By Christine Cunningham
I examined the spruce branches to find the bird-shaped shadow, or, as my often cryptic hunting partner describes the process, “look for something that looks out of place.” Perhaps, I thought, if I were capable of figuring out what looked out of place, his advice would be helpful. It wasn’t as though I remembered the exact location of every spruce tree branch on our twenty mile trip down a dirt road and would be able to say, “Stop, there,” the way he did, only to then justify it with the, ole “something looked out of place,” when I know it’s a physical impossibility to distinguish one of these overgrown patches of spruce grouse country from another.
My shotgun was clenched across my chest ready to mount at the next disturbed ruffling of wings. “Now, if I could just remember if there were 587 spruce needles on that branch instead of 586 just a moment ago, I could determine whether anything was different,” I imagined my partner thinking. I looked over to see if he was determining any difference. He wasn’t. He was headed back to where the truck was parked. His shotgun was broken open, and he was tucking his two un-spent shells back into his pocket.
“Where are you going?” I hollered. “It’s right in here!” I pointed to the trees in front of me. Somewhere in there, I thought.
“Go ahead,” he hollered back.
I scanned the upper branches of the spruce trees. The evening sun betrayed every deformation of their branches. It didn’t matter how invisible his instincts told him he was, in a matter of minutes, I would find the grouse, he would flush again, and I would have the last bird of the day. I heard the door of the truck close and saw the old giver-upper ducking inside. This is ridiculous, I thought. Why would a person spend nine hours looking for spruce grouse and when one is found, turn around and head for the truck?
“What are you doing?” I yelled over my shoulder. If a grouse could express himself in human terms–and only a refined grouse at that–he would remind me that one must conduct herself a certain way in the forest. Yelling back to the road was poor woods’ manners. I knew I ruined the mood. The romanticism of the hunt is completely wrecked by conduct such as I exhibited. In fairness to my situation, I was still hunting and my, eh hem, hunting buddy was sipping coffee inside a vehicle.
I stood there for a moment longer. Lack of quarry had built up my desire to at least take one bird out of the forest. Desperation, and not the thrill of the hunt, was my driving force. It is in such moments that hunters take the shot they later regret. It’s different with subsistence hunting, and, although I ate the game I took from the field, I was not going to fill the freezer two spruce grouse breasts at a time.
My hunting partner was in the driver’s seat. He grasped his thermos lid-full of coffee and stared contentedly at the road ahead of us. “We could have had that bird,” I said.
“Naw,” he said. “He got away fair and square.” I understood why we passed on the first few grouse we’d seen–they were near a gravel pit adjacent to a major highway. Ethics involving safety and sensitivity to non-hunters made sense to me. What I couldn’t figure out was what new ethic caused my usually reasonable hunting partner, the person who had first taken me into the field and showed me everything I know about the hunting and shooting sports, walked away from a perfectly legal and ethical bird sitting far within the brush line of an abandoned gravel road.
Without having the traditional pipe, he lit a cigarette instead.
“What was fair and what was square about the way that bird got away?” I questioned, adding, “He could have flushed again and I would have had a clean shot.”
“If you remember,” he said, evoking that superior view that can remember things exactly, “We determined that we would both take a side, and when the bird flushed, one of us would have a pretty good shot.”
Yes, I remembered that. “And he did flush,” I said. “And after he landed you didn’t even look!” I said
“I looked,” my partner said.
“You looked for 32 seconds!” I pointed out. I have a gift for knowing the exact number of seconds of which a moment is comprised even if I can’t count spruce needles. I made sure to declare the fact in the same tone he distinguished the way an area he hasn’t seen in twenty years is full of bird-indicating differences even as he declares, “Last time I was through this area the trees were two feet high and you could see to the lake,” and all I’m left to say, without benefit of Google Earth, is “What lake?”
We’d been hunting since eight o’ clock that morning. We’d flushed countless birds. We’d even gotten some wing shooting after we had spotted a bird in the trees. I knew the regulations and the ethics of upland bird hunting. What I had yet to learn was this mysterious code my hunting partner would sometimes evoke of the not-that- bird-at-this-time variety.
“32 seconds!” I repeated. “For some reason, you decided not to look for that bird anymore after 32 seconds.”
“You could have stayed and shot him.” he pointed out.
“Apparently, I would have been in violation of some rule that I am absolutely unaware exists and if, by breaking, I become the kind of slob hunter you elitists talk about amongst yourselves at the skeet range.” I didn’t want to be that slob, but I lacked the refined thinking to figure out for myself how to avoid it. I saw nothing wrong with shooting that grouse and, to take it a step further, I didn’t see anything wrong with shooting the bird with a .22 rifle while it perched on a branch.
Ruger .22 rifle with a scope and three spruce grouse taken on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula
He smiled. It was the smile of knowing things that cannot be taught. He had the ability to determine for himself when to take or not to take a shot because he understood his relationship with nature. The thoughts that go through an individual hunter’s mind–whether hunting for upland birds or big game–before pulling the trigger cannot be argued. They simply exist as a reflection on the hunter who evokes the not-that-bird-at-this-time reasoning.
“It’s hard to explain,” my partner acknowledged. “I figured that that bird would flush and one of us would get a shot. Instead, he ran into the brush and flushed so that I couldn’t see where he landed. That was pretty smart of him, I thought.”
“So now we’re only going to shoot birds that exhibit no exceptional qualities?” I asked.
He looked at me for a moment. I couldn’t tell if it was exasperation with my level of understanding or whether he wasn’t sure himself why he wasn’t interested in shooting that particular bird. I knew that there was a special place in his heart for what I often called “chickens.” I equated the birds we hunted with the domestic variety. I never shared my grandmother’s fondness for what she called her “girls.” When she took sick for two weeks, and my sister and I were tasked with gathering the eggs, I had tried to lift the hens gently from their nests at first. By the end of the week I was whacking hens off their nests with a broom. Actually, it was a shovel, but I say it was a broom when I’m in mixed company so as not to offend chicken-sympathizers.
We pulled into our last hunting spot for the day. It was an edge line that provided all the elements for great spruce grouse hunting. Winchester and Cheyenne, an English setter and a chocolate lab, who was still learning to honor a point, were let out of the back of the truck. They bounded into the woods with renewed energy. My hunting partner loaded his shotgun with the two shells he’d put away earlier.
Winchester and Cheyenne- Winchester is an English Setter
Cheyenne is a chocolate lab representing two different styles of bird hunting
(Pointers and Flushers)
“Maybe we’ll find some dumb ones!” I hollered across the back of the truck.
Winchester with Spruce Grouse
|< Prev||Next >|