Written by: Darryl James
Like all adventures, this one started with a conversation over a meal. A very good friend and hunting buddy, Dr. Gil and I had been out shooting a round of sporting clays and were having lunch at a favorite little burger bar, The Cozy Inn. Over Cozy burgers and pop, Dr. Gil asked if I were interested in heading north for a guided grouse and woodcock hunt Dr. Gil said that he had gotten a phone number of a guide who sets up grouse camp each September in a state forest area, and we could do a few days guided hunt and rough camp for a reasonable cost. What did I think? Being mostly a preserve hunter with a little waterfowl experience, what did I know?! I said yes. I would soon be wondering, “what in the world did I agree to!”
A little about me and my relationship with Dr. Gil first. I grew up in an outdoor family. I remember watching my mom and dad shoot trap and skeet in the 60’s, and they hunted rabbit and squirrel. We were an avid camping, fishing, and travel family; I even got to experience the end of wild pheasant hunting in Michigan. Before I could drive, I had been to 38 of the 50 and 3 countries.
I met Dr. Gil after my wife and I visited a small local upland hunting preserve, but at the time I did not have many friends that were bird hunters. So, I told the owner, “if you ever have another gunner that would like a wingman, give me a call”. One day he did, and it was Dr. Gil (I call him Doc) and his German Shorthair Pointer (GSP) Luc. During our first hunt, I noticed that Doc had a unique habit. He would ask that the preserve set chukars in the thick cover and the woods. That’s when I found out that he was a long-time grouse a woodcock hunter.
So, it begins. I am the kind of person who, when he is invited to do something that I have not done before, I research. So, I looked through my gear, asked Doc what I needed and read lots of books and magazines. I am a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society, mostly for the local sporting clay shoots, and the club publication, which was a great help but never had I engaged in an actual grouse or woodcock hunt. I already use a strap vest due to lower back issues, so I got a pin on compass. My wife got me a backtrack personal GPS (I took extra batteries), and a camel-back style water carrier. I took my strap vest and water carrier to my tailor and worked with him and my wife to modify the vest so I would not be trudging through the woods with a huge lump of water, sloshing around at my lower back. As an active bird hunter, I already had boots, but since I usually do not start hunting until it gets cold. I did not have a pair of lightweight, uninsulated ones so since we were planning an early October hunt, they were on the list too. I also started practicing snap shooting at my local clay’s course and exercising to get in shape. I had read that grouse and woodcock hunting was ‘tough’, tiny did I realize the significance of this statement.
I had also done a lot of reading about the best shotgun to carry in the Grouse woods. I decided that shorter would be better, so I chose my Browning Citori Lighting Feather 16 ga and ordered extended chokes in cylinder and skeet. I did some testing on sporting clays and determined that I would run the first shot through the cylinder tube and if there was a chance at the second shot it would be with the skeet. I took my dad’s Remi Model 58 Sportsman 16 ga as a backup but with a full choke, I was doubtful at how it would work if I needed it. What with the daily crush of family and job responsibilities, time flashed by and the next thing I knew I peeped my calendar and the day to pack up and head out had come. Here I was, exercised, researched, geared up, gunned up, and ready to go. Doc and I loaded our gear and Luc and his dog box into my new Grand Cherokee Trail Hawk, and up the road we went.
As we were headed north, I thought that we would drive out of the swampy, hot weather we had been experiencing in SE Michigan. It was early October for crying out loud, not late August! But I was wrong. At some point we stopped for a quick breakfast and potty break for Luc and it was as hot and humid as it had been at home; a small hint of things to come.
During our break, Doc suggested that we take a little detour a few exits north to hit a cover he knew about. Sure!! I said in for the whole “E” ticket ride. So, a few miles further north we jumped off the interstate and went north out the little town where Doc then directed us east on the trail, running into state forest land. A part of my excitement was since we were riding in my new Grand Cherokee Trail Hawk and I finally had legit reason to hit the air suspension button! We turned north onto a smaller trail and parked in an old overgrown logging road. We unloaded, and Doc attired Luc in his beeper collar, and off we went. In my excitement I forgot my spiffy new water bladder and in less than 10 minutes, I was sweating like a 3rd round contestant on a ghost pepper eating contest. Man was it hot and humid. It was just before noon and the temperature had soared up to 80 degrees. I had on my new light weight uninsulated boots, my lightest weight brush pants, a featherweight shooting shirt with cape vent and a wicking t-shirt, and a hot weather, blaze orange baseball cap. I may as well have worn an insulated snowmobile suit, snow pacs and a mad trapper’s hat with the flaps tied down. Picking through the slash, hummocks, and bunched up pine and 10 to 15-year-old alders was brutal.
