Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hunting ruffed grouse: It's insane. Therefore I like it.

© Holly A. Heyser
The first time I ever saw a ruffed grouse flush - which was, oh, all of three days ago now - I was dumbfounded.

I was walking through Minnesota's Northwoods with Hank and our friend Chris and I heard that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt off to my left. My bird. The left side of the trail was mine.

My head whipped to the left and ... wait, how the hell was I supposed to shoot at that thing? The woods were so thick with young aspens that it would've been like shooting through a bar code. Seriously, WTF?

The bird angled off to the right. Hank, who was running point, took a shot without hesitation, but the bird zipped away unharmed.

So, wait, seriously, I'm supposed to shoot through that? Hank and Chris confirmed that this is what I was supposed to do. I spent the next few hours trying to wrap my mind around this as we tromped through the woods uninterrupted by fowl, but pleased to soak up the sun on an unusually warm Minnesota autumn day.

Much later as we neared sunset, another grouse gave me a second chance. I raised my gun and began swinging, but as the bird's silhouette kept disappearing and reappearing through the dense woods, my gut kept telling me to stop. Take clear shots. Don't drop a bird where you won't be able to see it go down.

I think I shouldered and lowered my gun three times, which, it turns out, is not effective when you're trying to kill grouse. The bird was gone. Another apparently perfect shot wasted.

"Safety on?" Hank asked.

I may have simply growled in response. I'd had a crazy week at school, I'd taken a red-eye to Minneapolis on Friday night, and I might've gotten four hours of sleep between two flights and the early-morning drive to the Northwoods, where we had started hunting almost immediately. I was tired. I was confused.I had a headache. I was done for the day.

I walked back to the car in frustration, and felt no better when I heard the boom of Chris's 12 gauge and clear signals that he'd gotten a bird.

A shower, beer and burgers that night did a lot to adjust my attitude, and by the next morning I was determined to shoot fast no matter what.

The first area we tried was very slow - for everyone in the woods apparently, because we didn't hear many gunshots at all. So we piled into Chris's truck to look for someplace new. A guy we met at a cafe confirmed what we'd already learned - that grouse had been sparse in that area - but he had a suggestion for another place to try, and off we went.

We picked a trail, parked the truck and started walking, and almost immediately a woodcock flushed in front of Hank and me.

Woodcock! We'd never gotten one before. And we wouldn't get this one, because Hank and I both missed. But soon after that, another one flushed in front of Chris.

Boom! Boom!

The bird arced toward Hank and me, almost at treetop level. At last, I didn't need to shoot through the bar code!

Boom! Boom!

© Hank Shaw
He went down on my second shot, dropped where I had no trouble finding him, and there we had it. Neither Hank nor I had ever killed a woodcock - we don't see them in California - but a friend had sent us two earlier this year, and Hank loved cooking them.

This was auspicious. Finally, some action!

We continued down a trail with Chris and his amazingly durable 13-year-old black Lab, Finn, plowing through the woods, hoping to flush a bird in our direction. A grouse flushed right in front of Chris, and he got it. Excellent!

We kept going down that path, and we came to a spot where ... I smelled ... bird.

My sense of smell in civilization is pretty weak, but in the field, I can often smell game. Yes, I know it's crazy.

"I smell a bird," I said to Hank, and not ten seconds later, a grouse flushed in the woods on my right, heading straight away. Without thinking, I overrode my instincts, fired a shot through the bar code and lowered my gun when I lost sight of the bird.

I was disappointed, but glad that I'd finally made a shot on a grouse.

"I don't think I got it," I told Hank, "but I'm going to go in there and check."

I dove into the woods, plowing through saplings, zigzagging in the general direction of the bird, and I'll be damned if he wasn't lying on the forest floor, dead.

© Hank Shaw

I picked him up, which awakened his nerves and he began flapping vigorously, making that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt sound.

"Do you need the dog?" Chris yelled.

"Nope, I've got him!" I yelled back.

My first ruffed grouse! Thank God I'd looked for him.

And wow, I don't say this often, but I was incredibly proud that I had forced myself to take a shot when my instincts were screaming NO! If It didn't matter if I got nothing else on this trip: I had accomplished something new.

We hunted the rest of that section of the woods, and while Hank and I didn't get any more shooting in, Chris kept bringing down woodcock, so we were feeling pretty good. We took a break for a nutritious meal of Cheez-Its and Twizzlers, and Hank decided he was done for the day - he was halfway through with the fall leg of his Hunt, Gather Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour, and he was exhausted.

Chris looked at me. "You wanna keep going?"

"Hell yes!"

And that's when it got good.

Chris and I found a promising section of the woods and made our way to a boggy edge. A grouse flushed in front of Chris.

Swing and a miss!

We followed where that one had appeared to land, and before we could get to that spot, another one flushed in front of Chris.


Another miss. But a few minutes later there was yet another flush in front of Chris.


Hit or miss? We couldn't tell, so we searched the spot where we thought the bird would've landed and found nothing.

