Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ground-swatting grouse

My youngest brother, Bo, and I with two ruffed grouse

More hungry than proud

Last weekend I went grouse hunting with my father and my youngest brother. Our intent was to collect enough game for a meal, figuring we needed about four birds for four people. Now, I hadn't used a shotgun for a number of years, so when my dad gave me the option between the pump and the single shot break action, I took the old single shot out of familiarity. Well, familiarity and my brother challenged me to use it (it's an unwritten rule you can't turn down a brother challenge).

We set out on a logging road that began in an old clear-cut and wound back to a dense stand of mature hardwood. We switched off as point man around every couple corners, as those tend to be the best chance you have at catching a grouse off guard just long enough to get in a shot.

We made it all the way through the 2-year-old clear-cut without a trace of partridge, though we did see a few deer. To be honest, it was probably our constant chatter that cleared out any game in the area as we spent the first mile catching up on life. It wasn't until we flushed a bird 10 yards in front of us that we finally cut the talk and all ducked into hunting mode.

My little brother immediately assumed a quiet, crouching walk that carried him into the woods on our right. Without speaking, we knew the plan - he would travel 10 to 25 yards into the woods and box in toward where the bird's flight had most likely taken him. My dad would walk in a few yards to flank his left, and I would remain on the road in case it, or other birds, was flushed back across the road.

The plan worked - except for the part where you shoot a bird. Brother boxed in, dad flanked him, and I stood at the ready with my single shot on the road, but when two more birds were flushed, they took off deeper into the woods and none of us had a shot. Our journey down the grass-covered logging road continued, though this time our conversations were in much lower voices, sometimes whispers.

A half-mile further and we hadn't seen or heard anything, that is until I halted everyone. Up in front of us, down the left track in the road on a straight stretch, I spotted something that looked like the silhouette of a ruffed grouse standing in the grass. It had the right body shape and size from what I could see, and it had the little hooked head poking up above it. I pointed it out to the other two, and they both confirmed I was looking at a small tree stump. Embarrassed, I began walking again in an effort to forget my silly misjudgment. Then I stopped. A few more steps and I was still convinced I was staring down a bird about 25 yards in front of me. I insisted once again that we should be blazing away, and this time my dad stepped over into the track where I was standing and immediately saw what he had missed before - a ruffed grouse, standing still as a stone, right next to a small tree stump.

Instinctively, we shifted and put the youngest hunter in line for the shot, but just as he saw it and brought up his 20-gauge, the bird took off in that motor boat/jet engine/buzz saw flight that grouse are known for and was gone into the woods. I will never not shoot at a stump again.

On the way back out we had better success. My dad was at the point, and coming around a corner he spotted his target on the edge of the grassy road. In a matter of two seconds he brought up his 12-gauge, told us he was taking a shot, and fired.

"Got him!" he yelled. We ran up to the kill and found he had done something that usually takes a tall tale to do - he hit two birds with one shot. As it turned out, there was a second grouse directly behind the first; we had half our dinner. Our shooting was at 200 percent and our mission was at 50 percent; not a bad start.

We picked up the hunt in a new location the following day (Sunday) with the same strategy in place. This time we happened upon a side path off of the new logging road we chose, and took that as nobody had ever been down that way before. It wasn't too far down this side path, and with myself at point, I glanced a movement up ahead.

Now, when a grouse runs across the ground, it looks like the forest floor itself is shifting. The little buggers are so well camouflaged and so close to the ground that it seems as though they're made completely out of mirage. I wouldn't be fooled again, though, and in the same instant I brought the single shot up, glanced down the tattered old barrel, found the shape shifter, lined up the shot as I cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger. BOOM!

Feathers flew up into the air; it was a hit. We walked about 40 yards down the hill to the kill (good thing I was using full choke). My dad and brother were still wondering what it was I had shot at, and we found number three right where I expected. High fives ensued.

We flushed a few more birds that day, but never risked a shot at one in flight. One, because we were all very aware of our skill level and equipment capabilities, and two, because even if we had hit one in flight, there was a good chance we'd never find it once it went down in the woods. As it turned out, our journey back to the truck was productive once again for my dad as he ground swatted the fourth and final bird we needed for Sunday night dinner - our confidence was soaring.

A lot is made of outdoor sports in this area because tourism is a big industry here. Our natural resources provide access to several species not found in other states. An unfortunate byproduct of this is people hunting out of sport. When I say we bagged four grouse last weekend, I have no problem admitting none of them were out of the air; I'm more hungry than I am proud. The shooting was nothing to behold, no amazing feat, no photo op for the front of an outdoors magazine - it was practical.

I set out with a goal last weekend, and that was to collect a naturally occurring, morally raised, renewable resource in order to provide a meal for my family and myself. What it took was a few hours over two days, a couple old guns, a fee to the state of Wisconsin in the shape of a small game license, and walking several miles through some of the most beautiful fall colors I have ever seen. I'm itching to get back out there again this weekend. Those birds were tasty.

“First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.”
- Aristotle
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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