Category Archives: grouse hunting

Memories & Guns

The dog was awake before my alarm was. He’s not a hunting dog, but he knew when I laid boots, and shells, and a gun case out the evening before that I was planning an early morning excursion.

He followed me to the bathroom in the pre-dawn, and his tail thumped hard against my thigh as I brushed my teeth.  For a brief moment I considered taking him with me, but he’s a big dumb rescue dog that likes to zoom and bound headlong through the woods. He would have fun, but every bird for a hundred-yard radius would be busted and even if one flushed in range, the big white frame of the Husky-Shepherd-coyote-whatever mutt that he is would almost certainly be between the barrel and the target.

So, I patted his side and softly sighed as I told him “Not today, pal.” As dogs are, he was unoffended and trotted back to the bed, hopping up and making himself comfortable on my side of the mattress with a stretch and a groan.

I dressed in the dark, feeling somber and tired and not as enthused about the prospect of chasing ruffed grouse in the county crown lands as I had been when my head hit the pillow the night prior. In the kitchen I grabbed a granola bar and threw back a glass of milk while a purring tomcat circled my calves and tried to get me to feed him. I nudged him aside with my foot and he trotted to the door and took to rubbing his face on the corner of the gun case. I bent down and with one hand picked up the case, while I used the other to scoop up the cat. I set the cat on the edge of the couch, and I swung the door open to set the gun case on the porch, followed by my boots and my ammo box. Indiana Jones-style I grab my blaze orange hat just as I have the door swinging shut.

It was cool and breezy that Thanksgiving Monday. It had been raining for the last hour or two, but by the time I put my boots on and surveyed the coming morning from my porch, it was barely a sprinkle. I was bulldozed by the silence; in the very early morning of a long weekend in October, no other people were up driving the suburban streets of my neighbourhood.

I pulled out and in minutes was headed down a county road towards a tract of Simcoe County Forest that I’d been hunting for more than a decade. The radio was jarring babble so I switched it off as quickly as I’d put it on. I headed down the road in pensive silence, never encountering another vehicle.

Things were not great. Now I know that as an employed, well-fed, generally healthy, middle-class white dude in Canada my worst day is a lot of other people’s dream day, but that also doesn’t preclude things from sometimes getting shitty. A high-pressure project at my 9 to 5 with an imminent and pressing deadline. Two kids, that frankly are simultaneously wonderful and absolutely maddening, were going through a maddening phase full of pre-teen drama, stressing my wife and I and taking up a large piece of our relationship. Fall chores around the home needed doing before winter hit, and a further litany of self-inflicted commitments that loomed large all combined to put me in a bad spot mentally.

Irritable. Apathetic. Terse. Weighed down. Tired.

I took the time on the drive to try to organize my thoughts and reconcile all of the puzzle pieces, but that made it worse, so I just thought about the woods as I drove westward. The late-setting full moon glowed like platinum ahead of me as it snuck in and out of the wispy clouds.  It disappeared behind the trees for good as I turned onto the gravel road that led to the forest that I intended to wander that morning.

I pulled off to the soft shoulder and popped the trunk, fishing a double handful of .20 gauge shells out of an old cardboard box that was sitting open on the front passenger seat. I grabbed way more than I needed really, but there’s no optimism like that in the mind of an upland bird hunter before they start walking, so I stuffed my pockets and zipped them up. Walking around to the back of the vehicle, I reached into the trunk and unclasped the hard gun case that had seen close to thirty-years of hunting trips, before softly slipping the trigger lock off the one gun I covet more than any other.

A smooth, sleek, light, intuitively-pointable Ruger Red Label Over/Under. It is dad’s gun and I find myself borrowing it every fall in that period after the opening of grouse season. I shot my first wild game (a single snowshoe hare ahead of a beagle) with it in the winter of 1994, and I have been fairly adroit with it chasing ruffed grouse for the last five or ten years…when I can get my hands on it.

I flipped the lever on the top and the gun fell open invitingly. Dropping two rounds in I flipped it closed with a snug ‘thunk’, checked the safety, and started down the bush road. A blue jay scolded me as soon as I was past the gate at the roadside, and somewhere deeper in the bush a squirrel chattered and barked an alarm at my blaze orange and faded denim frame in response. A thought that I might kill that squirrel crossed my mind, and I filed it for future consideration.