We split up again and prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! One flushed in front of me, rising high in the trees. Raise gun, swing, acquire target, pull trigger...


... down.

I started hustling down the hill to that spot, saplings slapping me in the face. Almost immediately, there it was again: prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! Off to my right, heading away. But I didn't even look. Gotta retrieved the downed bird first.

When I got to the spot where I thought my bird had landed, there he was. My shot had just broken a wing, though, so he was running. Chris helped me corner him at a tree trunk, and I quickly helicoptered him. It was over.

At that point, I'd learned enough to know that this was a spectacular occurrence, because all those flushes took place within about 20 minutes. The Holy Grail, Chris told me, was eight flushes per hour.

We'd told Hank that we'd just be gone for half an hour, but Chris and I were electrified by the sudden change in fortune. Hardly anyone else in our vicinity was shooting. We kept going. Across the dirt road to another section of woods, then across another to a border of woods that surrounded a lake.

That's where it got brutal. Beavers had been busy, so big logs criss-crossed the woods, and dense aspen saplings slapped my face and tore at my hands every inch of the way. We hadn't flushed a single bird since we'd left the Holy Grail spot. If a bird did flush, I have no idea what I would've done, because I didn't have room to shoulder my gun, much less swing it.

When we emerged from the woods at a road, I gave in.

"I'm done," I told Chris. "Exhausted."

He was going to push through one more patch of woods. OK, maybe two.

Now here's what I haven't told you about Chris: He is the reason I hunt. When Hank and I lived in Minnesota and worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris was a friend of ours there. He was also the newspaper's hunting and fishing writer, and he is the one who inspired Hank to start hunting. Hank, of course, inspired me, so without Chris, this blog, and the new life I love, would not exist.

This was my first chance to hunt with Chris, and to be perfectly honest, it was really important to me to shoot well. I wanted him to be proud of the little monster he'd helped create. I didn't want to look like an amateur, especially with five years of hunting under my belt. He's the closest thing I have to a hunting dad (though he's actually just a year older than I am).

While I couldn't keep charging through the woods as long as Chris could, I was pretty sure I'd acquitted myself well. I'd survived on Cheez-Its, Twizzlers and weak country market coffee. (OK, Chris had brought nice sandwiches too, but it sounds cooler to say I survived on Twizzlers and Cheez-Its.) I'd overcome my aversion to shooting through trees. I'd fired five shots at four birds and had three in the bag. And between the three of us, we were bringing four grouse and five woodcock back to Chris's place. I felt good.

As I watch Chris's blaze orange outline slip into the woods, I smiled, and headed back to the truck where Hank was waiting. As I approached, would you believe a grouse emerged from the woods on the right side of the road and zipped into the woods on the left?

Yeah, seriously.

Caught off guard, I didn't shoot, and by the time I woke up and realized I should be shooting, the bird had entered the woods again. Too high, too far. I was sorely tempted to chase it, but it was no where near the ground when I'd last seen it. It could've been anywhere. But there was still daylight...

Hank and I laughed. It was OK not to get that bird. We'd had a great hunt with the guy who'd gotten us into hunting. I'd discovered a new kind of hunting that I loved - rigorous, exciting and counterintuitive. I was a convert. That was enough.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Galen Geer said...

Holly, That's a truly great hunting story! Too bad I didn't get a change to join up with you guys but Chas and I had a good time over here. Ruffed grouse are on my list.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...


You can *smell* a bird? You can smell a *bird*? You can't seriously smell a bird. Can you?

I love the story, but I am awed by the talent.

Holly Heyser said...

Galen: Thanks! It was incredibly fun. I would've caught the bug with that first bird, but going through that epic stretch with Chris just totally sold me. I know that should never be my standard, but I'm glad that I know what a great hunt feels like.

Tamar: Yeah, I can, and I don't understand why my sense of smell works so well in the woods, but not elsewhere. And this is the first time the smell has been followed by an immediate sighting, which was super exciting. I'm still no match for a dog, though - I sure can't locate an animal with my nose.

Gary Thompson said...

Yikes! Here you go, tumbling down the rabbit hole. It gets dark and mysterious from here on out, but in a very good way.

Holly Heyser said...

I like the sound of that!

Funny, I was just telling Hank I would be heartbroken if we ever had to move away from duck country. But if we moved to a place where I could hunt ruffed grouse a lot, I could probably be pretty happy.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I never have seen a ruffed grouse in the wild, but I liked the bar code simile. It's a little like looking for dusky (blue) grouse in the Rockies maybe.

Gary Thompson said...

I don't know, that might mean you'd have to get a dog ;-) On the other hand, you wouldn't have to mark your birds down any longer (tee hee).

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, Gary, this is gonna make you sad: I retrieved all three of my birds without the aid of a dog...

Kevin said...

Great story Holly. I can totally relate to the first time I shot at ruffies through the trees. It also reminds me that I have a free weekend to hit up my Grouse territory this weekend.

