hunt our way back towards the truck, giving ourselves ample time to enjoy a glass of cold cider and a slice of apple pie on the tailgate before parting ways.
We took a roundabout path along an alder run and followed a logging road back to the vehicles. I could see the sun shining off the hood of my Toyota through the brush when Georgie once again went on point with Emmy Lou backing her. This time a large brood of young grouse went up but offered us no shooting as they escaped into the thickest part of the cover. We thought it best to let them be as we were overheated and short on time but before we could get the dogs kenneled Emmy Lou made a wide cast and was soon on point in a small pocket of aspen just on the other side of the vehicles. The bird held fast at my approach. I kicked around under the dense bracken fern with a lowered guard, anticipating the whistling wings of a woodcock to flutter haphazardly up from a hidden spot just in front of the dog. Since woodcock season had not yet opened I was not prepared to shoot when a young grouse exploded into the air right in front of me. Surprised, I managed a hurried shot and the open right barrell of my 28 gauge sent the rust colored biddy back to the well shrouded forest floor. Emmy Lou broke point when the bird took wing but froze again just shy of where I marked it down. Assuming she was pointing dead I walked up to claim what would be the young dogs first grouse to be fooled again as this time it was a woodcock that flushed and flew across the road with Emmy Lou in hot pursuit. Georgie, who had been backing her followed suit and by the time I got the two excited dogs back to where the scene unfolded they were very hot. Given her lack of experience I wasn’t sure how Emmy Lou would react to finding the grounded bird after the all the excitement but I knew Georgie was up to the task. After a few minutes of searching with no results, I knew that Georgie was getting overheated. I hated to leave what I assumed was a downed bird in the woods but I decided to walk the dogs back down to the stream and let them cool off again before heading home.
As John and I walked the dogs at heel down to the water doubts began to surface in my mind that I had mistakenly shot at a woodcock instead of a grouse. It sounds crazy but when all your shooting at is a blur through the thick brush your mind can play tricks on you. Although he didn’t say anything, I’m sure John shared the same thought, not having saw the actual bird at the time of my shot. The dogs swam and drank and I regained some composure and decided that after hunting grouse most of my life I trusted myself to know the difference between a grouse and a woodcock. We headed the dogs back to the spot where the bird was downed and let them try to figure things out. A refreshed and reinvigorated Georgie led the charge and when we got about twenty yards beyond where I originally shot she froze into a quick but solid point. Before I could get to her she broke, then pointed again. Usually this is a sign of a grouse on the move. John and I circled wide in front of her hoping to flank the fleeing bird. Georgie relocated and pointed again as we quickly moved to close the distance between us and the dogs. Trying to no avail to get the bird to flush, I released Georgie and she soon had a wing tipped grouse in her soft muzzle. It was quickly dispatched and given to Emmy Lou, the first grouse shot over her point. She proudly carried it around for a few moments before dropping it and proceeding to roll on it, a habit of hers to this day.
As a grouse hunter I believe that it is both the emotional highs and the heart-wrenching lows that engrain the sport into the fiber of our souls. Take away the low points and the high times wouldn’t mean nearly as much. John and I reflected on the events that transpired over a lunch of cold cider and fresh apple pie as the dogs laid in the shade of the truck’s tailgate. A hunters euphoria was found, lost, then found again. All was right in the grouse woods.