Right then my thoughts were only of plump ruffies, intruded upon now and then by a wave of all of life’s problems.

The woods were splendiferous in their colour, and although many trees clung to leaves that were still green, birches and elms and oaks in their various hues of yellow and orange were mixed in and here and there the woods were spiced in flashes by blood-red flames of fall maple leaves. Nature abhors a straight line and everywhere she was trying to rub out the tidy, arrow-like rows of pine trees planted by the county, and she was having some success with ferns, and saplings, and thorn bushes obscuring the understory.  The pines, for their part, had been shedding needles for years and years, making the trails pillowy soft and hushed under my bootheels. Still early in the autumn, many of the trees still held many or almost all of their leaves and their limbs reached for one another over the trail to make a cathedral ceiling painted in a kaleidoscope interference of fall foliage. For a while I think I was just walking in a trance and staring at leaves, not really looking for grouse, just listening for their peeping calls or for the abrupt whirring of wings.

Solo hunting ruffed grouse without a dog is not for everyone. It is long on walking and short on action. It can be chokingly thick in some areas I frequent, and just as often as not the clever little buggers will hunker down until I walk slowly by before thundering off with a startling thrum of clumsy, short wings headed back the way I came. My strategy has always been the same when doing this on my own: walk the trails until one flushes, shoot it if I can, or mark it’s flight path and stalk slowly up on the bird, hoping to get a crack at it on a second (or sometimes third) flush. I do this with that lovely Red Label when I can, holding myself to wingshooting as often as possible. When that particular gun is not availed to me, I will resort to a .22LR, which takes wingshooting completely off the table, but does pose its own unique challenges in stalking up on the deceptively cagey little birds.

I was forty minutes into my morning when the sun finally broke through the clouds and began to warm the day. About this time, I found a wide, open clearing to one side of the trail, and I stepped into it almost unconsciously. In all directions all there was to see were the orderly rows of pines and their shed needles blanketing the forest floor.  Here and there a low stump served to memorialize a tree taken down, and I found one appropriately wide enough to serve as a seat. I leaned the gun against a tree a few feet away and just sat there. For how long, who knows. Couple of minutes at least.

Some chickadees flitted around, and far off a crow rattled a staccato series of calls. The breeze lifted and fell. Another blue jay screeched and flew by, and I just looked at the forest and listened. For some reason, I looked at the gun’s blued steel coldly stark and the rich brown wood gleaming in the morning sun, and I was struck by melancholy thoughts.

Dad’s gun.

Someday dad won’t be around anymore, and all that will be left will be memories.

Memories and guns.

Then another thought.

My guns.

Someday I won’t be around anymore, and all that will be left will be memories.

Different memories and different guns.

What kind of stories will those be?

You see, not every hunting story we churn out is a feel-good tale.

Then as quick as those thoughts came, before I could neither dismiss nor dwell on them, I was startled back to the task at hand. Not by feathers, but by fur. A big black squirrel (I like to think it was the same one I had heard at the roadside earlier that day) was headed my way, bounding from tree to tree and he was making some racket. Hot on his tail was another big black squirrel, chirping and barking to raise hell. It became quickly apparent that they were going to run through the treetops in front of me, flush broadside.

As though by magic I found the gun in my hands, and my eyes set on an opening that I was sure they would have to jump through. I began to swing the gun up, and as it always has it shouldered like a dream, like it was made to measure. As the first squirrel made the leap between two limbs, I painted the stretched length of his shiny sable body from tail to nose, right to left with the shiny bead on the top barrel. As I saw daylight between barrel and snout I did it.

“Bang.” I went softly in my head.

His nemesis didn’t flinch at my movement and kept chasing recklessly forward. As he sprang through the air, I did the same to him. They rambled onward down the line of trees, skittering and knocking down acorns and tree bark until they faded from earshot and I smirked, pleased at my virtual double and sure I would have bagged the brace of them had the mood struck me.