Holly Heyser said...

Now I'm wishing I lived a little closer to it. Hunting out of state is expensive, and it's such a PITA to get your birds back home. :-(

Anonymous said...

Hey Holly great shooting. If you go again save me the wings and tails of both types for tying flies.

Holly Heyser said...

Chas (belatedly) and Harv: Thanks!

And Harv, I did save a bunch of feathers for photography, and I could be persuaded to part with them, once I've done all the photos I want to do with them...

Unknown said...

Awesome story! What a great day!

Hil said...

How DO you get your birds back home? I'm headed to MO for a duck hunt in November and I'm wondering if there's a good way to get ducks home on a plane.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks Trey!

Hil:First, freeze your birds solid. Then check your airline regs on ice. You definitely can't use loose ice. You might not be allowed any ice.

Then, open your wallet for the extra luggage (ice chest). Huge PITA.

Shotgun Kat said...

Where can I hunt a ruffed grouse locally in California Holly? Or do I HAVE to go to Minnesota? I have never even seen one in real life before.

Holly Heyser said...

DFG says we can hunt 'em, but I'm not sure where. Limit's only two, though, compared w/Minnesota's five.

SimplyOutdoors said...

What a great hunting story. I've never hunted woodcock, though they do exist here in the Michigan woods, but, after reading this, it might be time to try.

With my love of bowhunting, though, and my new love of goose hunting, I'm running out of time to try anything else :)

ABBMVIT said...

Great story. I grouse hunt in Northern NH and after taking many years off, my first return to the woods was just like your experience. My brother still kids me about the ones I "let go" that year. I love the "shooting through a bar code" comment!

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Great to read of your adventure, I keep telling myself i'm not jealous, I'm living vicariously through you and hank


Holly Heyser said...

Simply: They're delicious, and worth your time. I'm bummed, though, because I won't be able to eat these. We ate our grouse last night, and Hank's serving the woodcock to Chris and his family tonight.

ABBMVIT: Thank you! I got the barcode idea when I was trying to figure out how to illustrate this story, because Hank couldn't find his camera. I thought of drawing the trees, and the bar code just came to me.

SBW, we have two couches at our house, one of which is actually comfortable. Our casa is your casa.

Peebs said...

Did you take a look at the woodies wierd head with the upside down brain. The best way to transport birds is to have them shipped but it is pretty costly. I shipped some cornfed mallards from Missippi to Calif and it almost cost as much as my plane ticket.

Holly Heyser said...

Yeah, whether you Fedex it or take it on the plane, it costs a fortune - definitely NOT worth it for just a couple birds (I think I paid $110 to bring home a couple sharpies and a dove or two from North Dakota last year.)

Definitely a crazy looking bird. I don't get the upside-down brain, but hey, if it works for them, why not?

Holly Heyser said...

And can I just say that while I'm sad I can't eat the woodcock we got, I CAN'T WAIT to photograph some of the feathers I brought home? Can't wait!

Al Cambronne said...

Good shooting!

I'm not very skilled with a shotgun, and grouse hunting for me is usually just a nice hike. Once in a while I scare a few, and with luck I connect once or twice a year. You did great, and Chris must have taken you on some good trails.

My only grouse-hunting goal is to come out ahead of our living room windows. We usually have one or two per year that try to fly through them. Those birds always seem extra tender. Truly a gift.

Saw one in our yard this afternoon under our crabapple tree, but it just wouldn't feel right to shoot it there. On the other hand, the refrigerator is looking a little bare right now...

Peebs said...

Mississippi my mother would shoot me if she were still here I could spell that almost before I could talk. Also cornfed are not as good as ricefed 17 days and counting.

Holly Heyser said...

Al: Chris is the master of public-land hunting in Minnesota!

And funny, none of my front-yard doves come through my front window...

Peebs: I KNOW!!!

joe said...

Holly: I totally know that smell. I can also smell them, and sometimes pheasants as well. I spent a lot of time hunting ruffs in Ohio, while at Ohio State. Here in California, I can really smell where pigs have been. They smell like the earth.

Holly Heyser said...

Yay, I'm not crazy! Or at least not alone. The ruffies smell like a cross between a dove and a turkey. I could breathe it in all day.

Anonymous said...

I miss the grouse woods of MN, where I grew up learning how to wing shoot. You captured the experience beautifully, thanks for a great read and the chance to travel back into the north woods.


Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Pete! I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Typically I'd take duck hunting over upland birds any day, but this was pretty special :-).

Steve Bodio said...

Much as I love the west I'm in a state of total envy. I spent my first twenty or so hunting years chasing grouse and woodcock (well, and hawking bunnies)-- probably why I still prefer double guns.


Holly Heyser said...

Thanks! I can see how a nice lightweight double would be a pleasure to carry on such an adventure - my gun weighs a ton. I try to think of it as more calories burned...

Unknown said...

I like your article because you present such an amazing facts and Ruffed Grouse bird pic.