To this day, some of my best memories in the upland woods come from hunting with those there for nothing more than the fun and camaraderie that came with a fall day in the grouse woods.
As I am now peering on the dawn of my 20th season in the grouse woods, I have a great deal on which to look back and be thankful. I didn’t grow up in a hunting family. I did have the fortune of being raised with trips to the family farm which fostered my appreciation for the great outdoors. Once I was old enough to take the hunters safety course, I took it upon myself to find friends and others to enable my time in the woods. Heck, I didn’t see my first grouse till I was 15 years old, and even then, I wasn’t entirely sure at what I had shot. I was out alone squirrel hunting, and when the bird flushed, I instinctively mounted my Mossberg 500 20-gauge pump and pulled the trigger. The bird hadn’t flown too far, and somehow I connected. I had seen pictures, but at the time, it was just one more animal to fill the day’s bag. I had no real appreciation for the what, when and where finesse of chasing ol’ ruff.
After high school, I had a boss that kept trying to convince me to go deer hunting. I really had no interest, but after some time, I gave in and agreed to go. Several weeks before the firearm opener, we ditched work early on a Friday and made our way up to the federal plot that his dad had taken he and his brothers since the time he was six. He had suggested that I bring my shotgun, because as we scouted the woods for deer sign, we would most likely bump a few “pats”. Sounding better than deer hunting itself, I was excited at the prospect of seeing more of these birds.
Now, mind you, he was not a serious grouse hunter (or deer hunter, for that matter), rather it was just another game species that he had been seeking in these woods for nearly 30 years with his father. He would tell stories of walking through the woods with his dad and brothers, and grouse flushing from everywhere you could imagine. Lore had it that on several occasions, they would attempt a shot at a flushing bird, only to hit another out of a tree that had not yet taken to wing. To this day I am still not sure if I believe that, but I did soon learn there were birds in this small slice of federal land, and more than I had seen before that time.
Over the next several years, we made our trips a little more frequent, and increased the cast of characters. To this day, some of the best memories I have in the upland woods come from walking in a line with a crew of guys that were there for nothing more than the fun and camaraderie that came with a fall day in the grouse woods. We didn’t use dogs, and to be honest, we didn’t even really know what types of cover to be hunting. To most, we would probably have been considered bad grouse hunters. And, in reality, if we bagged two or three birds, we considered it a success. The numbers didn’t matter.
For the next 14 or 15 years, this scene had become my norm. I would take every opportunity I could to get a couple friends together and tromps through the woods in search of the king. We never strayed far from the areas with which we were familiar and probably chased more than a few birds, a couple times a day. Still, we produced flushes, and the occasional kill, and it kept up coming back for more.
In 2009, I got my first dog. I hadn’t the slightest thought of using him for bird hunting, rather I had always wanted a chocolate lab, and when the chance arose to get one, I took it. It wasn’t until a friend asked if I was going to train him for bird hunting that I even pondered how that might change the game. Until that time, I didn’t even know anyone that hunted behind dogs. I had seen people out in the woods chasing around a beeper, but it wasn’t on my radar to take the same course.
After some basic wing and retrieve training, I learned that my pup had a little bit of natural desire and ability and decided to take him along with me the following fall. Not really knowing where to go from there, I was introduced to a few members of the Ruffed Grouse Society. After attending a few of the “fun trial” events, my eyes were opened to an entirely new world of opportunity. I had been missing out on so much, and never really knew it.
I was cautious the first time I put him out in front of me in those safe hallows that I had first stepped in many years prior. When that first doodle exploded out from in front of him, the excitement level of the hunt jumped several notches. Although he was too jacked up to make a retrieve, the look on his face spoke louder than words. A few minutes later, he had the first grouse under his collar, and with a fairly impressive retrieve from the creek, I knew I had made the right decision to heed the advice of my friend. To this day, my dog is in no way a perfect bird dog, but he has taken me down a path I could never have seen coming.
Over the past six years, I have made many new friends and have had the chance to chase birds with many different hunters, utilizing many different styles of hunting. I owe most of these experiences to RGS. But no matter the style, I have enjoyed each time out. My range has expanded and my methods refined.
It has been years since I have pounded those grounds with that old group of friends. For various reasons, many of them never see the silver side of an aspen leaf any more. I miss it. Those were great times, with great people, but the people I have met and places I have been since that time are what formulate my story, now.
Is the prospect of worn-out hunters rehashing the comedies of the day while fresh grouse cooks over an evening campfire, the reason I hunt? In part, but it’s the faces, times and places that life has handed me in the past twenty years that will remain with me, long after the feathers stop flying. I look forward to many more.
Dave Veldman is a photographer, writer, outdoorsman and occasional facilities manager from metro Detroit. In 2012, he founded his hunting, dog and outdoors photography service Sport Dog Photography.