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I can’t say that I loved ruffed grouse hunting for the mystique of the bird. Or because ruffed grouse hunting was more ”gentlemanly” or "romantic" than the other birds. I loved ruffed grouse hunting for the difficult terrain and shooting opportunities that they offered. It seemed that everyone in Iowa and southern Minnesota would rather spend a leisurely afternoon walking stubble fields for pheasants than trudge over hill and ravine for a difficult shot at a smaller bird. Other then the friends that I invited along, I seemed to have the grouse woods to myself. In 25 years of hunting southern Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern Iowa, I only once ever encountered a fellow grouse hunter in the field. One time in more than 300 hunts. That was a far cry from sharing nearly every pheasant field with a couple of guys who had permission and a swarm who did not.

I hunted ruffed grouse because I could count on being the only hunter in the woods no matter the day of the week or time of day. Ruffed grouse also filled another need. I was raised from childhood with a strong work ethic. You work hard and do not play until work is done. But work is never done. There’s always more, left over work from last year and yesterday and plenty more you could bank now for the future. I loved work, but it also drains the life out of a man. So every time I skipped work to hunt, I felt from a little, to a lot guilty. I carried it in the field with me and it was heavier than my gun and shells.

I found that the only way that I could shrug off the guilt was to hunt hard. To hunt like work and then I wouldn’t think about it. I don’t recommend exhaustive hunting as therapy, but it worked for me. Many years later, as I saw my dad slow down, I accepted a stark realization. Work never goes away, but play does. The things that you thought you would love to do one day, when left undone for years, become unimportant. They are replaced by more and different things that you would like to do.

It’s when you reach middle age that the regret sets in. You realize that you have done few of the things you wanted to and if you don’t change your life, you may as well stop wasting your time planning the undoable. It was in my late 30’s that I began to relax and enjoy the leisure of hunting. I still hunted hard and with goals in mind, but it was more fun. I didn’t worry about cramming a season into few days because I knew that I would allow myself to hunt more often and that I would begin hunting areas and birds that I used to dream about.

I still recall a conversation that I had with my mother at about that time. We were discussing the lyrics of a song by the group The Outfield. My mother said, “They’re wrong. You don’t regret the things that you did. You regret what you did not do.” I hope we all remember that.)

I was hunting with Russ Miller and we parked at the Highway 76 bridge along the upper Iowa River. No ducks today, just ruffed grouse and maybe a woodcock or two. This was Russ’s first grouse hunt of the season but I had hunted twice this season before leaf fall. On opening day, I hunted Pinochle Road and shot the fastest limit of ruffed grouse ever. I was back at my truck in less than 45 minutes with three ruffed grouse! Now this might sound like a fantastic hunt to those who had never limited out, but I lived for the few days a year I could hunt ruffed grouse. I anticipated opening day during the entire off season. To have it end in less than an hour was worse than disappointing. Though I could ill afford it, I drove a few miles north into Minnesota, purchased a non-resident license and finished out the day shooting two more ‘ruffs and a woodcock in southern Minnesota. The second hunt I was hunting with another friend, Del Willard and we were rained out for most of the day but did manage a few birds just before dark.

I had Pitch, my ten-year-old female black lab and Russ was dogless. We started hunting along the lane that paralleled the river but never got serious until we reached the third rapids. There were a few wimpy hills at the rapids, then a steep draw that lead to higher hills and bluffs, 300 feet above the river. This was all grouse cover for the next three hours.

I shot one grouse early that Pitch put up a little behind me as I was crossing the fence into some serious stuff. Russ was hunting below me. The high hunter usually had the best shooting as most of the grouse would either skirt along the outside edge of the timber or cut across the rise to the next ravine that was always a hundred yards or saw on the other side. Every hill had it’s own ravine and there were a lot of hills. The hill tops were either in pasture or crops so there was very little flat ground to hunt. Like hunting in the Appalachians, it would help to have one leg shorter than the other.

After a few seasons of hunting ruffed grouse we had learned to not alternate first shots with your buddy, as we did with pheasants. With ruffed grouse, it you held off to allow your partner a shot, most birds would fly off unscathed. Well most of them seemed to anyway, but we at least protested their departure. It took a few seasons and some relaxed discipline, but I evolved into a “shoot ’em if ya got ’em bird hunter”. If I could see feathers in range, with a clear background, I shot and kept shooting.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! And finally, a grouse tumbled through the branches of a mature oak. Russ exclaimed in colorful language that hunting with me always felt like he was with a small army and that he couldn’t imagine how anyone could take three shots at a ruffed grouse and still hit it.

