feature By: Jon Osborn | September, 20
Drifting leaves and slanting sunlight may be the abiding images of autumn, but winter’s austerity is an acquired taste, like rare woodcock or straight whiskey. By November, the vibrancy of fall has been stripped bare, and the clearcuts leave little to the imagination.
Winter grouse are a hunter’s paradox. Birds that have run the season’s gauntlet are proven survivors, and some argue they’ve earned their reprieve. Others insist that a percentage will be lost through attrition anyway, so why let the goshawks and owls reap the benefits? As usual, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle, and culling a bird or two probably doesn’t hurt populations in the end.
Walking amid the leafless aspens once had me pondering the notion of winter grouse limits. What qualifies as enough? Legality? Morality? Neither? Both? One thing’s certain: Bird hunting looks different now than it did when Burton Spiller and Corey Ford tramped the uplands years ago.
Today, a measure of “voluntary restraint” goes a long way. At times, conscientious hunters intentionally stop short of a limit, even when they could tag out. After all, bulging game bags hardly justify an afternoon afield. Savoring a hard-won game bird, smoothing its feathers and reveling in superior dog work lie at the soul of the upland experience, and quality trumps quantity every time.
Take woodcock, for example. When the flights arrive, shooting a trio of birds can be quick and easy. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Unlike their long-billed brethren, however, ruffed grouse rank among the toughest game birds to harvest, and bag limits are often laughable. In some states, like Michigan, hunters are legally allowed as many as five ruffed grouse per day. Five. And they say fly fishermen are optimists … Truth is, killing even a single grouse on the wing demands straight shooting, staunch dog work and no shortage of luck – even for veteran hunters.
I’ve never shot a legal limit of ruffed grouse. Ever. And not for lack of effort, either; quite the contrary, actually. In the beginning, I hunted with rabid enthusiasm. Back then, bagging a limit would have conferred some level of woodsmanship on me and even vindicated the efforts in my own mind. Eventually, a full-time job and a young family left fewer days afield, so efficiency became the name of the game, and I’d head straight to the honey holes, loaded for bear. As the years passed, though, that youthful fervency dwindled. Call it mellowing out or maturing or just plain getting old, but suddenly, surprisingly, body counts don’t carry the same weight anymore.
On a cold morning last December, my buddy Kirk and I hunted grouse at a cover called “Old Man Foster’s.” Dawn had arrived cold and gray, one of those brittle days when breath hangs in the air and heavy layers of wool prove barely adequate. Standing idle more than a few minutes, we began shivering in earnest, so we pushed through raspy scrub oaks and clutching aspens until sweat glistened on our foreheads.
Fair-weather grousers abhor winter hunting but not us. There’s something invigorating about cold air in the lungs and jubilance in the slate-gray skies. We appreciated the desolation and reveled in the snow-laden clouds and whitewashed landscape.
Feeding an ounce of no. 8s into each of our four barrels, we labored over snowy hilltops peppered with grouse and bobcat tracks. By the looks of things, a veritable army of birds was patrolling the silent woods, but so far, they’d remained elusive.
Our predominantly white setters, Winston and Dixie, blended in perfectly with the landscape. Only their faded orange skid plates offered contrast against the bleached-out background. Bounding through the drifts, the dogs probed beneath deadfalls and hemlock boughs, searching for scent. Their sleigh bells would have made festive music on this pre-Christmas hunt, but that day we ran them silent to avoid alarming skittish birds. The grouse that remained were no patsies.
Cold, dry conditions made for tough scenting, so it was no surprise when Winston bumped a pair of birds: One flared left across the two-track; the other arched around to the right. Both flushed too far ahead for anything more than a Hail Mary shot, but we avoid shooting unpointed birds anyway. But following the flurry of wings, Winston remained staunch. Hoping against hope for a lingering grouse, we communicated with soft whistles and urgent hand gestures, advancing with guns at the ready.
Another brace exploded from the same patch of cover; an age-old trick used by winter-wise birds. Unlike the others, though, those two flushed well within range – close enough to confirm that one was gray and the other, rusty brown – but our doubles tendered little more than a four-gun salute.
A quick glance at the GPS confirmed we’d walked over a dozen miles, high time to hash out a new plan over lunch. With stomachs growling, we eased onto the tailgate and tore into bags of venison salami, sharp cheddar cheese and Club Crackers like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. The dogs waited with pleading eyes and moist jowls for a handout. Of course, we obliged.
The digital display on the GPS confirmed we’d scoured Old Man Foster’s property end to end, but we saved the best for last – a 40-acre cover called “The Farm.” Experience had shown that grouse tended to concentrate in the northeast corner of this private parcel of towering oaks, thornapple shrubs and stately white pines. Those birds were as dependable as an old pocket watch, but creeping close enough for a shot could be exceedingly difficult.
In that sparse December cover, casting the setters ahead would have been sheer folly. Those wily farm grouse would sense them coming hundreds of yards away and fly for the safety of the adjacent property. Besides, Winston and Dixie were bone-tired from fighting the belly-high drifts. We confined them to their crates and split up, slinking silently toward the fabled corner from different directions.
A subtle peep, peep, peep issued from the dusky hemlocks just before a grouse accelerated, transforming into a blur of wings. Evergreen branches obscured the view, but the lethal swarm of shot sent the bird hurtling headlong into a snowdrift.
The bag limit on grouse might have been five, but on that frosty December day, one more bird wouldn’t have made things any sweeter. The falling snow, the heft of that single, hard-won bird and the last, lingering days of another grouse season got me thinking about something a close friend used to say: “I have everything I need, and a little of what I want.”