Written by: David Miller
Chatham- Kent, Ontario
“Nice and slow” my father whispered to my brother and I as we followed in his steps along a trail meandering the side of a hill on a neighbour’s property in the Almaguin Highlands of Eastern Parry Sound, Ontario. We had travelled from our home in Chatham-Kent, Ontario, for the weekend to our family’s cabin. Our parents had taken us to our family’s minimalistic, handmade cabin every Spring and Fall to spend time together and to escape the hustle and bustle of careers and school. Much of the time spent there was devoted to nature hikes and cutting wood, but the odd time my father would take my brother and I on a grouse hunt; though much of the time it was endless walking without hearing the audible click of a safety being let off. “Hear that?”, he said, as he raised his hand in the air like the sound was right above us. The drumming of a ruffed grouse filled the silent forest. Within a few steps of hearing the bird, the silence was broken again, but this time by the thunderous beating of wings. The bird that flushed was not the one we were listening to, but a bird off in a thicket of balsam fir that had also heard the mesmerizing cadence of its comrade. Being unprepared for how close the bird was, my father swung the 20-gauge barrels of his Browning Citori Upland Special into the direction of the fleeing bird, holding the gun in a western pose with the buttstock nestled between his torso and elbow. Before we could cover our ears the Citori sent 7/8ths of an ounce through the 24-inch barrels. “Couldn’t get it up in time”, my dad exclaimed after firing and pausing to hear a rhetorical thud of the bird hitting the ground. My brother and I giggled, as we reflected on how the bird had taken us all by surprise and how funny Dad looked in his reaction. We searched the area for some time, turning up with nothing. By the lack of feathery evidence, we concluded that it had been a clear miss, allowing the bird to grow a day older and wiser. “That’s what makes it hunting”, my dad told us like the subtle lessons he would give, “Can’t hit’em all”. We continued our walk without seeing another grouse that day, or the rest of the trip, but from that moment on, the melodic drumming of that ghostly bird instilled a longing to one day best the “King of Upland birds”.
Fast forward roughly twenty years from that first encounter and numerous other encounters with the King; it was time for my number to be called. My Father, Uncle and I drove the six-hour drive to return to our cabin during Ontario’s Moose Season in October of 2021. Unfortunately, none of us had drawn a bull moose tag, leaving not much hunting to be done for the week we spent there. While this was unfortunate, I was still excited to go and spend time with the two of them, to hear stories of their childhood and past hunts, and to enjoy meals cooked over a propane stove. Between cleaning trails for the forthcoming year and preparing firewood, we had decided to take a hike to the back of our property that ends with a beautiful lakeside vista. As with most long walks during grouse season, we decided to take a shotgun with us in case we flushed any birds along the way. On the property are numerous hills and valleys cut from recession of the glaciers, peaked with bald rock outcrops that provide suitable habitat and feeding for grouse. Coming upon spots littered with moss and stunted trees, I slowed my steps while holding my Franchi Over/Under, as to not be caught off guard like my father had been in the past. I walked the borders of the clearings where grouse are often seen. Each time I came to an opening I always felt a sense of excitement and anxiousness. Would this be the place I would have my chance at taking a bird to add to my vest? On this trip these locations proved fruitless, but like with any hunting trip, I carried on hoping the next corner I turned would provide a chance at the reward I sought. Reaching the halfway mark of our hike, we came to a division of the trail. To the left marked the continuation of the trail I was on that was more commonly taken by friends and family, to bypass a boggy area and lead to a dry lake, where we would cross a saturated gulley leading to another ridge. To the right lay the property line that had been cut and taped, dividing our property and our neighbour’s. As I worked my way slowly to the top of the ridge, I came to a corridor of spruce trees accompanied by the odd hardwood twisting and turning in order to gather any bit of possible sunlight. The sun was positioned as though its rays passed from right to left, finding ways to navigate the heavy coniferous canopy. At the top of the wooded corridor the leaves of oaks caught the sunshine creating an autumnal blaze of reds and oranges. While calculating each step, as to not twist my ankle or soak my feet, a familiar sound resonated in my ears. The sound of a grouse rocketing from its cover to escape harm. I raised my head to see the bird flushing from my left; crossing my face to the right as if it was trying to flee into sunlight. In a fluid motion I raised and disengaged the safety of my 20-gauge to meet the grouse. “Bang!!”, the top barrel sent a load of #9 shot through the air connecting with the grouse, folding the bird’s wings, and the trajectory fell towards the ground. I could hear my Dad’s voice in the not far distance, “Well?”, he said with a pause, “Did you hit anything?”. I did not answer right away, as I had just reached the bird and was slightly shocked as I picked it up. It was a large male grouse; my first grouse! As I fanned the tail out, I gazed upon the beautiful brown hue emanating from the fall plumage. “Ya, a big male grouse”, I hollered to my Dad and Uncle trying to contain my excitement. This was the closest I had come to this elegant and beautiful bird, and I intended to make the most of the moment. I walked to the opening at the top of the hill to find a place to take a photo. I settled upon an old dead tree trunk to hang my grouse in and place my shotgun next to it to commemorate the milestone.
I cannot remember how many photos I took, as I was so happy with what had happened; I thought my day couldn’t get any better, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After finishing my amateur photoshoot, I heard another rustle and my uncle shouting, “There’s another one!”. I quickly retrieved and loaded my gun with another #9 cartridge and left the grouse in the crotch of a small tree next to the old, weathered tree trunk. They had stayed on the trail leading down to the gulley and had flushed another bird to my side of the hill. As I worked my way back on the property line I had just come from; the bird took off from almost the same spot as the one I had just harvested. I stumbled as I readied the shot, and the bird flew into the marsh area below me. I gathered myself and continued after the bird. Not too far along I spotted the grouse heading over a rock. As I mounted to shoot, out of the corner of my eye, I saw yet another bird flush not too far away. Never had I seen so many grouse in this small area. I squeezed the trigger and another bird fell to the 20-gauge. I collected my second prize and returned to my hanging tree to meet with the others. Looking over the two prized trophies, I repeated my story to them. I was congratulated and told what a feat it had been for me to take those birds in such a short time. Now this may not be the case for other hunters, but for a first time hunt I was ecstatic. I opted to store my birds in my vest and carry them for the remainder of the hike while simultaneously giving my uncle the shotgun for him to try his luck on any game we may come across along the path.
It’s always the firsts that get you: your first car, your first successful hunting trip, your first love. They always stay with you and can be looked back on as if it had happened last week. This is no different, the first time you lay your hands on a trophy that so much work went into. Practicing at a range on clays, planning your trip, and all the footsteps it might take just to even catch a glimpse of one. The reward is all the pieces coming together into one beautiful moment of happiness and nostalgia. While I may have other successful outings, I will never forget this day for the rest of my life. My first grouse and the first time I placed my hand on that bird, the mid-day sun shining on those feathers and the reflection of those golden rays in the autumn blaze of the forest.