Doc got a shot off at the first grouse that flushed. That is, I think it was a grouse. Whatever it was, was just a shadow in my peripheral vision. Luc did not even notice it, and he is trained. Luc bumped a second bird that pulled a high-speed Houdini; neither of us got a shot off. Another grouse….I think. A few minutes later Luc got a good solid point on a third bird, or one of the first 2 birds, who knows. By this time my eyes were stinging from uncontrolled sweat, and I was so confused and baffled, he could have been locked up on bigfoot taking a potty break. At the exact moment, Doc’s cell rang. I’m still not sure who it was but he took the call and I went into the jungle to find Luc. Only problem? The cover was so thick, I could not find him. I could hear the steady, “I’m on point, where are you guys!” beep. Doc then joined us and Luc broke point. We never saw a bird. Doc thought it was a woodcock. This little grouse and woodcock appetizer lasted from 12:30pm to about 1:30pm, and by the time we got back to the Jeep, I was completely soaked in sweat to my socks. Brush whipped and did not even pull the trigger, and we were just getting started.
We saddled up and drove back into town and stopped to water Luc and have lunch. We had stopped at a little diner, and if you can imagine a 6’2-1/2”, 230 lb. guy trying to take a cool bath in a sink…. that was me. I got some interesting looks as I was gone so long. We had a quick lunch and got back on the road for Grouse Camp. When we took our final exit, the first thing I noticed was less than a half mile from the interstate, I lost cell service. Hmmm, interesting. The black top turned to gravel, then dirty sand. Then the road began to narrow and the tree canopy closed down and it seemed to become sudden onset dusk. The road became so narrow, I had to fold my mirrors in when a pickup going the other way approached. Real primeval forest stuff.
Twists and turns and down trails, labeled as roads, and we arrived at Morris Domke’s Grouse Camp a little after 4pm. Morris was not there; apparently there was a miscommunication of anticipated arrival time and Morris was out picking up supplies. Exploring our new environment, the camp consisted of what appeared to be a surplus of 20’ x 40’ M.A.S.H. style army tent, with a sign hanging on it saying, “German Shorthair Pointers Only”, with homemade bunkbeds, with the top bunk just a smidge too low, a 55 gallon drum converted into a wood stove, and tarps covering ‘some’ of the grass as flooring, a sand point well and a latrine with a toilet seat wood screwed to the ‘hole’ box. I noticed that someone was thoughtful enough to counter sink the screws. The storage shed was a vintage 16’ Holiday Travel Trailer, and a fire pit for cooking. The lighting was a combo of solar and Coleman lanterns converted to propane; yeah… rough but well thought out.
By the time Morris arrived it had gotten too late to hunt as Doc had hoped we could (Thank God in heaven!!) we ended the day with a dinner of fresh brats, Patty Pan squash w/ onions and white cabbage, and sweet corn and carrot stew, all cooked over the open fire pit. Having spent some time as a wine salesman, I made sure that our labors were well rewarded.
…. About those bunkbeds, after we finished our dinner and wine and some great around the campfire convo, we called it a night. In the tent, Morris pointed to the pile of material on one of the bunks and said, “help yourself to blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, and whatever you need”. First ‘note to self’ of the trip—bring your own! As I dug into the pile, an instant aroma of wet ode de birddog filled the air. No problem, we have dogs at home, so it was a little comforting. So, I picked the lower bunk and got in bed. The lights were doused, and we ended a long day. Or so I thought. Along about midnight, snuggled down in my wet dog scented bedding, I became partially awake because I thought… what is that I feel? That feels funny… like…. Something on my leg… crawling…. ‘BROWN RECLUSE!’ Remember how I said that top bunk seemed a little low? Well I sat, or tried to sit up so fast because I flat out panicked because in my partially wakened state I thought a Brown Recluse spider had gotten into that stinky pile of bedding and it was moving towards a pretty sensitive and important personal area. But what actually happened was I slammed my forehead on the low overhead bunk and flat knocked myself clean out. I think I came to about 20 minutes later. Neither Doc nor Morris even woke up. Good thing the feeling was just loose threads in the sleeping bag.
