Hunting ruffed grouse through the golden age, whenever it may be for you.
“Golden Ages” come and go. Consider for a moment why the term even exists. The idea itself can be relative. My ‘Golden Age’ can be different than it might be when examining a larger timeline. The individual elements that define my Golden Age may vary greatly compared with those of others. This story reflects some of those moments, but the term relative seems to be a much more relevant word . . .
When I was about 20, I shot a ruffed grouse from my treestand in my hometown of North Andover, Mass. I could never resist the idea of a grouse for dinner even when bowhunting. It was a great moment in itself, but sad in a bigger timeline of which I was yet to be made aware. It was the last grouse I would ever see in my childhood haunts. Sad, really, seeing the location has an historic importance to grouse.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from that treestand was Foster’s Farm—part of the upland-famous William Harnden Foster family of Andover. His book, New England Grouse Shooting, is a bible to some devote ruffed grouse hunters and regarded in upland communities as a classic. His artwork is coveted; single paintings sell for as much as $50,000, each. He has been referred to as “the Father of Skeet.” Some suggest he merely popularized the sport rather than invented it. But in his time (1886 – 1941), it goes without saying that grouse were of abundance in the Merrimack Valley.
At a younger age we hunted grouse in a different part of that valley. On the southern edge of New Hampshire, for example, where grouse seemed to be hiding on every trail corner. My father would have us stop and listen to their distinct chatter before letting his Brittany charge through and flush them for us. He was making us better “partridge” hunters when we walked on our own.
Some years after those young grouse hunting memories, I found myself deer hunting in those very covers. I spent countless days in what seemed to be perfect grouse habitat without any signs of a grouse. About the same time, there were increased reports of West Nile virus in the town right next to that cover. We all get scared at that term, and rightfully so; there is still so much we do not know. It has been some time since I hunted those parts, but more recent concerns of the status of ruffed grouse in the United States have brought my mind back to my first grouse in North Andover and the present lack of grouse in my childhood covers.
Those stories were sparked in my memory during a phone call from Ruffed Grouse Society President Ben Jones. The State of Indiana was considering listing the ruffed grouse, and Ben expressed it was in the best interest of conservation that we support that decision. If this whole story was about why the grouse declined rather than how it did so before my eyes I would dive deep into issues of habitat loss, the days of abandoned farms and even a warming climate. But this is about the fact that at 37 I have witnessed some dismal things happening over an astonishingly brief timeline.
It’s easy for us to think that “Everything is fine where I am, so what’s the big deal?” and I could easily be tempted to take false comfort in that line of thinking. My grouse covers of northern New Hampshire produced more grouse than I have ever seen over my lifetime, to date. Exciting to say the least with my first couple of seasons with a new dog. I even went so far as asking a gentleman a decade older than me if it were as good as I thought. Kind of a pinch-me-and-see-if-I-wake-up moment. He lives in that part of the country, grew up there, and he quickly agreed that this was a Golden Age. Meanwhile, only a few hours drive south to my new town (which is literally only one town over from the other grouse legend, Burton Spiller), and grouse become scarce once again. For the most part, if you find cover, you find grouse—but cover is now starkly absent.
The last day of this past season my Griffon and I tried to go for one last chance with a loaded shotgun for some grouse. I told my wife I’d be back in an hour or so. She laughed, being a little wiser to the realities of my timeline than I am . . . Six hours, and two flushes later (I’m pretty sure it was the same bird) and we came back with a few empty shells accompanied by an empty game bag.
That gets my mind spinning. I remember the Ruffed Grouse Society National Hunt 35th Anniversary and my first time to hunt Minnesota. It was incredible. The following year was highlighted with the “West Nile Scare” as I refer to it. A banner year on drumming counts only to be followed by dismal fall hunting reports on ruffed grouse. It made me miss my home turf—the mountains of the north country of New Hampshire—but also prone to bouts of self-pity at the prospects of hunting in my town.
The point is that the “Golden Age” of ruffed grouse can be looked at from a relative perspective, but in the harshest of realities, we are now in the darkest of times. I cannot let the excitement of my grouse camp adventures poison the reality of the towns I have lived in that were once part of that Golden Age. It makes me realize that the fight for healthy forests does not just mean my covers; it also means covers I once knew, and even covers I will never know. This unfortunate reality has left us at a crossroad. Our actions now will be remembered as either a golden age of conservation or the extinction of a beloved species. And that should be our only relativity . . .