By Nick Simonson
In wrapping up a ruffed grouse trip in Northeastern Minnesota, I walked an old familiar trail in the woods north of Virginia. Known more to me for the scenery and less for the number of birds I had seen in the past, the trek always produced at least one opportunity, particularly in the last twenty minutes or so of the four-mile jaunt. In the couple hours leading up to the final stretch, I had plenty of time to replay the missed opportunities from the day before and let the regret grind its way out through each gravelly step on the path.
Just twenty-four hours before, while rounding a bend on a hilly, wooded Wildlife Management Area and pausing in front of an open lane to determine my next move, a brown-tinted grouse rattled its way up out of a small aspen thicket in what appeared to be slow motion, almost as if it was using its wings to climb up the stand of saplings. Mentally, the bird was already in my bag. At ten yards or so, a shot that felt like a sure thing sailed over the ruffie as it gained momentum and burst from the top of the wooded edge. Instead of flying into the cover along the trail, it uncharacteristically zipped out into the open, presenting by far the most makeable shot at a thunderbird I’ve ever had – which I promptly missed. My third, last-ditch-style salvo rang out and the bird rounded the distant corner of the trail. Flustered but hopeful something in the mess of lead caught up to it, I went to look for the bird, but found nothing where it left the lane.
Following the morning’s walk and its one opportunity, a dry and breezy afternoon brought seven birds out along another trail just down the road. Two ruffies presented makeable shots as they whirred in a gray-brown blur from the steep side of an old rocky hunting trail and a third at the trail’s end hopped from tree to tree, just out of range and well-blocked by the still green foliage on that particular set of popples which provided safe haven until he was able to fly out of view. While it had been a few years since my last early-autumn grouse hunt, I knew that even in good seasons of the birds’ decadal population cycle like this particular one, shooting chances were always at a premium, and missed opportunities would linger in my mental highlight reel. These ones certainly did as I made my way back toward the parking area of the final walk of the trip.
I watched my pup Ole who had accompanied me on these hikes as he chased the invisible scent lines of coyotes, deer, and based on one scat pile, possibly a wolf, through the yellow-green aspens and blazing orange and red maples, which decorated not only the ceiling we walked under, but also had started to paint the trail we were on with their falling leaves. Lost in the colors and the replay of the previous day’s events, the whirring wings I heard brought me back to reality and triggered a quick turn off the trail, gun firmly mounted to shoulder. A gray blur rocketed off the forest floor in a J-shaped rise toward the canopy. I took aim at the ruffie and pulled the trigger as its ascent slowed toward the tree tops. It tumbled to the ground, and from my vantage point, I could see it laying still amidst the old logs and fallen leaves as I took my young dog to retrieve it.
As I did so, I was overcome with emotion the likes of which I hadn’t felt in the outdoors since a deer hunt several years ago, and can only pinpoint one or two times I’d experienced it since I had started hunting. It was that swirling mix of respect and remorse that after so many miles and missed opportunities seemed anti-climactic; as I held the still-warm bird, the sensation lingered to the point of being uncomfortable. Lost in the ambivalence of finally harvesting one, I fanned the ruffie’s tail open and admired the silver-gray plumage and the black arc formed by the tail feather tips, before bending down and letting my lab sniff his way around its fine feathering. Righting myself mentally and physically, I made my way up the incline and back to the trail, the form of the small bird feeling unnaturally heavy in the left game pouch of my hunting vest.
The uncomfortable feeling faded as I walked on down the rising and falling gravel path behind my pup, and twice more reacted to the sound of whirring wings out of range and obscured behind the curtain of pines and popples, as instinct took over once again where emotion had ruled for just a moment. In that process of my shifting mindset, I acknowledged the ritual of hunting and all that goes with it: instinct, drive, sweat, work, laughter, frustration, responsibility, togetherness and sometimes, being alone. I determined that my reflection on the bird’s life and the recognition of death and the feelings that go with it are part of the experience and the burden that we should bear from time to time, to help us better savor those moments of excitement and celebration, but ultimately remind us completely of what it means to be a hunter.
(Featured Photo: The author’s first ruffed grouse of the season served as a reminder of what it means to be a hunter. Simonson Photo)