The next morning brought a sore forehead and a fantastic breakfast of fresh brewed coffee, farm fresh eggs, French toast, venison ham, and bacon with maple syrup made by Morris; all over the fire pit. He did something unique and evil with the syrup. He kept it in a huge mason jar and put bacon and ham dripping in it. I would eat tree bark if had this diabolical concoction on it. After cleaning up after breakfast and gearing up, our first hunt with Morris was across the road from camp. Doc got Luc ready, and Morris got Wirehair Pointer, Hardy, and Shorthair Pointer, Ranger set up and we pushed into the cover at 11am. Even though the temp had dropped into the 40s after the previous day’s 80 degree high, the temp was pushing back towards 80 already, and I could feel the muggies coming. Morris had a ready supply f cold fresh water in coolers in camp, and I filled my snazzy new ‘hydration’ system to the limit. I had MacGyvered a positioning clamp for the hose with an office binder clip to the right shoulder of my strap vest. Putting the mouthpiece within easy reach. Worried? Not me. Well, I had set my backtrack just before we left the road, and once in the cover I took a quick look and the elevation was 740 feet, within an 8th of a mile. I checked again and we were at 900 feet. In walking a little over 4200 feet, we went up 160 feet. I know that does not sound like much, but it was 4200 feet of dense, clustered, thigh high Bracken Ferns that seemed like the arms of people buried to the waist, grabbing your legs to try and get out. Some weird long grass that if it stood straight up would be a foot high. But it liked to stand up about 6” to 8” and ever so innocently lay over to, 1. Hide moss covered stones, and 2. Hide little jagged stumps, also with a slick mossy covering, 3. Ankle snapping holes, and finally, 4. Conveniently wrap around your feet to assist the ferns. I asked Morris, who by the way is a wonderful naturalist, what type of grass it was. He said that it is called G&dd$mn grass, which is what you say as you fall. The poplar trees and assorted brush was so thick that even though we were only yards apart and wearing blaze, I would get my feet hung up, look down to work it loose and when I would look back up Morris and Doc would be gone. Now I am not a small guy, as mentioned I am 6’2-1/2”, and 230 lbs. Morris IS a big dude, 6’6”, easily 280-290 lbs. and he moved through that jungle like he was sight-seeing in Times Square. Doc, a hard wiry, 70ish year old, was running through this crap like a high school 6-footer track star. Here I am the youngest thing out there getting foot tangled, leg grabbed and slapped around by weird looking fauna, sweating, and puffing like crazy.
As we were still working uphill with me on the far-left Morris in the slot, and Doc on the right with the dogs ranging back and forth in front of us Morris called, “Bird! To your right!” I sensed more than saw something high overhead on my right quarter. The brush was so heavy that I was barely able to execute a proper move mount shoot, and I got off a shot with the skeet tube, and then I saw a few feathers and heard rather than saw something crashing through the brush. Morris started saying, “Good shot! Great shot”, and he brought over my first woodcock, a large female. I had seen many pictures of woodcock, and sadly even poor dead birds on the street in Downtown Detroit that had flown into buildings, but to hold one that I fought to get was really on emotional thing. Over the next hour and a half, we flushed 18 woodcock and took 4, and 9 grouse and drew a blank. I took shots at 3 of the grouse and at least one more woodcock before we took a break. When we made the top of the hill, we took a breather. Remember my fly new customized water pouch? Well, I went to take my first sip from the perfectly placed mouthpiece. Man was this going to be good after that climb…. and nothing. For the life of me I could not get the water to flow. I resorted to removing the big fill cap and pouring water into my palm cup to drink. Lucky Morris was carrying extra water.
After taking five, we moved off through a pretty, little meadow and had only gone a short distance when Morris realized that he had dropped his beeper controller. While he took Ranger and Hardy back to our rest spot to look for the controller, Doc, Luc and I took another rest. Due to the heat, I took a seat on a fallen tree in the deep shade of a forest edge about 50 yards from Doc and Luc. As I sat there, legs stretched out, in the cool shade, I decided to try my water pack again. My attention was diverted for about 5 minutes when I suddenly looked down and noticed that a swarm of some of the biggest, fattest bottomed spiders I had ever seen was all over my legs. I had my gun broken open and I jumped up with it in one hand and beating the hell out of my leges. I have not covered 50 yards that fast since junior high football practice. As I suddenly appeared next to Doc and Luc, he was kind of startled and ask if anything were wrong. Oh…. No, no, no, it is just that I was way over there, and you and Luc were way over here, and I thought you know I would wander over and see how you two were doing; (me I am still swatting at my legs.) Surprisingly, through all that, there was not a sound nor movement came from the immediate area. The moment I stopped talking, two nice fat grouse flushed from over our heads from a big fir tree. I looked at Doc and he said, “full time grouse, part time grouse hunter”. At least I saw the damn thing this time.
