If you’ve been following Northwoods’R at all through our brief history, you’ll know that my experience pursuing the Ruff with the help of a bird dog is limited. In case you haven’t been following us, you could learn more about my history as a grouse hunter and/or future endeavors with a bird dog by following the aforementioned links. Regardless, the story I want to share with you today is about a lesson I learned this past season in one of my, now accumulating, hunts with a fine cover dog.
It was mid-October, the brief thought of which fills my mind with a flood of emotion and sensory stimulation, and I was afield with my fellow Northwood’R, Garrett Mikrut, and his fantastic four-year old GSP, Stella. It was late afternoon and before the scheduled rendezvous back at R&R Ranch, a nearby camp we have the good fortune of visiting each season, we decided to run the dog through one more patch of cover to cap the day. Garrett dropped the tailgate, Stella’s feet hit the ground running and we began casually pacing along an old two-track logging road, lined with a nice mix of Aspen and laced with Jack-pine. At this point in the day we felt little pressure, for our game bags already held a combined four ruffed grouse and six woodcock, a fine day in the woods. With a trained eye, one might have been able to discern a slight drop off in Stella’s pace and intensity after a full day of hunting, yet I noticed none and continued to watch in amazement as she cast from side to side, graceful as ever.
The hunt continued on like this for nearly the duration of the evening, no action. The sun was behind the trees, the sky growing ever dimmer. Garrett and I were occupied by our own conversation recapping the day and discussing plans for the next, all the while watching a bird dog, hard at work, motivated solely by the primal urge to pursue game and please her handler. On the verge of sunset, the cool and calm evening air was finally split by a strange, yet familiar sound. It was Stella’s beeper and she was on point, of course! This lengthy cast of hers had taken her well into the cover on the west side of the road. With the truck just around the bend, Garrett and I made the easy decision and took off towards Stella’s beacon.
When we finally arrived on the scene, we emerged from the aspen into a small opening. The forest floor was grassy and there were a few trees neatly spaced throughout. One tree in particulate caught our attention immediately, a slender, twenty-foot pine tree all alone on the north side of the clearing. At the base of this tree we found Stella, on point, as intense as I have ever seen, with eyes locked on the top of the tree. We quickly realized the golden opportunity we had on our hands, grouse in the tree, wide open space, nowhere to run! As a decent pair of grousers, Garrett and I have developed some chemistry in the woods and without a word we took formation, he to east and I to the west as we flanked Stella and began our approach. I have no doubt that I speak for both of us when I say that adrenaline was flowing and we were on full tilt at this point in anticipation of the shooting opportunity that was sure to come. Our guns were shouldered and our hearts were pounding as our feet were placed carefully, one in front of the other towards the lonely pine, Stella had yet to blink.
It is at this point in the story that things took a turn toward the unexpected. I wish I could tell you that just as Garrett, Stella and I had completely triangulated the pine tree in this quaint little clearing, the bird flushed and set out on a perfect crossing pattern. Garrett and I swung, simultaneously fired and the bird fell, a tally on both of our belts! Yet, that is not what happened, no, not at all. The moment did arrive when the three of us had all achieved a perfect angle on the tree with an open sky background for shooting. Yet when this moment arrived there was no flush, only the pounding of my heart inside my chest and the still of the October evening. Slowly, my excitement level began to fade. If you’re a deer hunter, imagine that moment when you see the flicker of a white tail through the trees, but when the head of the animal emerges on the other side it is without a crown of antlers. This is how I felt as my heart rate slowed, my focus waned and my field of view widened. A quick glance at the dog told a different story, there was a bird in that tree and we were about to botch an opportunity that Stella had served us on a silver platter.
At this point Garrett and I began conversing back and forth as we scanned the tree for any sign of a bird. As I stated before the tree was slender, especially at the top, with no more than a foot of circumference at the base. There didn’t seem to be much more to this picture, certainly nothing that we could be missing. We began to reason that Stella had burst into the clearing, startling the grouse and sending it high atop the pine tree for immediate cover. We then suspected that upon reaching the tree top, the bird must have quickly flushed out the back side whilst keeping the tree directly between itself and the dog, a classic escape by a savvy old Ruff. Stella wasn’t fooled however, at least that is what she was trying to tell us, and unfortunately for her we weren’t exactly getting the message. This likely went on for a minute or so when I finally, in an attempt to show Stella that there was no grouse in the tree, picked up a stick and underhand hurled it up towards the area she was directing all of her attention. The stick glanced off a few limbs, without seriously disturbing the top of the tree, but surely no ruffed grouse would put up with that sort of disturbance, would it? As puzzled as ever, I decided that in a last-ditch effort, I was going to show this dog that the hunt was over and it was time to head back to the truck. I casually stepped up to the tree, gripped the trunk firmly and gave it a shake. As soon as the first wave of momentum reached the top of the tree, a distinct sound filled the air. The thundering wings of a ruffed grouse, muffled slightly as he took off into open air, followed by a single report from Garrett’s double. Blinded by a face full of pine needles, I quickly turned to my friend in amazement. “Missed him,” he said. We both burst into laughter.
As the two of us had our laugh, Stella looked on in disgust I’m sure. I can only imagine what she thought of us in that moment, however it was only another moment before she turned tail and sped off in search of more game. She is a bird dog through and through, right down to the last-minute of every day in the field. Although we certainly had an entertaining story to tell back at camp, I must say I learned a thing or two about grouse and grouse dogs that evening. Trust is something that must be built between a hunter and a dog, but once established the sport develops into something else entirely. Certainly the result of which, is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts. If I’m ever fortunate enough to find myself in a similar situation, next time I plan on trusting the expert, man’s best friend.
Have a similar story? Perhaps a time when you didn’t trust your dog, but should have? Please share in the comments section below.