Written by: George W. Clever
Junkyard Grouse Hunt
Every place we hunted grouse in the 1950s had a name we bestowed on the land. One of our favorite grouse hunting places generated many stories. We called it ‘the Junk Yard’ for the old cars, trucks and farm implements scattered over the woods and pastures. Dad was a die-hard grouse hunter regardless of the weather. On weekends, he would expect his sons to hunt with him in a rain storm or a snow blizzard. If we were hunting on a farmer’s land where the farm house was visible, we would stop to ask for permission. Often it was not necessary and we were never refused, unlike posted sign challenges for hunters today.
I will always remember the elusive grouse that made its’ hunters a cult of worshipers with thorn apple and blackberry scratches on the backs of their hands. Grouse hunters are frustrated shooters with files of stories about the bird that flew up their pants, or caused the hunter a near heart attack from grouse thunder on a bird takeoff. When the hunter was able to line up his gun barrel on the fast flying bird for a perfect shot, a lone hemlock tree would jump into the flight path to eat a full load of #8 shot in its bark. Yes, the Wiley bird often seemed to laugh as it flew away. Grouse of our hunt also seemed to know just when and where they could show themselves in the midst of our nature calls. Fall and winter hunts required many layers of clothing, so the hunters necessary act of relief had to be carefully thought out. It was a question of which was the greater motivator, body relief, or stripping to the skin in the freezing snow. The grouse seemed to know the precise extremely, personal, people moment when the bird could safely begin its’ thundering lift in flight. It was the moment when your pants and drawers were gathered around your hunting boots, coat on ground, and the shotgun leaning safely against the nearest tree just a bit out of reach.
First there would be the heart pumping fright a hunter experienced by the unexpected beating of grouse wing noise on take-off. Then it was followed by a scramble to pulling up one’s pants, reach for the out-of-reach shotgun, and try to shoot the bird. To make the frustration even greater, the grouse seemed to pick an unobstructed flight path that would have been an easy shot. I am sure the old grouse did this to mock their hunter victim. It happened often enough that those moments became a hunting strategy. Our thinking would go something like this, ‘Time to go? Keep your shotgun near. Get ready for a clear shot at a grouse. Leave your pants around your knees.’
It was a moment like this when my father shot his first-and-only double grouse, two birds with one shot. He was carrying a 12-gauge, single barrel, hammer, shotgun. This was a gun that had infamous history as the exposed hammer would bite one’s skin between the thumb and forefinger when it was fired. Anyone who carried this gun had to wear a glove on their shoot hand. Later in life, ‘ole Bess’ was to be my first gun. In Dad’s bare and crouched position, he was able to see under snow-laden hemlock branches. A quick movement under the hemlock trees was seen at the corner of his eye. The motion directed his attention to a pair of courting grouse hopping and scratching a stone’s throw from my father’s woodland bathroom. It was a question of whether the grouse were intent enough on romancing each other, and fail to notice Dad’s two-legged hop as he pulled up his pants as he reached for his ole Bess 12-gauge shotgun. Would they lift off through the trees in a thundering flight before he reached his gun?
Kneeling in the snow on frozen, knocking knees shocked by the unexpected cold, Dad carefully lined up both of the courting grouse along his barrel sight. He had but one shotgun shell in Ole Bess, one shot and one chance. The birds lifted together at the moment Ole Bess roared. Lead pellets shot from this short-barreled gun could cover the side of a barn. Trees and brush covered the shot result in question as Dad gathered up his pants and tried to buckle his belt. He crawled under the courting trees in search of a possible dead bird. Maybe two?
My uncle and I hollered over the usual, “Get-um?”
Dad hollered back, “Got one! No, I got two!”
We only heard one shot so his reply was a wonder. I remember as we gathered in a small wooded clearing to honor his success, we saw Dad holding his shotgun and a grouse in each hand. He was still trying to gather up his pants.