You see, squirrels weren’t on the menu that morning, and as it turns out ruffed grouse weren’t either.  I found some things that made my morning better, like the side-by-each tracks of a doe and fawn pawing acorns out of the pine needles or the redneck-ingenious mineral lick bolted to a tree inside an old wooden wall sconce. I eventually came out to the gravel road, opened the action and slung the gun in an inverted “V” over my shoulder, walking slowly back to my car, barely interested in firing a shot really. A truck rolled down the road towards me, gravel crunching and popping from under the tires, and a smiling elderly man slowed and rolled his window down.

“Any luck?!” He shouted in the way that old folks do when I believe they are hard of hearing.

“Not today.” I shouted back, over the hum of his engine and with a head shake in case he’d missed it.

“That’s ‘cause yer on the road! Got to get into the bush if you wanna kill somethin’” He shouted and laughed hard at his joke, and I couldn’t help but laugh back realizing I had a broad, involuntary smile on.

“Think I’m about done anyways,” I yelled “that’s me up there.” and I nodded to my car.

He shouted “Thought so…well better luck next time then” and started to roll his truck forward while powering up the window, giving me the universal head nob that means a respectful, rural goodbye. I gave him a little wave and touched the brim of my cap before walking down the roadside back to my ride.

But I did feel better. Lighter. Not quite so downtrodden. The outlook wasn’t as gloomy anymore.

Maybe because I had been hunting and even though my morning was over, I had seen nature doing what nature does everyday; regardless of whether I even pulled the trigger, the outdoors have always been therapeutic for my family and I, after all.  Maybe on account of the human connection I had just had with that old fella, maybe because of his broad, infectious laugh.  Maybe for the way he was just driving around the forest and country roads early on a fall morning like I remember my grandfather doing with me when I was small.

Who knows?

There were still the problems of the real world to deal with, and as I write this I’m speeding through the night air towards Edmonton, about to tackle that big project milestone. But in that morning, just after I stood under a blue sky to put that gorgeous gun away and drop all the shotgun shells back in their box in orderly rows, as I drove home to an ever-growing list of things to do and to manage two boys who make life a joy and a headache, I stopped to get my wife a coffee, with the intent that we could just sit and connect with each other before it all got busy again and I flew across the nation and another line got added to our to-do-list.

And when I pulled into the driveway, it all felt just a little less heavy. But that’s the outdoors for you.

The Drummer

For reasons that will become apparent in a future post, I recommitted my fall 2017 hunting season to ruffed grouse.  I have always hunted grouse as a byproduct of hunting other animals. Grouse were the incidental harvest when I encountered them while out hunting deer, or rabbits, or even while calling coyotes.

Many, many ruffed grouse also got a free pass for precisely the same reason; because I wasn’t hunting them specifically. Sometimes I had the wrong firearm in hand, other times the opportunities were at too close of range, while in other cases I did not want to spook deer, or rabbits, or coyotes by shooting. Whatever the reason, either by choice or necessity, I rarely if ever exclusively dedicated time to ruffed grouse hunting.

Until this month.

It was a grey, humid, and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when I carved out time to stalk some birds in the Simcoe County forests near my home. I parked the car and slid the silky-smooth Ruger over-under shotgun from the fleece-lined gun case. I thumbed the barrel selector over to “T”, broke open the action and casually dropped two wasp yellow 20 gauge shells into their slots. Flipping the action closed with a firm click, I locked the car and started down the two-track trail.

I had a blaze orange hat and matching t-shirt on.  The windless, overcast sky hid above the greenery, and I remarked to myself at how many leaves were still on.  These were not orange, red and yellow leaves clinging to the last vestiges of summer, but rather healthy, verdant, and persistent foliage enjoying the summer-like weather that had continued to hang around southern Ontario well past its expiry date.

A mourning dove flushed from a tree and a snap shot from the Ruger ushered him along unharmed down the arrow-straight path ahead of me. I popped open the gun and caught the spent hull as it launched backwards; the smell of spent powder incongruous to the mild, damp afternoon that had promised rain since before lunch. I reloaded and walked onward to nowhere in particular. This specific tract of public land is made up of a series of interconnected bush roads that winnow their way through a mixed woodland of precisely planted pine trees interspersed with more mature stands of native hardwood. In several places undergrowth has taken hold, and there the ferns and saplings brush against legs and try to tangle the arms of a shotgun-laden hunter. I walked large figure-eights across the bush roads, back and forth between the pines and hardwoods and ferns and saplings in the hopes of flushing a bird, all the while listening for the peeping of an alert ruffed grouse that I might have been able to stalk closer to.

