I saw a grouse in the clouds in my coffee.
He was right there, plain as day. He wasn't flying; he was walking into a thicket the coffee clouds were making. (Sometimes I start out with a healthy slug of half-and-half that Helen puts in my coffee, then as I continue to refill the cup all morning I may put no more cream in, so the coffee is of varying shades.)
I guess I think about grouse a lot. The ruffed grouse is what we are talking about here, not "ruffled" as some might say. They are found (or once were) across much of the United States and into Canada. I understand there are areas west of the Big Muddy that still have good populations of ruffed grouse, along with other species such as the blue grouse. They are lucky that way out there.
Here in the eastern U.S., mainly in the Appalachian Mountains, we once had good numbers of grouse — and I am sure we took them for granted, because I know I did. Grouse, to me — when I was younger, had a lot more hair and could get around the hillsides much better — seemed to be everywhere. We saw them on back roads routinely, and indeed, this was how many people collected them for the pot. It wasn't very sporting (or legal), but many is the grouse that has been shot on a U.S. Forest Service or other back road.
These birds are known for a thunderous roar as they spring out of the brush; their wings make this sound. To the novice hiker who isn't expecting it, this noise can be very startling. The thick cover and lightning speed of a flushing grouse often left new hunters befuddled on how to hit one with a shotgun. The experienced hunters took it all in stride and could down a grouse in the thickest of covers, but even they had misses.
Those who hunted the grouse almost exclusively became a separate sporting culture, maybe more of a cult. These guys were sometimes recluse-like and not very social. They had their own special places to hunt and were not likely to share them (much like turkey hunters of many years ago).
The good ones had great bird dogs, and these were much like their owners: lean and wiry with an ability to really put on the miles in these terrible and wonderful mountains. This is what distinguished the true grouse hunter from most other hunters. They were serious about walking and covering the miles; this type of hunting required it. If they were going to be successful, they had to traipse around their beloved covers to find the birds. There was no still hunting or sitting on stumps — it was walk as hard as you could from one thicket to the next, wrenching as much as you could from a short winter day.
Another thing that set these guys apart was how well they knew the country. They had to; if you covered as much ground as they did, you either had to know the area or you would be lost all the time. And they got lost sometimes — or maybe just the famous woodsman's "turned around" — but they made it back home or to the truck eventually. The old-time grouse hunter went on treks all the time that would terrify a lot of modern-day hunters. There were no ATVs, staying on a path or the short walks so many do today. It was cross country, and coming out somewhere and hoping you could get a ride back to your vehicle. It is not likely we will see their kind again in any numbers.
In my rusty memory, I thought I saw the grouse population start going down in the 1980s. You often hear the ruffed grouse is on a seven-year cycle and their numbers will come back up. I never saw this; the numbers went down and have not returned.
Why? Well, that is $64,000 question. Habitat is what you usually hear — grouse need early successional timber growth to thrive. I wonder when this phase of habitat does appear, as in after timbering operations, where would the birds come from to fill this space? I don't know. I don't see it.
So today we still have die-hard grouse hunters who keep up the tradition and trail these elusive birds. I admire these hunters and feel for them at the same time. I certainly don't walk the areas that would be considered grouse cover like I used to, but I do put in some miles during the fall and winter while turkey hunting and squirrel hunting with a dog. When we do see or flush a grouse, it is certainly memorable. It doesn't happen very often; more is the pity.
Still, these modern grouse chasers keep at it and keep a pointing dog or two. Like I said, I admire them. They are true keepers of a flame many consider to be long extinguished.
God bless them. I like to think they are out there exploring a secluded mountain cove, pushing through a grapevine thicket, following a skinny pointer or setter with a tail bloody from beating the brush. Walking, walking, always looking, hopeful of what might be around the bend.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at email@example.com.