Grouse inhabit my dreams now. I hear the thrum of their wings as they flush from dark spaces in dense alder or hazel thickets. I see their mottled shapes zip away through a picket of trees thin and thick. Sometimes I manage to kill one, threading a shotgun pellet through the maze and dropping the bird in the wet duff. Mostly though I swing, pull the trigger and watch the grouse fly into another stretch of the Minnesota North Woods.
It’s been three nights since my hunt for ruffed grouse ended, and each night I’ve dreamed about them — all the more significant because I rarely remember my dreams come morning. Maybe it’s because the hunt itself had a dreamlike quality. For three days we walked miles in freezing rain that became snow, through a fairytale landscape of damp young forest dotted with odd mushrooms and lit by the scarlet berries of viburnum and highbush cranberry.
Adding to it was my companion, my old friend Chris Niskanen, Chris is the man who convinced me to take up hunting seven years ago. He took me on my first hunt — to South Dakota in search of pheasants, a relative of the grouse. Chris is the outdoors editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and has hunted since he could walk. I had never picked up a shotgun before. Unless I could shoot it like a rifle, which I’d shot as a youth at target ranges, I was horrible. I missed every pheasant that flew by.
Joining us then was Chris’ Labrador retriever Finn. Finn was a young dog then. She is an old dog now. Chris is a bit older, too. As am I. The last time I’d seen Chris, his wife Diana, and Finn the Dog was five years ago. It felt like an eon. So much has happened since then I’d forgotten more news than I could recount to them. But all these years I’d held one wish: To redeem my shooting in front of Chris. I wanted to show him that I could shoot now. In some weird way, I felt like a son seeking approval from a father, even though Chris is only a few years older than me.
As soon as I stepped out of the airport and loaded my gear into Chris’ truck, the years evaporated. It was like we’d seen each other last month. Good friends are like that. “We’re going straight up to the woods,” he said. A few hours later, we were outside Grand Rapids, tooling down a dirt road looking for a sign that said “Thunder Hollow.” It was raining steadily, the temperatures hovering around 40 degrees. Not ideal.
Chris explained grouse hunting to me as we drove: It’s like pheasant hunting in that you walk a lot and do much better with a dog to point at or flush out the birds; Finn is a flushing dog excellent at retrieving downed birds. The difference is that you get precious little time to react when a ruffed grouse flushes — and when you do see the fleeing bird, which is only about half the time, you must shoot it through a haze of dense undergrowth. Then you need to find the grouse on the forest floor. And of course grouse are the color of the forest floor. Thus the dog.
He said good hunting is not measured in birds, but in flushes per hour. This recognizes how hard it is to successfully kill a grouse. He said he’d been getting three or four flushes per hour so far this year, and that eight flushes per hour was nirvana. A good strategy is to hunt dusk and dawn, because that’s when grouse will wander onto footpaths to eat green things like clover or strawberry leaves.
We had not walked a mile before I realized this kind of hunting stirred me in a special way. The terrain was not overly hilly, the world was still pretty green (although most of the leaves were off the trees), and the forest was dense. It felt like home. I grew up in New Jersey, and spend much of my time exploring the old forests of Watchung and Kittatinny, looking for interesting things. I might have come across a grouse there, I don’t remember. But never before in my hunting life had I felt like I was in that environment again. It was a warming feeling — which was good, because the rain was turning to sleet.
“That’s a grouse!” Chris stopped in the path. Sure enough, a few grouse were meandering along the path about 40 yards ahead of us. When they saw us, they flushed and Chris let fly with a side-by-side shotgun he’d been shooting since high school. Down the bird went. “You got him!” I shouted. Chris was unsure, but I wasn’t. Nor was Finn, who found the bird under a log.
We didn’t find any more grouse that evening, and the rain increased as the sun went down. But it was a good start and we vowed to return to this spot in two days; we wanted to give it a day’s rest before hitting it again.
Early next morning we drove even further north, to the Beltrami Island State Forest. “How far are we from Canada?” I asked. “Oh, about 40 minutes,” said Chris. We were only a couple hundred miles from the Manitoba marshes I’d hunted ducks in in early October. We turned onto some forest roads and soon found walking trails.
