September 9, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
I'm sure Faith Hill has never hunted ruffed grouse. Otherwise, she would have included grouse hunting as one of the "Secrets of Life" in her popular country song.
As far as anyone knows, Jake Rose had never been grouse hunting either, until I took him along last Saturday. Although some would say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, especially after nine previous hunting seasons had already passed him by, I was willing to bet on his breeding, mysterious as it may be.
You see, by all appearances, Jake is the offspring of a golden retriever. Bird hunting is in his blood. The trouble is, nobody's quite sure what else is in his blood. Sharon's dad rescued him from the pound when Jake was only about one year old, and we've been debating what it was he rescued ever since.
No matter. Our hunting skills, or lack thereof, would be well matched. No expectations, no disappointments, for either of us. I would just be carrying a shotgun along on our daily walk. We loaded up and headed for Cold Brook.
Cold Brook has what grouse and hunters want. It flows across gentle terrain for a good part of its length, and is sheltered by hawthorn, chokecherry, aspen and fir. Cattle have worn paths for hunters to follow through the brush. Succulent clover leaves and berry-laden kinnikinnik grow within a stone's throw of the water.
We got off to a shaky start. Only about 10 minutes into our hunt, my foot came down on a smooth, wet limb and I took a hard fall. Drove my kneecap into a rock and my gun barrel into the mud. I don't understand how a body part can hurt that much and not be broken.
As I gathered myself together and climbed gingerly atop my feet, I thought to listen for the flushing of the ruffed grouse, for it is at just such a moment that the grouse invariably chooses to flush with a flourish and glide straight away through a broad clearing. Hearing none, I began to wonder about grouse production along Cold Brook this year.
Meanwhile, Jake continued to enjoy the morning, entirely unaffected by my physical or mental condition. He had water, which he dearly loves, and he had lots of new smells to investigate.
And, a few minutes farther down the cowpath, one of those smells exploded into flight.
Instinctively, my gun jumped to my shoulder, but I couldn't see the bird through the willows. "Don't shoot the wife's dog," my conscious mind scolded, and I made a quick search for Jake's whereabouts, noting his continued progress through the brush, head down, tail wagging. There would be another chance.
The second grouse was no more cooperative than the first, but the third crested the willows, crossing in front of me. I was too slow to get a shot, of course, but in the process noticed something out of placeand stationaryon the skyline.
A young ruffed grouse had landed on a bare branch, offering a sure shot. I waited for Jake to get where I thought he might see or hear the bird fall, and then fired.
Did I mention that Jake is presumed to be gun shy?
In the year-and-a-half that Jake has lived with us, Sharon and I have seen no reason to dispute this theory. Every instance of thunder or fireworks has brought him quivering to our pant-legs. I had decided to save his first shooting experience with me until he was immersed in the hunt. This was the moment of truth. What would Jake do?
He didn't run away. But, he didn't wrap himself around my legs, either. Mostly, he seemed to wonder what he had done to detonate that bomb.
"Hunt 'em up, Jake. Where is it?" I encouraged him, but he was tentative. "Where's that tripwire?" he seemed to be thinking as he poked his nose into the brush, but dared not allow his body to follow.
"Here, Jake," I called as I moved in ahead of him, and after a few steps he was comfortable enough to hunt ahead of me until his nose caught the scent of the downed bird. I kept encouraging, and soon he had retrieved his first ruffed grouse, which is to say he had mouthed and done what he darn well pleased with it. I, in turn, forcibly retrieved the bird from Jake.
Because this grouse had been so young and incredibly cooperative, I thought there might yet be more birds in this spot to further reinforce Jake's association of the gun blast with the dead bird. Sure enough, after encouraging Jake to hunt some more, another bird flew up and afforded me an easy chance. When the bird fell, Jake and I repeated the retrieval process, successfully once again. After a fashion, Jake Rose is now a bird dog.
When we got home, Jake attended while I prepared the birds for a late lunch, and he accepted occasional gifts of wings and raw leg scraps with enthusiasm. But, Sharon and I didn't invite Jake to our backyard barbecue, where we enjoyed a meal of tender grouse breasts and corn on the cob, fresh from the garden.
Maybe the ritual of hunting, killing and eating ruffed grouse wouldn't stir me today if it didn't connect me with the things I lived for as a kid, and the days we shared as a family when I was growing up. Maybe the idea of shooting a grouse would seem stupid otherwise. I'll never know.
It's just another wonderful "Secret of Life."