Written by: Nicholas Hainen
December 29, 1979: Why do I recall events on that particular day with exceptional clarity?
Ruffed grouse were plentiful in parts of Ohio then, in dramatic contrast to today’s exceedingly low populations. And the seasons were long, more than 4 months. Consider, for example, Ohio’s 1979-80 grouse season. My diary records that my partners and I hunted 14 days—for a total of about 74 hours. By our best estimates, we flushed 129 grouse, re-flushes not counted. And Mandy, my English setter, made 68 productive points.
I’ve been privileged to hunt with my five English setters, along with a number of other bird dogs—and I’ve watched those dogs point more than one thousand ruffed grouse in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Lucky, lucky me! But something about a Mandy point on that December, 1979 day makes it particularly memorable.
We were nearing the end of a strenuous, 6-hour grouse hunt in a state park situated in the unglaciated hills of eastern Ohio. It was about 40 degrees, and overcast with light winds, and it had been one of those halcyon days. Scenting conditions were excellent, and birds were reasonably abundant. In addition, a few grouse had been borderline cooperative—by which I mean they allowed us to approach within shotgun range before blasting off! Mandy had already given us five productive points. And, of those grouse at which we had ventured shots, two had the misfortune of being intercepted by some of our 7 ½s. Feathered treasures, they now lay in our hunting coats.
We were working down a valley late in the day, slowly, and through good cover. As Mandy quartered in front, she became ‘birdy.’ If you have watched pointing dogs attempt to pin down wily grouse wearing track shoes, you know exactly what I mean. Mandy—intense, head high, and with nostrils flaring—was sorting through threads of scent. She seemed to be gliding, rather than walking. Even as the cover thinned into more open hardwoods, she moved on for a considerable distance with the same intensity.
Off to Mandy’s left and right, we moved forward. Finally, she stiffened into a solid point. She would not budge. We looked at her, looked at one other, watched and listened intently ahead, and looked at one other again. We were baffled. Finally, we watched Mandy lift a front foot and, simultaneously, change the position of her head. Now, she was pointing toward the tops of two mature white pines, which were about 30 yards distant and 70 feet high.
Following Mandy’s gaze, we looked upward. Two grouse immediately flashed away from the top of one of the pines—with barely perceptible movement and virtually no sound. So sudden were their departures that we had no opportunities for reasonable shots. Admiring their stealth, we simply wished them well. We had neither seen nor heard those grouse until their rapid exits; and Mandy had given no indication that she saw or heard them before that, either! I walked over, placed a hand on her head and said, “Well done girl, let’s head home.”
[Author’s note: In my experience, bird dogs occasionally point ruffed grouse in trees. In those instances, however, the dogs and I usually had seen the bird fly up into the tree. Or, the dogs had been working out ahead when I heard a bird flush; then, I saw the point when I arrived on the scene. The point I describe in this story was decidedly different. I am nearly certain that Mandy neither saw nor heard those grouse fly up before she pointed them!]