“Dead bird! Rupert, fetch.” The tone of my voice elevated, the Hail Mary pass has worked! Rupert is staunch, looking north off the trail’s edge toward the spot where the exploding bird crumbled. Staunch, not on point, but in shock. Still in disbelief that I connected, he looks at me wide-eyed and dives into the pricker bush. A king is dead! Rupert has had his first ruffed grouse shot from over top of him.
Rupert looks at me - eyes not quite fully open and head angled - he stares at me through one eye. His face reads, “lucky shot...” I remind myself that we are hunters and we ought to be more stoic in our thinking. Afterall, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And if there is any place in the modern world where the tenants of ancient stoicism still matter, it is in the grouse woods. Right?
Ruffed grouse is a difficult bird to hunt. Taking on the challenge comes with thick cover, bumped birds and missed shots or, in other terms, failure. I find it easy to stay stoic, flat, unemotional in these defeats. Afterall, I’m in the woods, with a dog and shotgun, what is there to get upset at? In victory I am finding the emotion is not as easily tempered. Not only have Rupert and I worked hard in this pursuit, we have experienced failure, repeatedly.
Crack, my knee reminds me of the hour-long drive as I step out of the truck and examine my first Wisconsin covert. It's a tangle of young growth with no obvious trail or path. My chest is tight with the self-doubt that comes with unfamiliarity. My head swirls… Will it hold birds? Is Rupert ready to make the transition from pen-raised to wild birds?
These questions fade with each step as the tangle of undergrowth pulls at my legs. With each tug around my shin the forest speaks. This place is not for the lotus-eaters, success will only be had through the sweat of hard work, determination and sheer will. I periodically see Rupert’s head up, then down. In his best imitation of the quarry we hunt he is trying to fly over the cover instead of pushing through.
Suddenly, a fluttering of wings, louder than I remember. My shotgun instinctively goes to my shoulder, Bang. When my mind catches up with the event I realize that the shot was at least one full second behind the bird. Rupert has stopped now coming to the understanding that we are hunting. He moves toward the brush where the bird flew from. Nose to the ground he examines the area for a full five minutes. I say nothing, letting him fully take in this piece of the puzzle.
With this new information Rupert’s demeanor has changed. He moves quickly but with an air of caution. Picker bushes have gone from impenetrable to merely annoying. He has settled on a determination that pain is a fair price for birds. A necessary yang to a hunt’s yin. He hunts with the power, speed and force of a young dog. He needs every ounce he can muster as the refinement of experience is scores of hunts away.
I watch Rupert carefully as we push forward. His hips and shoulders start to move in opposite directions. His tail high wags from left to right - fast and consistent. He never slows as three birds launch themselves in three directions. I have no shot and Rupert is in full chase. I remain silent, unless I am in the midst of a miracle he will not catch the birds. Rupert is back within one minute. Wild birds are fast, devious and clever creatures. They make even a young and bold dog understand that he is hopeless to rely on speed alone. Rupert has learned another piece of the puzzle.
The walking is easier as my legs seem to find the path of least resistance. Rupert glides from left to right. His legs tall and his stride confident. He is starting to move like a grouse dog. Covering ground with efficiency and recognizing likely cover. Rupert notices a thorny plant 15 yards ahead. He approaches fast, nose down. Within one step he stops tail high and vibrating. The bird exits through the back of the bush and looks to go straight away. I empty both my barrels to no avail.
There is no shortcuts while hunting ruffed grouse. I could paint my face, dress in a ghillie suit, have an artist render me realistic decoys, have a game call made to mimic the grouse’s drum but it would all be a complete waste of time. The only way to bag this bird is to go find it and be competent enough to shoot it. I thought about this as I missed another grouse over a solid point. I begin to worry that I am not going to honor my end of the bargain. Rupert is a young dog and I need to shoot a bird for him. I can’t tell if my shoulders are tired or if the gravity of the predicament is weighing me down.
Shrugging off the discouragement we move forward. My feet ache with the throbbing that only uneven ground and cheap rubber boots can create. Rupert is cut up, tired and we should rest. Without warning the chirping of Rupert’s bell stops. My eyes snap in his direction. I see him through tunnel vision. His body is stiff as he slowly moves his head to look at me. There is no doubt that royalty is amoung us. I move to his side and stop. The bird is up. Just as surprising, so is the shotgun. My finger squeezes the first trigger and the right barrel explodes. The grouse crumples onto the forest floor and, for a moment, the forest goes silent.
With Rupert’s first grouse in the bag I reconsider my position on stoicism in the grouse woods. There is no room for this relic while hunting grouse with a dog. Rupert and I train together, learn together, fail together and succeed together. Our success is dependent on the emotional connection that we have developed through our tribulations. If you told me that we can’t be frustrated, disappointed, sad in our failures or happy, joyous, ecstatic in victories, I would ask you, “then what is the point of it all?”