Grouse Dinner


A Series of Fortunate Accidents

[by Richard Yatzeck]

Diane—whose maiden name was Kessler-Tinker—should really have married a handier man. Leaving to pick up her mother at a distant airport, she asked me to replace the cracked pane in the back hall window and to put the chicken in the oven in time for an eight o’clock dinner. Even before the dust had settled in the driveway, I decided to leave the window till later because I planned to shoot ruffed grouse for dinner. Added to the single, small bird in the freezer, the two birds I planned to shoot would make a regal game meal. Diane’s mom, June, loves game. I was, then, avoiding the window job for June’s sake. What I lack in handyman skills, I make up for with my powers of rationalizing.

I put the freezer grouse—sole fruit of October’s hunting—in the oven to thaw. Pyos’s nose was fine. My shooting, though, had left us mostly gameless save that one bird. Still, hope eternal and the late October sights and smells of autumn assured me that I was doing the right thing. So, Pyos the capable springer and I crossed Blueberry Road to try Sullivan’s woods. Pyos cantered, as if through a well-known filing cabinet, west into the wind on the wood’s edge. Red willow, seedling Damson plum, prickly ash, and late raspberry bordering the mature interior black ash and maple, most of the leaves still hanging, made a fine larder for browsing birds. Pyos ranged into the woods, too, checking elm deadfalls where morels sprout in April. No grouse. Not even in the cedar copse that forms the northwest corner. Nothing but a single, skittering cottontail, passed up so that the partridge would not be alarmed. They may not be so attentive to stray shots or slammed car doors as pheasants are, but then again, they may.

“We moved westward, into the wind, without mishap. Even got to admire the Uzi-like rat-tattat of a pileated woodpecker. Not a sniff of grouse, though.”

We turned southward then into larger cedar, tag alder, mature white spruce, and tangles of wild cucumber and fallen elm. Since it seems to me that ruffed grouse move into the wind and follow the sun across a day, I had hopes for this western edge too. Pyos, returning from a foray into the mature woods, slowed, eyed me, and approached a medium-sized white spruce on the balls of his feet. A partridge, seeming as big as a great horned owl, slid down and away south. The hardest, for me, the most hopeless of shots: down, out of a tree. I fired without thinking lead, without thinking at all, and the bird made a 45-degree turn straight up. Head shot, it “towered.” It blasted right through the interwoven higher boughs of black ash and maple and was gone from sight. A single gold maple leaf drifted back from its flight. Pyos and I gaped.

We hadn’t a clue where to begin to look for that grouse. After the sudden ascent we froze, listened for the smashing fall, a thump, the fevered buzzing of wings that often betrays a dying grouse. We heard exactly nothing at all. Somewhere within that 20-acre wood lot, the towering bird would finally have come to rest. To find it would be the sheerest, merest luck. I do not happily leave a hit bird undiscovered, but lacking any hint of direction, I moved on southward with Pyos through the still promising edge. I meant to circumnavigate that 20 acres.

Circumnavigate is on purpose. The south fence of Sullivan’s woods stretches across low, rolling ridge land. You approach these ridges, though, through ankle-to-hip-deep water, because the intervening land is the beginning of the blueberry marsh that gives our road its name. Even at the end of October, I hunt here in hippers. Those ridges on the south, across the water, are lined with oaks and beeches, another nice grouse pantry. But today, as frequently, Byron Dalrymple was right—ruffed grouse seldom feed on acorns and beechnuts when there is still a plethora of soft fruits. I found raspberries and seedling plums in this case, though the plums were getting a bit old. This south line then with the breeze at our backs provided only, near the marshy edge, one bright brown woodcock flight. A flight, a shot, but no woodcock. Pyos may have sneered.

I was planning—an activity in which Diane finds me, correctly, deficient—to go north now, through the cattails and bluestem that border the woods on the east, and then head into the wind, through the relatively open middle of the 20 acres, the mature woods that had shaded out real grouse cover. I hoped that Pyos would wind and find that towered bird. But I knew that I needed two birds, and the miss on the woodcock hadn’t built confidence. This “relatively open” area is strewn, however, with dead elm blowdowns mixed with large and standing swamp maples, soft semi-marshy stretches, and here and there, gaping holes in black muck where tamaracks, pitched right over because of their shallow root systems, used to stand. These holes, lovely if they’d been parts of trout streams, are booby traps here. Unfallen leaf cover darkens and wild cucumber and prickly ash screen these natural mantraps. I moved with some care then but had begun to worry a bit about time. The nearing arrival of Diane and June, the eight o’clock dinner hour, made the acquisition of two grouse a sensitive issue. I probably should have just fixed the back window, roasted the chicken.

We moved westward, into the wind, without mishap. Even got to admire the Uzi-like rat-tattat of a pileated woodpecker. Not a sniff of grouse, though. A return swing a hundred yards farther north was fruitful of spooked late-season frogs, even the wheep of a belated teal, the flash of a blue admiral butterfly, but nothing at all for the table. One final swing, then, west again, 15 minutes before closing time, nearer that pre-ridge water. We struck toward a last, looming swamp maple with its ragged spread of snakey branches, low to the marshy ground. Whoosh as I lifted a particularly spiny bough of prickly ash. Ka-boom! as I tried, onehanded, from the bent knee, as this bird, at least the size of a lesser auk (but nowhere near extinction), departed around the fat maple. The knee I tried from sank out of sight over the edge of an unsuspected muck hole. The other leg tried to compensate, the recoil—I had pulled both triggers of the 12 gauge—added its bit, and I pitched over sideways where a tamarack used to be. An involuntary thrash kept gun and head up a bit. Then I subsided, as into an abandoned Jacuzzi— the double underwater in my lap, my neck propped against the roots of the prickly ash, my hippers and back pockets bubbling beneath me. Pyos, startled, sprang up against the trunk of the maple and appeared to hold it up. Was the damned maple falling too?