column By: Jim Gilsdorf | August, 19
Why are grouse hunters so serious? Why is a bird in hand worth so much more than one in the bush?
I mean they and we, when skunked, are eternally waxing on about the beauty of the day and such, as though the antics of the birds themselves are of no concern. After all, the grouse are what lead us where we go. Old Burton Spiller always had flushes that went this way or that and seemingly always got shot at. I have flushes that go that way or this, and I get a blast sometimes in the general direction as I step in a hole and head for the ground, or I get a snagged-armpit whip shot that’s off by 30 degrees. And I’m happy if I make it through the course of a day with only one face plant off a slippery wet, slashing log.
I mean, I grew up in North Dakota where the pheasants make a whopping racket as they cackle and get up and then fly straightaway into the open sky. Once you calm down and realize you are hunting with your full choke duck gun, it isn’t that hard to nail them. Grouse, on the other hand … no big sky, no straightaway flights, no swing through.
Don’t even wear a big hat. The prickly elm or hawthorn will pluck it off your head and throw it to the ground well behind you. And when you go back and bend down to retrieve it, a grouse flushes from five feet away. You should laugh.
Or maybe you will be caught in a tangle of antique barbed wire in the nowhere of the woods, and when you finally give up and reach down to free your pant leg, you find yourself eyeball to eyeball with old ruff. And he will putt and purr and strut just off your nose until you decide enough is enough and start to advance your trusty firearm. At the merest micrometer of movement of your shotgun, old ruff exits stage left and is straightaway behind the biggest oak in the forest. And you should laugh at him, too. And yourself as well.
And you’ll hunt all day and hear birds going hither and yon but always just beyond your ken, or view, whichever is broader. Then you’ll flush a wonderful red phase giant across an open meadow, and he will fly directly at your partner who, while currently answering nature’s call, not only precludes your shot but is also incapacitated from taking one of his own. You get to laugh at yourself, the bird and your friend on that one.
However, sometimes during the day the gods of physics bless you, and the kinetic energy of your shot string meets the evanescent energy of a fleeing grouse at a single point in the time-space continuum, and you have a bird for dinner. And it is exquisite, succulent, tender, flavorsome, wild and worthy of at least a lightly chilled $50 Meursault. But you’ll oblige with a can of beer and be tired and happy and ready to go again tomorrow. And, hopefully, forever you will laugh at your foibles and your ability to be outdone by a half a gram of brainpower in a plump brown or gray or red handful of feathers.
So why take it seriously? Grouse make fools of us, and hunting them is a humbling kick. Sort of like life. As my existentialist merchant mariner son once decided while watching waves go by, “Life has no meaning, so the best we can do is enjoy the ride.” As I see it, there’s no better fulfillment of those truths than following a dog through the grouse woods and going wherever the bird takes us.