We hunted the rest of the day and returned to camp with just the 4 woodcocks, thirsty, spider stampeded, sweaty, and still excited by my first wild bird bagged. Doc proceeded to breast out the birds and after browning some bacon in a cast iron skillet, he tossed in the woodcock breast meat with a little sea salt and pepper and seared them. one of the most simple and delicious things I have ever tasted. I have forgotten what Morris made for dinner that night. I seem to remember venison back strap, but those tiny woodcock breast seared in pig candy juice was the high light.
We cleaned up after dinner and jumped in Morris’ truck and he took us on a twilight ride around the area. The half light and dust from the trails created a kind of veiled, fuzzy atmosphere, in the darkening woods. When we reached one spot, Morris stopped, and we got out and had a front row seat at a concert put on by a herd of bull elk bugling. I had never experienced anything like it, even in all the travels our parents took us on.
When we made it back to camp, we had a little wine and got ready to bed down. After the false alarm of the previous day, and my arachnid close encounter earlier in the day, I was real careful shaking out my bed gear. Upon finding nothing, I go into my bunk and was drifting off when I felt a sudden and pronounced weight on my legs. “Okay…. What now?” visions of the top bunk, punching me in the head, I took another tactic and slowly reached down and found wirehair pointer. Just then Morris walked by and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you that’s Hardy’s favorite bunk”. Who was I to argue? Better than spiders. Around about 1am nature called, so I got out from under Hardy, slipped on my head lamp and headed to the honey hole. While sitting there in that silence that makes you strain to hear something, I did—wolves! This trip was getting better than an episode of Wild Kingdom. I had heard wolves howling on TV and on recordings but this, in the pitch dark, outside sitting on a wooden box with a screwed down toilet seat was magic. Of course, when I got back to the tent Hardy had done the amazing expanding dog trick and it was like wrestling a hairy octopus to get my spot back.
After another delicious, massive open fire breakfast, I filled up four water bottles and left the stupid water bag in camp. Morris drove us to a new spot someplace east of SR 33 and south of the 638 Hwy to start the day off. Luc, Ranger, and Harvey, who I was to later find out was 10 yrs. old with a rod in one front leg, were collared up and push north for about 45 minutes, but we moved no birds. After a ¼ mile further, we crossed back to the west side of 33 and pushed south down a power line cut. I was on the left wing again and ran into a swamp in a big depression. I had to go east back to the road to get around. When I got back into the cut, Harvey suddenly popped up out of nowhere. He and I had only gone a short distance when Harvey did a speed turn and went on point. Just as I started to react, a big grouse blew out from under a fir tree on the westside of the cut. The grouse was headed north on after burner and I had just reached a partial pivot and had my gun halfway between my belt and my shoulder, somehow, I had the presence of mind to realize that Doc, Morris, and the dogs were behind me. So, I took a Hail Mary double shot and the bird seemed to dive under another fir tree at the edge of the big swamp. I thought, ‘lost bird’. Harvey thought different and dove into the same tree. After a few seconds of rooting around, Harvey reappeared with a stone dead grouse in his mouth. It was a big female. My second bird in two days!
We hunted two more spots and moved more birds, and bagged two more woodcock and one more grouse; all taken by Morris and Doc. By the time we reached the last cover, I was so tired, I was ready to be done, when we looped around by a beautiful little lake with a campsite so perfect, it was only missing a pickup, an Airstream, and associated family for the brochure photo shoot. As we moved past the little patch of camping heaven, of the dogs flushed one last woodcock. Doc to my right got off a shot and apparently missed, so I shot twice and old woody dropped like a stone into some dry leaves. Three birds! Three birds! I was so excited, I forgot one of the rules drilled into me by my father… “reload quickly after shooting a bird”. And I learned a lesson about how woodcock sometimes land in an awkward way that looks like a downed bird. As I walked up to get my third bird, sneaky little birdy flushed again right over my head about 10 yards up. I did a beautiful, ‘see it, move, mount, shoot’, and pulled the trigger on two spent chambers.
After we were loaded up and had said our goodbyes to Morris and the dogs. Doc asked, “well, what do you think? Want to do this again?” That was four years ago… and I still do not know the answer. PS., about the water carrier. A few days after getting home, I gathered up the receipt and original packaging so I could return the stupid, nonfunctioning water carrier, when I paused to read the instructions. I was so excited getting all this new gear, I neglected to read the packaging. To my chagrin, it said, “new, non-dribble mouthpiece. Bite down and draw for water flow. All my wife heard was psychotic laughter.