Shortly after we started Finn got excited. “There’s a grouse!” Chris pointed to a silhouette of a bird standing on a log not too far into the forest. He gave me the shot because he’d shot the last bird. My goal on this trip was to ultimately eat lots of grouse, so I shot the standing bird. Not exactly the shotgunning prowess I’d wanted to show Chris, but I shut up and enjoyed my first-ever ruffed grouse. It would have been a pretty bird had it not been pouring rain. In the weather the poor thing looked like a bedraggled lump of feathers.
As we walked on, Chris showed me highbush cranberries, and I began picking some with the idea that a highbush cranberry sauce would go well with my grouse. I also began seeing mushrooms, notably a birch polypore, which looks like a normal oyster mushroom on steroids. I picked a couple, but forgot to photograph them — or eat them. They’re still in the back of Chris’ truck. Damn. I also found this bizarre thing. Anyone know what it is?
We walked further into the thickets and bogs and came to what must have been a homestead a century ago. Asparagus still sprouted from a patch in a corner of what was now a meadow. Chris was poking around at the edge when a grouse flushed. He shot and missed, but I could see the bird, so I lifted on it and felled the grouse in one shot from 40 yards. This was what I wanted Chris to see! “Nice shot!” Chris said. Suddenly the weather seemed warmer.
Chris shot a few more grouse that day, and I repeated my performance from the asparagus meadow when we tracked another bird that had walked off the path into the brush. Chris and Finn went into the brush to head it off while I crept up on the path. The grouse flushed right over Chris’ head. He tried a pirouette shot but only caught feathers, while I again had a clear shot and dropped the bird. It felt good.
At the end of the day we had six grouse in the bag and had eight flushes per hour — all in the driving sleet and a snowstorm that was rapidly becoming a blizzard. Chris said this was nirvana. I knew what he meant.
The snow strengthened that afternoon as we drove back south to our motel in Grand Rapids. By nightfall is was pretty thick.
The snow stopped overnight, however, and we headed back to that first spot we’d hunted the initial evening. Two trucks were already there. Damn. In hindsight, we should have headed back up to Beltrami, but it was Halloween and we wanted to get back to see Di and their little daughter Gracie for trick-or-treating. So we went looking for another spot.
We found some likely grouse habitat west of Grand Rapids. Not nirvana like up north, but we did manage to flush a few birds. I also missed the only bird of the whole trip I thought I should have killed. In the world of wingshooting, that’s not bad. I tend to miss killable ducks on every hunt. I mentioned to Chris that this was ideal rabbit habitat, and a half-hour later one darted out in front of us. Chris let fly and wounded the rabbit.
I crashed into the forest after it. With a few inches of snow on the ground it was easy to track. I saw it about 10 yards away and lifted on it — and just then a grouse flushed at my feet, giving me a heart attack. What to do? Grouse or rabbit? I hesitated for a heartbeat, but all my hunter training set in: Finish what you start. So I shot the rabbit and let the grouse go.
It was a snowshoe hare, my first ever! Snowshoes are smaller than a jackrabbit but larger than a cottontail. “You happy?” Chris said as I carried the hare back to the path. “Hell yes!” I love rabbit hunting, and would be perfectly fine chasing bunnies all day. Which we ended up doing. Chris got a second rabbit, then flushed a third, which I shot. Three snowshoe hares! To me, that’s almost better than grouse. Almost.
The third hare turned out to be the end of our hunt. I jointed them and served the rabbits to Chris, Di and their friends Bob and Lisa White; Bob is a reknowned outdoor artist, as it happens, and is fond of eating rabbits. I made a Spanish stew called chilindron with the hares. It’s loaded with roasted red peppers, paprika, wild mushrooms, red wine and stock made from the rabbit carcasses. Chilindron is one of my favorite dishes, and I was glad to see that even the two little girls — Gracie and Tommie, Lisa and Bob’s daughter — liked it.
Here is the full chilindron recipe.
I’ve come a long way in five years, both in the field and in the kitchen. No matter what weather I had to hunt in or which ingredients I had to work with, I wanted to thank Chris and Di for the friendship they’d shown Holly and I during our years in Minnesota, which were not always easy.
But next time? They’ll need to come to California, where we can hunt in short sleeves, eat olives from the park down the street, and drink wine made from grapes in my back yard. Now that’s nirvana.
NEXT: Eating the Mysterious Ruffed Grouse…