However, aside from the earlier roar of the shotgun, only the sounds of the woods around me played out.  Somewhere squirrels barked at each other, either as an altruistic warning to each other about my presence or perhaps just in the conversational way that a squirrel’s daily interactions might go. Sparrows and blue jays flitted about, chirping and screaming respectively, and for a while I was simply a quiet spectator to the goings on in the woods that day.

Two things broke my enjoyment.  The first was the discovery of a series of tumble-down, makeshift tree stands in the woods.  All were ramshackle and trailing litter and waste. I would have felt reproach, I guess, if I knew who the architects were, but as it stood I could just simply smirk at the recklessness of them all, and stand smug in the knowledge that I was more sensible than anyone who would sit in those precariously perched contraptions. A short while later, I heard the revving of a vehicle and a few moments after that a man and woman on a side-by-side ATV sped past, dirt flying from the wheels and music blaring from a sound system. The din faded down the bush road, and soon enough I was once again in relative peace.

Further into my slow walk, after having encountered a large pile of rotting, discarded hay bales and a dried-up tom turkey dropping, the wind picked up gently and soft drizzle began to fall.  The leaves caught most of it and although the patter of rain on foliage muffled some of the wilderness sounds, the breeze and occasional drop of precipitation cooled me nicely.

I was at a bend in one part of the road when I heard it; faintly at first and then more clearly as I turned and triangulated the source of the sound.  A ruffed grouse was drumming on a log somewhere.

I stood stock still and waited. Hoping to hear the bird again, he obliged me about three minutes later.  I marked the sound and started slowly moving through the trees in the bird’s direction.  Shortly thereafter, he drummed a third time and I smiled to myself.

I was closing the distance on him.

The fourth time he drummed, I froze and moved my thumb to the safety of the gun.  He was close, and his wingbeats thrummed in my ears. As he concluded his thumping, I took two steps towards the sound with the gun at the ready.  Just to the periphery of my vision I saw him running through the low cover. I swung the bead onto the gray of his head while he juked and weaved and disappeared into the undergrowth. I never fired his way. As if on cue, the drizzle became a steady rain.

Standing in the hardwoods, with my shoulders getting soaked, I briefly took stock of the situation.  I was not getting any drier, so I quickly decided to walk along after him, in the hopes of either seeing him or having him flush. After a few more minutes of pursuit, no sightings, and a lot more rainfall, I realized that I was fighting a losing battle, and to boot I was just a bit misplaced. I hesitate to say ‘lost’ since a ten-minute walk in any of the chief compass directions would eventually have led me to a road, but I was admittedly quite turned around.  For just a moment I was unsure if the nearest intersection with the bush road was due east, west, north, or south of me and I felt a snarling murmur of alarm restlessly turn somewhere deep in the back of my head. A brief glance at the compass and I was reoriented and confident, a minor crisis averted.

Having convinced myself that I had spooked the bird thoroughly, and not relishing any further time spent in an October rain shower, I cut north and shortly found myself back on the carpet of dead pine needles blanketing the familiar bush road.

No sooner had I made the road, I heard the grouse drumming…again…from what sounded like the exact last spot where I had seen him.  A wry grin broke uncontrollably on my face at what struck me as a divine piece of wilderness comedy. “Clever fellow…” I muttered to myself, and I metaphorically tipped my cap to the bird.  I’ve had turkeys that I’d spooked do the same thing to me after I gave up on them, gobbling in my direction long after I have decided to call it quits.

On the walk out I heard another grouse drumming from another point in the woods, but he was past the county forest boundary and safely ensconced on someone’s private property.  I pictured that second bird drumming his response to the first bird, and for a fleeting second took it as their derisive, taunting laughter at my failed attempt on their lives.

But even I’m not so far gone to believe that ruffed grouse are capable of that.