My retriever’s face is growing white, and his older running mate, a pointer, has a slight hitch in his step, sort of a limp if you watch closely, that comes and goes depending on the day.
Now that I consider it, that’s how either dog would likely describe their owner if they were able and asked to do so.
Don’t misunderstand. We’re still game and in better than decent shape. It’s just that if we were forced to take stock as another hunting season nears, this is what we’d see.
Wildlife biologists, on the other hand, examine upcoming seasons differently, blending science, trends, numbers, gut feelings and other ingredients to make the most honest appraisals possible of what hunters can expect.
Yet, no matter their predictions, good or otherwise, we take to the prairie each autumn with renewed urgency. Sometime in August, despite the arrival of the hottest temperatures of summer, we start gearing up for fall, talk about the sharp-tailed grouse opener and other seasons that will follow, and summon memories of hunting trips past.
On a gorgeous big-blue-sky morning in late September in 2012, the kind of morning you wish you could bottle and uncork on demand when the weather turns down the road, my dogs run noisy hot laps around the vehicle while we fill water bottles and dump shotgun shells into vest pockets. They whine and whimper as if their carrying-on will send us over the barbed-wire fence and into the field that much quicker.
What little wind there is this morning, it eases in from the northwest, lightly brushing the boot-high grasses and cattail heads the color of pancakes. We shoulder shotguns, point our noses into the breeze and let the dogs work.
It’s two weeks since the opener and we’ve worried this piece of property more than once, working the edge of a mostly dried wetland during the heat of the day and the shorter grasses on mornings like this one. I don’t know how many birds we’ve taken from here so far this season because we haven’t been counting. But I do know that we’ve yet to circle, weave and wander in this barbed-wire square without pulling triggers at least once apiece.
You’d think the grouse would have us figured out by now, go on full alert when we park the vehicle, slam doors and climb the squeaky fence.
As it goes most often, the pointer figures things out first, catching the scent of birds hiding somewhere upwind. After creeping for a handful of yards, he stops hard, as if his next step would take him over a cliff.
The grass in places isn’t tall or thick enough to hide a pop can, certainly not a handful of grouse. But the pointer, with a front leg lifted from the ground, “tells” us the birds are there and to trust him.
This is one of the best parts of the hunt. Even with the early warning from a red- and white-haired dog on point, it’s impossible to fully calm yourself, to slow a racing heart in anticipation of what happens next.
A half-dozen birds flush in a confusion of clucks and beating wings. Shotguns are fired and the number of hulls smoking just briefly in the short grass at our feet outnumbers the birds that have fallen to the ground with an audible thump.
By day’s end, season’s end, we’ll wade into this situation a number of times more, with the results varying. The one constant is our attendance no matter the forecast, no matter the year.
A Look Back
If you’re a ruffed grouse hunter, the birds spread across the trunk of the car in this 60-year-old photo is what catches your envious eye.
Ruffed grouse hunters in North Dakota today, and there are only about 1,000 of them most autumns, would be the first to tell you how tough it is to flush a limit of grouse in the Turtle Mountains or Pembina Hills, let alone shoot a limit. According to Game and Fish Department statistics, the harvest average for the last several years is about one to two birds per hunter.
The hunters in this black and white photo are Ernest Sarrazin and his son, Gary. The ruffed grouse were shot in the Pembina Hills.
The photo was taken by the late Ed Bry, longtime editor of North Dakota OUTDOORS and Department game warden before that. Bry became a warden in 1949 and worked closely with the elder Sarrazin.
Bry wrote: “My first trip into the Pembina Hills was with a veteran warden … We went to Walhalla and met Ernest Sarrazin who was concerned with all the violations and volunteered to help, serving as a special warden with no salary. That evening we went out into the sandhills and it wasn’t long until we saw a vehicle driving a trail with spotlight working the fields and timber. We made chase but lost contact on a winding road through the hills. The first deer shiner I had ever seen escaped.”
In an article in 1953, Bry touted the value of ruffed grouse to readers of the OUTDOORS: “The ruffed grouse is a game bird well worth hunting. He offers a type of hunting that no other bird can provide. When it comes to eating, the ruffed is king of all. The eating quality is so good that it causes one to wonder how a diet of berries, leaves, seeds and buds can create such wonderful meat.”
Back in the early 1950s, it appears Bry, Sarrazin and others shot plenty of birds for the pot. “I was fortunate to have been able to go on some good grouse hunts this last fall … Four of us hunted along the Little North River west of Walhalla. We only bagged seven, but if we had gotten our limit I don’t believe we would have had any more fun.”