Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Gordie's First Grouse

A Typical Scene From "Early Grouse Season" In Northern NY
I’m not sure what got me so fired up to chase grouse with Gordie this Fall. Maybe the fascination began when we were out drilling in August. I aimed to sharpen his performance so he’d finish his Junior Hunter title in high style. The little guy really had matured over his third Winter. He began to respond crisply and with enthusiasm to my voice, hands and whistle. He also conceded that I was The Big Dog around the house, and fell into a comfortable role as my permanent shadow. So we were ready to pursue some partridge.

But it’s also possible that the visits to the chiropractor beginning in the Spring had given me a new, sharper-focused perspective. After examining the X-rays he took during my initial appointment, the Doc casually tossed out that I had “minor” arthritis here and there all along my spine and shoulders “consistent with a person your age.” Yikes! Time’s a’wastin’, Gordie, let’s head for the hills!

I even indulged myself by trading a bit of hard cash and a couple of former favorites that no longer shoot straight for a dedicated grouse gun. It’s a side by side 16 gauge, not too fancy at all, but honest, with a decent piece of walnut on her, double triggers, a straight right hand and fixed chokes. At 6 lbs. 2 oz., the gun promised that she’d prove no burden for even a rheumy codger like myself to wobble through the grouse woods with.

Proper Gear For Grouse Hunting
Grouse season in Northern New York opens on September 20, eleven days earlier than in “The Southern Tier” where we live. So when I heard from two old friends, Jim T. and Don M., urging that we get together for some early season action, I was delighted to gas up the van and roll.

We met on each of September’s last two weekends, watched Gordie put up a number of grouse (open season) and woodcock (closed season), and even touched off a shot or two. But we weren’t quick enough in the verdant early season woods to put a bird on the ground for him to retrieve.

Gordie was next invited as guest of honor to my cousin Richard’s camp for the Columbus Day weekend. Since the little spaniel doesn’t drive, I was invited too. We were expected in camp Friday afternoon for a quick hunt in the hour or so before dusk. I decided I’d leave home Thursday; hunt a covert or two near Watertown; and after a great meal at Cavallario’s Cucina and a good night’s sleep, head for camp Friday noon after a morning spent scouting.

We didn’t find a thing in an hour’s hunt at our first stop Thursday. On the drive to our second covert, though, a single grouse scooted across the gravelly road not 15 yards ahead of my van. I chose to believe this a Good Sign.

By the time we reached our next covert, the shadows were getting longer and the uncharacteristically oppressive heat we’ve been having began to dissipate. I parked the van, checked the vest for my shells and Gordie’s water bottle, and walked into some young hardwoods dotted with aromatic spruce and hemlock. As I loaded my gun with low brass lead #7 ½’s, I thought wistfully about the 16 gauge sitting at home in the safe. On Saturday of Columbus Day weekend, you see, ducks would open in Richard’s northern zone camp. To make life easy for everyone, I’d brought two boxes of 12 gauge steel #7’s so that we’d all be legal for a grouse, woodcock and wood duck trifecta. But that meant today I was carrying my 12 gauge Benelli autoloader. Jim T. had given me quite a teasing about losing this gun’s “easily detachable butt pad” in a grouse tangle two weekends earlier. Since the pad’s replacement had not yet arrived, I’d done some custom handiwork to make the gun a bit more user friendly. But this was patently not the classically handsome gun with which I’d hoped to shoot Gordie’s first grouse.

Packing Tape Provides A "High Gloss Finish"
We began working a southerly line through the woods. We hadn’t gone far at all when Gordie’s tail began beating a double-time tattoo. Then stuff happened, fast.

It started with Gordie working a bird in dense understory. When he flushed it with a concussive “whirr,” I squinted hard but failed to pick up the out-bound grouse.

“Gosh Darn! Mother's Father! Life is so unfair!” Or other words that form a loose equivalent...

Still working desperately, his nose glued to the abundant ground scent, Gordie encored by putting up two more birds. Yes Sirree, I eyed the trailer bird jinking to cover his six with a spruce tree and snapped a shot vaguely in his direction. The bang caused a fourth grouse to flush wild just off to my left, and I gave it a “Hail Mary” blast. Too bad a maple whip chopped off the twitchy lurch that was my swing.

Then all the woods were quiet. No bird was left to flush, no dog was to be seen, and I was standing there alone, thumping heart slowing, the enormity of my incompetence settling in like an all-day rain. Time hung there heavy for what seemed forever, but it's doubtful that even a minute passed. Then I heard leaves crunching out near the third bird’s escape route. In another second or two, there was Gordie, proudly carrying his first-ever grouse. Just like in the training videos, he brought it to me, sat down, tail just a’waggin’, and tenderly released it to me when I said “Give.” I told him what a fine retrieve he’d made, gave him an ear scritch and a splash of water, and we agreed to call it a day. A special day, with any luck the first of many more to come.

Gordie Already Thinking About His Next Grouse