““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
No Ordinary Hunt
Aldo Leopold, The famous 20th century wildlife biologist and conservationist, summed up perfectly the lure and lore of ruffed grouse: “There are two kinds of hunting. Ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting.” Leopold knew. He pioneered modern wildlife management in Wisconsin, where this beautiful bronze creature of the forest edge is known as the king of game birds.
Every October, Mark Parman, who teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison County, and his wife Susan spend their weekends driving miles and miles of logging roads. They pause at favorite spots, uncase their light over-under double-barrel shotguns and follow in the philosophical footsteps of Leopold while chasing their two English setters through thick stands of young aspen.
The lithe, energetic dogs are bred for this. They carry bird-hunting genes dating back to the 18th century. They range through the autumn woods as if half airborne, their extraordinary wet noses on high alert for the intoxicating scent of grouse. When the tinkling sound of the bells attached to the dogs’ blaze-orange collars stops, the -hunters move in behind the setters on classic, staunch, quivering point. Their feathery white tails are aloft in signal pose. The suddenly silent dogs are barely visible through the mottled thicket. Guns loaded with birdshot are held at the ready in one arm. The free arm parts the thick cover, adding telltale seasonal scrapes and scratches that give away avid grouse hunters in communities throughout the great Northwoods, from the tag-alder seeps of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the birth uplands of Minnesota.
At once the bird explodes in a whir of wings, crashing through the branches. In one simultaneous electric motion, the gun-blue barrels of the sleek Brownings trace the air, eyes glimpsing the brown blur of bird, fingers squeezing the triggers: boom-boom!
Nostrils fill with the acrid, sweet smell of burnt power. Wisps of smoky gray feathers float. The white dogs are flying again.
Bird in Hand Isn’t So Easy
“The shooting of grouse of this species is precarious, and at times very difficult, on account of the nature of the places which they normally prefer,” wrote the son of a former French naval officer sometime in the 1830s. “Should, for instance, a covey of these birds be raised from amongst the Laurels (Kalmia latifolia) or the largest species of Bay (Rhododendron maximum), these shrubs so intercept the view of them, that, unless the sportsman proves quite adept in the difficult art of pulling the trigger of his gun at the proper moment, and quickly, his first chance is lost, and the next is very uncertain.”
The writer was the young artist, hunter and adventurer John James Audubon, describing the elusive getaway behavior of ruffed grouse for what would be published as his immortal Birds of America folio, the greatest collection of wild bird paintings ever.
Interested in a Hunt?
Park Falls, gateway to northern Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest, would be a good place to start your quest for the king of game birds this October. It’s a friendly little place of carved pumpkins and homemade autumn pies. The sign as you enter this two-stoplight town says it all: “Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World.” The Ruffed Grouse Fall Festival takes place here on October 21.
Park Falls Municipal Airport (715-762-3971) has a 3,200-foot runway. For information on accommodations and hunting, visit cityofparkfalls.com and parkfalls.com or call (877) 762-2703. For information on Wisconsin hunting licenses and regulations, visit dnr.wi.gov or contact the state’s Department of Natural Resources at (888) 936-7463. For information on Ruffed Grouse Society dinners, shoots and special events throughout the U.S., visit ruffedgrousesociety.org or call (888) 564-6747.
Thomas Pero welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.