A Grouse Quartet

grouse hunting

III – Flypast for Military Band

For one brief, glorious, shining moment— it couldn’t have lasted longer than a minute or two—but for that one moment I had the best all-time, lifetime, record on the red grouse of leg- end, on the heather-covered moors of northern England. Better than Lord Ripon, better than Walsingham, better even than King George V. The best. All-time.

We had gathered, our shooting party, at an estate in Northumberland. It was December, the days were short, the weather was bad. Ten die-hards—or, in my case, innocents—making a last attempt to put the estate over the top for the season.

The red grouse of the northern moors is really a ptarmigan and the mysteries do not end there. It’s the only game bird whose status became a concern of the British Parliament, which struck a committee to investigate its well being. This was a century or so ago, but it gives you an idea of the bird’s importance to the mental health of everyone from the King and Prime Minister on down. Novels have been written, doctoral theses penned, memoirs uncountable, masterpieces in great galleries. There is even The Famous Grouse, an equally famous whisky. Top that. I remember a night on Mount Meru…but never mind.

The most famous method of shooting grouse is the elaborate drive with gamekeepers courting nervous collapse, platoons of liveried beater, and squads of pickers-up (a lovely term!) with eager Labs behind the lines. We gathered in the morning mist to draw numbers for butts, but the fix was in and I, the honored guest, was placed dead center. In theory, the most likely to see more birds; in fact, more likely to be witnessed, missing one after another as they flowed over and around me, cackling with Lagopusian glee, and the guns up and down the line just shaking their heads. You can imagine my mental state as I climbed through the frosted heather, lugging a matched pair of (borrowed but exquisite) Lang & Hussey 12 bores and a speed bag laden with shotshells. I might miss with the Lang & Husseys, but by God I’d miss in style.

The horn sounded in the distance, echoing across the hills, signaling the drive had begun. And from the heather, far in front, there rose a single bird. Obviously, an old hand who’d seen this before and was getting out while the getting was good. He rose in a high climb, heading straight for us, beating the air into submission as only a red grouse can do, bearing down with all eyes upon him, determined to break the line.

I might not have done this before, but the Lang & Hussey certainly had. It came to my shoulder of its own accord, tracked up the grouse’s vapor trail and snarled as it passed its beak. The grouse folded in the air and came down in a long arc behind me, into the glistening heather and the eager jaws of a waiting Lab. With all eyes upon me.

First drive, first grouse, first shot ever. One brief, glorious, shining moment. Then the rest of the grouse came knocking.

IV – Nocturne

It doesn’t have to be a brisk October day with the sky impossibly blue and the frost riming the pumpkin, although those days—one a year, on average, by my count—rank right up there. Past a certain age, though, those are the saddest days. Better to step out the door into a damp, chill breeze, to immediately wish to be back by the fire, but to go out anyway, because who knows how many more there will be?

And look, there’s nothing to compare with the feel of the fire, late in the afternoon, with dusk falling, coming back worn out with walking, to stoke the fire into life and settle into its warmth. Bird in hand or birds still in the bush, it doesn’t matter. What matters is hunting them.

You can instantly divide the old hunters from the young hunters by the look in their eyes when you say something like that. If you’re a guy who despairs if he doesn’t get his limit, ruffed grouse are not for you. If you want to limit out quick and brag about it online, book into a preserve with planted quail. If your idea of the perfect day of wingshooting is mowing birds down in droves, go to Argentina or get a shrink; those are your options.

The grouse hunter—the real grouse hunter—rarely knows what the daily bag limit even is—one bird, two, five?—because it’s rarely a factor. Oh, it may be to some hunters who are faster shots than I am and live in areas where there are no cyclical down years. I’ve ever met one. Not in person.

There’s no limit, however, on how many flushes you can listen to and how many times you can dodge death by heart failure. And if you don’t have your possession limit by the end of today, that means you can hunt them again tomorrow.

Hunting ruffed grouse, like running marathons, is a solitary game. Where I first hunted grouse, there were not even dogs, and the odd time someone showed up with one, all they did was barge around flushing them wild. “Hear that?” the proud owner would say, and we heard myriad wings in the distance, out of sight. “He’s really getting into them!” Yep, that he is. Think I’ll head over thisaway.

You learn to listen for ruffed grouse. To recognize where they might be. To creep in, and be prepared for a   flush if you pause for very long (they think their cover’s blown) or duck under a log (they know you’re hamstrung.) You pause and listen for the gentle chirrupchirrrrruppp, down low, and creep closer, grateful for the wet leaves and the sleet. Instead of Red Rover of Armingdale dashing about, doing the work, you’re doing it yourself. Like Nebraska, it’s not for everyone, but it’s fine-edged bird hunting like no other.

So you close the cabin door, button your jacket and turn your face into the wind. It will be late when you get back. But it’s late in other ways, too.

To quote Bob Dylan, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”

Gray’s shooting editor once found himself on a juniper covered hillside, by a remote lake, under a warm October sun. No roads, no trails and ruffed grouse flushing all around.He could never find the place again, but he’s still looking. And he can still smell the juniper.