Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ole 'Ruff

A long time ago (actually, a long, long time ago – but I hate to believe so many years have passed) when I was hardly more than a lad I met a grouse not far from here that fooled me and my various dogs for years. I was shooting my old pump gun then, and was hunting with Tyler, the big liver springer spaniel and my first gundog and constant companion since I’d moved from my parents home. Tyler was a neat dog and I’m not kidding when I said constant companion. Everyone knew if I was to be invited anywhere, Tyler was coming too. It helped that he was awfully friendly and knew a bunch of parlor tricks like sitting up, playing dead, and rolling over on command. Come to think of it, I wonder now if Tyler was the reason I was invited anywhere.

Anyway, I was trying to learn how to hunt grouse in those days and one October afternoon I followed Tyler down a short two-track into a small, defunct gravel pit. We hiked the top ridge of the pit that was grown up in mostly big, dark balsam. Not really very good grouse cover but grouse are where you find them and besides, I didn’t really know good cover from bad in those days. But right on the top edge of the pit Tyler spun with bird scent and a big red-phased grouse blew up and into the balsams quick as lightning. Of course I shot, but my shot charge went where the bird was instead of where it was going. We worked our way around the pit and were done without moving another bird. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble had I crossed that spot off my list, but nope.

 I visited that pit several times that fall, determined to get the big red grouse that called it home. We moved the bird every time, and I took shots when I could but never cut a feather. The heavy balsams provided just too much escape cover for the bird, and my prowness with a gun was nothing to brag about, either. It sort of became personal, me versus ruffed grouse. I took Tyler in from every conceivable direction and because he was so well trained several times had him sit at one end of the cover until I circled around to the other side. The plan was for him to come at my whistle and push the bird towards my ambush. Tyler was totally into it and gave it his best, but the grouse always foiled our plan one way or another.

I could have brought in a gunning partner, I suppose. But I’d resolved to take this bird on my own, and I don’t think more guns would have helped, anyway. This grouse and I had something going on. And Tyler and I tried for him each year, when grouse were at high cycles and low, until Tyler took to the happy hunting grounds.

Pointing dogs didn’t help the odds much. My little setter Molly came closest, I suppose. She had the bird pointed on the far side and I saw it’s silhouette hop over a log and run down toward the wet alder swamp that bordered the small woods. I should have hurried to flush the bird, but Molly was very good at relocating and pinning grouse on the edge of their cover, so I let her go. She moved ahead cautiously, knowing this bird was no pushover. She worked her way through the tangle and stopped and stood tall ten yards from the swamp. I figured the bird would go out over the alders and offer a fairly open shot. But before I got to her she moved again this time out into the wet stuff and I heard her splashing as she followed the sneaky grouse into the swamp. I was about to call her off when she stopped and I could just see her rigid tail and head low like the bird was right there! Those alders are no place for people, but I fought my way close and was soaked to my knees when I heard the grouse flush and Molly gave a little jump but I never saw it. Molly’s grandson, Ty, locked up on the bird in about the same place years later. I wasn’t about to let the grouse run into the swamp again so I nearly ran down the hill hoping to get it in the air. But I couldn’t raise the bird. When I turned and started back up the hill the grouse took off from a branch and flew low right back over Ty’s head and I couldn’t shoot! If you can’t find some humor in this entire scenario you shouldn’t be hunting grouse, and this bird was really getting the best of me. Most times, however, the dog would point and the bird blast away before I could get a bead on it or flush in a swirl of leaves and put itself behind a tree just as I shot, or it would just flush wild and be gone when we entered the cover, apparently not in the mood to play our game.

Over the years I stopped at that pit once every season with a bird dog. Sometimes it was sunny, sometime rainy. Sometimes dry and sometimes snow. There was always just the one bird there, never more. I’ve tried for that bird with six worthy setters, one pointer, and four different shotguns. The trail is grown in now, barely discernable from the road, and the gravel pit has trees growing in it. It’s still not much of a cover and I wouldn’t hunt there if not for the effort of matching wits with that one particular bird. I can’t help but wonder if that grouse knows it’s still me. And does it appreciate the game of it as much as I do? Does Mister Ruff get a chuckle out of making me look the fool every time I chase it? Of course it’s unrealistic to think that same grouse has lived there all this time, but I can believe the bird I flush is a descendant, can’t I? After all, those times I do get one rare fleeting glimpse of him, when the sunlight penetrates the cover and he turns just right I can see the red color of his tail. Just like the first time I encountered him when I hunted in Levis jeans and Red Wing boots and carried an old Remington 870 that I bought used when I was in high school.

The hunting this year has been kind of spotty. Some good covers had no birds, others had some, and still others had plenty. The early season was terribly hot and very hard on dogs that had spent the summer mostly lying in the shade and chasing the occasional squirrel or tossed tennis ball. Then we hunted in rain – not enough to fill water holes in the woods, but enough to get soaked pushing through the brush. The later part of October was the turnaround for me. We found and killed grouse and woodcock, the weather was perfect and even though a few good days can make a season, and often does, I can’t help wishing October wasn’t so short.

Jack and I stopped at the old gravel pit on our way to some ‘good’ cover. Jack was fresh out of the truck and when I turned him loose he tore off down the faint trial and flew up and over the top of the old pit. I followed him up and was surprised to see how much of the old balsam woods had been blown down since my last time here. Jack was out ahead and I picked my way through fallen trees trying to keep up. Suddenly a grouse exploded from under standing balsams on my right and crossed into the tiniest opening over a couple of downed trees. I swung my Parker on instinct and the grouse dropped in a shower of feathers! I stood sort of slack-jawed and silent, but Jack came back at the shot, quickly found the grouse and delivered it to my hand. It was a beautiful, red phased cock grouse with gorgeous bronze neck ruffs. As pretty a bird as I’ve ever seen. The grouse I’d been after for thirty years was finally mine.


