The day was promising. It was 25 degrees, clear with light wind. I'd scouted the area the day before and knew the trail and likely habitat I would find, even though I was a newbie to this part of the National Forest. My main dog, Ace, was itching to go but that, my good friends, was not a good thing. Ace is a Brittany- a big running, fast, smart, bold, confident Brittany. I knew there was a good chance he would take to the woods like he did the North Dakota plains we'd left just two days before. Out on the prairie, I would turn him out, turn on the Garmin and wait for the pager to go off- Ace would be on point with some pheasant pinned down in the CRP grass awaiting my arrival with the shotgun. It's worked hundreds of times over the 6 1/2 years we hunted together. The rooster may run, but he was usually close when I got there and the flush, shot and loading the big bird in the game bag was routine. The grouse woods require a much more patient dog, just as smart, but slower working, cautious....a thinker. Good grouse dogs are a rarity and a treasure to be hoarded and protected. Boldness, while an asset in hunting quail, Pheasant, Sharptails and Huns, is a detriment hunting Ruffs. So, I had a talk with the boy and it was like telling the quarterback to not kiss the Prom Queen- he rolled his eyes as if to say, "Pops, I know what I'm doing here! Just unhook the lead and I'll show you some grouse hunting!". With not a little trepidation, I let him go, loaded my gun, marked the truck, took a compass heading, looked up....and he was gone! Before I had time to walk 100 yds up the trail, I looked at the Garmin and that knot head was 650 yds in to the woods.....and accelerating! I just kept walking the trail and occasionally pulled the GPS in map mode to watch his track. Before long, he swung around and came loping up the trail with a grin (and a little lipstick on his collar) and attitude to match. I grabbed him, "counselled" him once more, and turned him loose. Another 400+ yd. cast. By now, I knew the friendly, hand around the shoulder technique would not work, so I pulled another trick from the bag......Tritronics. I got his attention with some electronic counselling and, after a few remedial sessions, the big guy saw the light (perhaps literally). And became the quintessential grouse dog. (Be it known to all my PETA followers, I never exceeded a 3. Actually, if you are a member of PETA, I really don't give a whit what you think. You're an idiot.) We continued the hunt for the illusive Ruffed Grouse, with a now functional man-dog team. And we were rewarded with a very good day in the woods. We stuck to the Aspen thickets and edges of clearings. Ace locked down several birds that were shootable and I did my thing over my dog. I sprayed lead at several birds and was occasionally rewarded with the "thump" of the a bird hitting the forest floor.
One bird was a challenge I will never forget. As often happens, the most memorable times come when you least expect them. Ace locked up in some very thick Aspens. He was only 40 yds. away and I was on him quickly. As grouse often do, this boy waited until I was behind a shrub and flushed from over my head- out of the trees! I twisted and shot, missed and watched him jink his way though the trees. I immediately headed after him (ignoring the smirk from my canine) telling Ace, "Easy, boy, bird in here!" We reached the area I saw him go down, and Ace started a circular search- he was birdy and a little frustrated and not getting the full scent. I relaxed a little and looked back to the spot of the initial flush and double checked my location. I was in the correct spot. So, I watched Ace work it out and pondered birds and flushes and bird hunting and Prom Queens. For no particular reason, I looked up and saw Mr. Grouse sitting on an Aspen limb not 20 ft. away! (I will be honest and admit for a split second, I thought about popping him right there. But restrained myself for some reason having to do with fair chase, etc.) I took a step and stomped and yelled and he launched himself off the branch....directly at my head! I ducked and turned and shot twice at the retreating gray blur. I twisted so fast and hard I overshot and had to look back over my shoulder to get his heading. I literally screwed myself in to the ground! This time, I called to Ace and started out on the heading of the retreating grouse, into a stand of planted pines that were perhaps 60' tall. Once again, I reached the area and let Ace do his thing. Once again, he was frustrated. I stood and listened to the breeze in the pines, and the quiet....and in the way back of my consciousness, I heard a little flurry. Just the faintest of sounds- almost unrecognizable. I looked up and down, unfocused my eyes and scanned the trees for movement, or sound, or anything. Nothing but the pines and breeze and soft needles underfoot. Just then I noticed the tiniest, little feather floating down not 3 feet from my nose. I checked the light wind and realized that scoundrel had been in the tree right in front of me, perhaps ten feet over my head. That sound I almost heard was him launching off to safety. I laughed and tipped my hat to the old boy. I hope he lives long and sires many more just like him. Surely, he was a worthy opponent.