Open Season: Tough to beat a Minnesota ruffed grouse hunt
As my dog and I rounded the bend, the birch-laded woods appeared to part like intricately painted cardboard props in a Shakespearian play. A stick- and leaf-strewn path popped into view that almost looked too perfect; too serene.
Late afternoon sunlight filtered through yellow leaves to cast a daylily glow under the pockmarked canopy. The ground mirrored that which hung overhead, as I crunched through a growing carpet of golden leaf litter.
Up ahead, my German wirehaired pointer, Remy, paused his search to sniff the base of a tree. Clad in a blaze-orange skid plate to protect his susceptible underside, the gray-ticked and roan dog perked up suddenly as if remembering what he was out in the woods to do, and raced back into the brush in pursuit of our prey.
I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs to capacity with the damp, piney, saturating scent of northern Minnesota. With each breath, it was as if I was cleansing myself with a cedar-lined, wood-stoked sauna for the soul.
This was why I was here - this was what fall was all about.
During a person's lifetime, his or her brain processes, sorts and files seemingly countless moments; from the most finite and simplistic to the long-term and ornate.
Since returning from my most recent trip to Minnesota's ruffed grouse capitol, I've tried desperately to mentally replay the four-day stretch in an effort to keep each and every memory, no matter how obscure, as crisp and clear as when it was made.
But even though it's been just a few weeks, I can feel the edges blur; the colors fade. Little things, like what I ate for breakfast or how many trails we walked one morning, already are tough to recall.
Other aspects, however, remain crystal clear.
Like the first grouse of the trip; that was a surprise - which, come to think of it, really wasn't all that surprising.
The wind was blowing Thursday evening like it hadn't blown across Chisholm in a long time. Among the prairies of North Dakota, a strong breeze continues, for the most part, unabated. Here, we feel the brunt of the weather full-on.
Not so in the forested north country. There, a strong wind finds fierce resistance in the immense stretches of trees and brush. But instead of backing off, persistent winds turn into churning beasts that rip through trails, bouncing, spinning, and whirring off the copious fauna.
This makes grouse hunting difficult in two ways. First, a grouse hunter's best sense is his hearing. While ruffs have a tendency of flushing at the most unanticipated moment, they do give themselves away on occasion. A wary bird may cluck-cluck-cluck its position as it skirts the edge of cover. This brief moment can be just long enough to prepare for the feathery claymore.
The second reason wind is tough depends on the dog. Remy knows when to track scent on the ground, but this can lead to encroachment and busted birds. If he scents the air, however, he can pick up a hot scent much sooner, and communicate it to his master.
While slight breezes carry a bird's whereabouts easily to a dog's nose, stronger gusts have the opposite effect; they tend to confuse instead of enlighten.
That's why we were 20 yards past the grouse when it decided to burst from its cover. Remy had walked right past it without even the slightest increase in tail wag to signify he was getting birdy.
I like to think of grouse as nature's most intelligent dumb bird, and this particular individual fit that to a fault. While it was smart enough to wait for us to pass before flushing, it decided to fly directly at us instead of safely into the woods.
As the fury of wing beats zipped over my shoulder, it made the deadly decision of traveling straight down the trail in front. It seemed to have zeroed in on Remy's behind, but upon realizing it would lose this game of chicken, the grouse veered off the trail. At that instant, I fired a shot and heard the "thud" if it hitting the forest floor.
Remy froze like a petrified stump. "Fetch," I yelled. "Dead bird!"
He took off into the woods - on the wrong side of the trial.
After a bit of redirection, the pooch zig-zagged his way into the scent and eventually found the quary.
Shooting a ruffed grouse is a roller-coaster moment. After brief and supreme jubilation, seeing a limp figure in your dog's mouth settles the shooter into a sense of melancholy. Such a beautiful animal, the grouse, and one not easily bagged.
My wife, Erin, and my father, Bret, tagged along on just about every hunt that weekend. Although neither had the chance to shoot any birds, they reveled in the moments that tend to stick with a person for a lifetime.
Erin got the chance to watch our dog at his best - and sometimes his not-so-best. Dad got to send some lead into the air and educate a few ruffed grouse. And in the end, we got to chat with our relatives who, because of distance, we rarely visit.
There were laughs, there were hugs, and many stories told.
Walking back from our final trail, it was tough to leave for Fargo. There's always that pull to try one more trail; to bag one more bird.
Then I thought about it; this really couldn't get any better. Frustrations, misses and some poor dog work aside, I would not have changed anything.
Fittingly, a grouse flushed from a small pine tree to the right. For a split second, it seemed to scramble through the brambles before becoming framed against the golden leaves and disappearing into the thick forest, unscathed.
I smiled; that was worth remembering.