Friday, November 11, 2011

November camp

I was the first into camp Friday evening. The sun had not quite dropped below the horizon so I was able to load my cot and gear into the tent before dark. The white canvas tent had been set two weeks before, and other than one visit from me during the week, had sat undisturbed waiting to provide warmth and shelter for us hunters who have come to rely on it. I was just about to mix myself a birdshooter when headlights rounded the corner and John pulled his truck in next to mine. Tony and Jack wouldn’t get into camp until Sunday morning, so John and I had the place to ourselves for opening day. We spent a pleasant evening warm by the woodstove and talked about the hunting and fishing we’d enjoyed since last year, and the hunt we would partake in the morning. I don’t see him often, but John knows dogs, guns, and rods and uses them whenever he can. Like me. Outside, a bright moon cast shadows on the ground while an unseasonable wind buffeted the tent walls and shook the hissing lantern hanging from the ceiling. We’re there to hunt deer, I suppose, but where else do you find like-minded companions to spend the evening hours admiring rifles, comparing new ammo, analyzing backpacks and boots? We cooked brats, drank whiskey and told stories until I finally slipped into my bag and was soon sleeping.

I’ve spent time in a number of camps over the years. Some were pretty deluxe with private bedrooms, complete baths and showers, kitchens and living rooms. I spent a week in one camp, if you can call it that, complete with a caretaker and cook that had meals waiting when we were ready for them. I’ve also been at the other end of the spectrum – sleeping in a little nylon dome tent huddled deep in a thick sleeping bag only to crawl out in the morning, shivering myself warm enough to grab my rifle and trudge through snow in my quest for deer.

I suppose we all reach a time in our lives when we need and expect a certain level of personal comfort. Some might think camping in a tent, with no running water, keeping a fire stoked in the stove is roughing it. Well, I’ve had it a lot rougher. A good cot with a pad and warm sleeping bag makes a fine bed, and I’m happy to be lulled to slumber by the wind, the hooting owls, howling wolves, and other night sounds of the woods. In fact, come opening morning I remember how comfortable and cozy I was and how I would have liked to sleep longer had I not felt the need to be in the woods well before sunrise. The portability of a tent is neat, too. While we’ve all hunted basically the same area for years, we’ve moved camp to different locales for quicker access to some new cover, or easier access in case of deep snow, or maybe just a change of scenery. We drive our trucks right to camp, but I can imagine horse-backing into western mountains with this same outfit.

We do most of our cooking outside the tent, and I’d brought some of last years venison to grill over coals Saturday evening. John and I both enjoyed the tender slices of backstrap for a true hunter’s supper. As it turned out, we could have feasted on tenderloins from deer taken that morning, but you never know it will turn out like that. There are two camp tables in the tent, one for the two-burner propane stove, and one for the kitchen. Morning coffee and hearty breakfasts are cooked inside while we finalize hunting strategies and pull on wool pants and boots for the day.

I had a ways to go to get to the high oak ridge I hunt, so John filled my cup with strong coffee and I was off. Years before, I’d found my hunting spot by accident. I was still-hunting and exploring this high scrub-oak country and not seeing much deer sign. I sat on a fallen log and leaned against a pine to relax for a bit and figure out my next move. It was mid-morning and something stirred to my left. My heart pounded when I saw the antlers, and then I made out the legs. But I saw nothing else until the deer made me and disappeared. I sat stunned and wondered how I should have handled it differently. Good bucks are rare and I figured I blew my chance for the year. Maybe a half hour later I heard a snort and bent my head around the pine to see behind me. Another buck stood looking at me perhaps 40 yards away. A blowdown blocked it’s body, but it hardly mattered – he knew I was there and bolted before I had a chance. Wow, I thought! Two shooter bucks within an hour. I’ll probably never have chances like that again in my life! I was a ways back in the woods but I looked at that pine and determined to have an elevated stand leaning on it next year, though could I reasonably expect to see deer like that ever again? I leaned on the tree and munched my sandwich with a plan in mind.

I've hunted that ridge every season since. My stand is in place and even from that it’s hard to see far in that thick, brushy country. I scout just a bit before season, and never have seen much for deer sign there, but I have a superstitious feeling about the place and leave it alone as much as I can, other than leaning my stand on that same pine tree. Others have been there to complain about the lack of view and suggest some shooting lane cuttings but I know from experience when the deer come, they can be seen. I won’t risk messing the place up thinking I’m “improving” it.

John and I met at camp that afternoon and toasted our good fortunes. John took his buck in a newly discovered cutting closer to camp and spent the rest of the day scouting and placing stands for Jack and Tony. I scouted the day away looking for sign along the hilltops where I hunt. At camp that evening I fired the grill for supper and we spent a satisfied and relaxing evening telling our tales. The day outside had worked it’s magic and we cut the celebration short trying to keep our eyes open. With the promise of sleeping in and enjoying a big breakfast we hit the cots and listened to a light rain on the tent roof for minutes before drifting off.

Deer camp stories have been written and told for many more years than I’ve been around, and I know plenty of folks who find their deer hunting enjoyment from just being in camp. Some old timers, and not so old timers are happy to hunt little and hang around camp a lot keeping a fire stoked, a stew on the stove, and an ear open for rifle shots. Some guys just want to get away from routines for awhile and would no sooner forget the deck of cards as they would the rifles. I have to admit, deer camp is fun to be around, but for me, so far, there’s a valid and logical conclusion to it all. I’m lucky and thankful to take part.