Expectations vs reality… One is an idea, the other is… well, I guess I have never got a straight answer on that one. What I can tell you is that the two never align quite as expected. This seems to be even more true when it comes to dogs and hunting. When the two are combined it’s anybody’s guess to what the results might be.
Going into the Wisconsin 2017 grouse season expectations were high. Drumming reports increased by double digit percentages from 2016. I had at least five dogs and a large, but purposely obfuscate, number of coverts to hunt.
I find that spending time with dogs has the side effect of leaving images behind in your mind. They imprint in a way that seems, or at least I hope, is permanent. Oskar is the type of dog that produces these images with what seems like little effort. I like to remember these images in the style of an old oil painting. You know the type, they usually depicted a dog, or dogs and a hunter at the moment of truth. A dog on point a bird flying and a shotgun about to blast.
I realized that it was not exceptionally warm as the rain poured from the sky. The leather leash was slick in my hand as I thought about how the rain was going to affect the field work. Rachelle is about to head out with Oskar. Oskar, a white and orange Spinone, stands tall at the edge of the field waiting his turn. As the three judges explain the rules Oskar stands nearly waist height with his white coat contrasted with the background. I watch as Rachelle taps Oskar on the head and says “Hunt ‘em up”. A smile cracks my face as Oskar starts to move. He covers the field with a grace that does not match his knuckleheaded personality. Off to my left I hear “Wow… look at that dog move.”. Soaking wet and now freezing I warmly imagined an old two track, falling leaves, and a young white dog.
With the stars aligning I prepared for the season. There was no way that I would be caught off guard. In life sometimes you will find gifts. The only requirement to receive one of these gifts is that you be in a position to grab one. I prepared the truck, cleaned the guns, packed the bird vests and gave the dogs a pep talk. We were ready… or at least ready for the expectation.
Opening day we were packed and driving with the sun well under the horizon. We were heading to one of my favorite coverts. I named it “Puppy Spot”. It earned its name after it provided three separate dogs their first grouse over the past couple years. I questioned my choice of footwear as I wiped sweat from my forehead. As the sound of a dog trailed away I decided that questioning my boots could wait. Three hours later, my feet were hot, sore and we had only moved one bird. I thought to myself, that’s weird…
I was uncomfortably warm but not worried. I have plenty of coverts to try and everyone knows grouse are famously unpredictable. So as the days went on I checked those coverts. The temperatures dropped and the rubber on the bottom of my boots ground thin. The birds were there but their numbers were down. I later heard speculation ranging from high turkey numbers to West Nile Virus causing the unexpected low numbers.
The idea that Oskar might not get his first grouse started to creep in. Afterall, he is a young dog and not only are the bird numbers down and the ones around seemed extra spooky. The season was not going as I expected and the reality of the whole thing had a bitter taste. I did the only thing I could… I followed dogs into the ugliest brambles and watched as birds spooked 75 yards out. If you were nearby, you would know, because you would of heard a muffled curse.
As Rachelle and I follow Oskar down the old trail we talk about the season so far. Inevitably the topic of low bird numbers comes up. As usual, we spend little time on the why and instead discuss what it means for the dogs. As Oskar works the right side of the trail I take a positive spin arguing that it’s good for dogs to have hard seasons. Seasons that make a dog really earn birds is good for character. As Oskar crosses the trail to the left I think… That’s all well and good but a young dog also needs to experience success.
Ahead of us is an opening in the forest. The opening is thick with red ferns about a foot and half tall. As Oskar works into the ferns I notice that his head is down and tail is moving quickly. Oskar picks up his pace as Rachelle and I simultaneously take notice. My heart instantly starts to beat faster and my vision tunnels. With Oskar sprinting it becomes clear that the bird is running. I ready myself for the inevitable flush as the sound of Oskar’s bell seems to grow louder and more clear even though it is moving away.
Oskar begins to arc to his left with his head now in the air. He has covered almost 50 yards and as every inch passes I can’t believe the bird has not flushed. Oskar makes a hard right turn and without notice stops. Oskar is facing broadside with his muzzle pointed towards us. As suddenly as Oskar pointed, it dawns on me. Oskar managed to out run the bird, pass it and then pin it with a staunch point.
Rachelle and I triangulate our positions to get the best possible coverage. As we start to move in the bird launches itself into the air. Ruffed grouse are hard birds to shoot and I have missed my fair share. But sometimes things are so clear, so obvious, so perfect that the universe can not allow you to miss. It’s moving left to right faster than should be permitted. I swing hard as my cheek smacks the stock. My finger slaps the front trigger and I know before the bird crumples.
As the bid falls I scream “Fuck yeah… dead bird!” I know some will say that cursing ruins the ambiance of the forest and is too blue collar for a gentleman’s sport. I will counter with the fact that when the hunting gets tough success is only found with a blue collar ethos. One of preparation, hard work, and determination. Under these conditions, there is little language that could over saturate the color of the day.
When hunting grouse don’t expect that your reality will meet your expectations. Instead, realize that your expectation can never match the opulence of reality. Especially, in the moment when a grouse dog has everything go right. When I close my eyes tonight I will hear a dog bell and see a painting of a red field contrasted by a staunch white dog. Just out of frame I will know there is a hunter with his vision tunneled and shotgun ready.