This bird wasn’t that difficult because he had flushed behind me and flew in an arc around the large oak. Pitch had the grouse back and we pushed one more grouse at a low power line that bisected this initial cover. We knew we would flush him again in the next set of hills as they were thicker and a little higher.

We would often take two or three birds from the next patch of hills. There were usually three to five ‘ruffs in here and we knew how to hunt it. There were three ravines in here that were fairly easy to post. The low hunter would position himself on the side of a ravine as far down as possible to still be able to shoot across. It was his job to shoot any bird that flew down or tried to cut long the far side. The upper man did the flushing and had to take the birds that skirted the outside or cut across the field. It wasn’t as easy shooting as it sounds. The lower man usually got the best shooting at ravines. We performed this maneuver many times a day and although we got predictable shooting, we never seemed to substantially reduce grouse numbers.

We each picked up a bird here as the dark clouds began spitting snow. I got a bird on the far side and Russ hit his as it was heading to low ground. Though these diving grouse are really moving, you had plenty of time to prepare for the shot as you’re pre-positioned, the flush was loud and it takes the bird a while to get to your level. But it is refreshing to hit a bird that leaves a trail of feathers for 50 feet before it caroms off tree branches and finally collides with the downhill slope. We always joked that if the shot didn’t kill them, the fall certainly would.

We laugh and cuss a lot on these hunts and they really were the best of times. The talk didn’t seem to bother the birds and the shooting was difficult enough that you could be proud of every bird you took. There were few gimmes in steep hill, ruffed grouse hunting.

We were up to the high power line and the snow was really accumulating. This was about a 40 acre piece of cover before we crossed into House Hollow. This timber was never pastured and very thick. We expected anywhere from one to four flushes in the mixed hardwoods and cedars but seldom shot more than one bird in here. I was on the low side with Pitch between us when a pair of ‘ruffs flushed from above Russ. One landed in a tree between us and the other slipped out behind. As we were circling to find out where that tree rooster was, Pitch flushed a third bird from a thicket. I swatted at the ground flusher and I was finished in Iowa for the day. We never saw the tree bird slip out.

Now it was time for me to play bird dog along with Pitch. Russ would get all the good posts and shooting. We never party hunted. Each of us was here for the same reason. We loved to hunt and shoot ruffed grouse and wouldn’t allow or be allowed to shoot on another’s limit. It was as true for pheasant and duck hunting as grouse. At that time, I didn’t realize that anyone party hunted. If you didn’t want to shoot birds why wouldn’t you just stay home?

Ruffed grouse hunting for us was a long drive, hard climbing and tough shooting we didn’t care about bringing home as many birds as we could. We didn’t know of any other grouse hunters in Iowa and even those we knew who hunted the Great Lakes States thought we lied about the number of birds we shot in Iowa. It was about every body getting to shoot. Everyone getting a chance. I was a good bird dog and excellent heckler.

As we neared the end of House Hollow, the snow was really piling up. There were several inches on the ground and big wet flakes sticking to everything. It was almost worse than fall foliage. Russ missed more than a couple of grouse in here and I made certain that he wouldn’t soon forget it. In all fairness, I watched him shoot a true double in this very cover a few years earlier. Both birds in the air and alive, at the same time. I had shot a few doubles but none as pretty as his. Both birds at tree top level scorching down a ravine and he killed each with one shot a piece. One of the few times I didn’t even get a chance to shoot. I don’t think he would tell it any different.

Before we finished working this cover, Pitch flushed a woodcock from above me. With the muffling effects of the snow, Russ didn’t here the twitter. I took a shot as it passed over my head and Russ about jumped out of his skin. We weren’t far apart and he wasn’t expecting me to shoot as I had my limit. But that was nothing compared to the way he jumped when the bird brushed his shoulder as it fell.

We finished out this cover with Russ picking up one more bird and just one short of his limit. We cut across the ridge to the car, lunch and to listen to the forecast. We already had twice as much snow as predicted and it was still falling heavily. We plodded through the wet snow reminiscing about all the hunts we’d had on this ridge. During lunch, we decided to stay on pavement as we were to have a total of eight inches by dark.

Russ asked if I had anyplace to hunt in Minnesota on pavement. I said a couple of good ones so he suggested that I drop him off to hunt deer on Beardmore’s ridge and pick him up at dark.

I hunted some old cover and some new in Minnesota but my good shooting stayed south in Iowa. My god I missed a lot of grouse. Singles and pairs, lefts and rights. Pitch was doing great as always, but I’m sure she missed retrieving.

I did get one ‘ruff that Pitch flushed from a thicket and just after I shot, a young buck stood up between me and the bird. Then I managed one of several woodcock that she pushed from under low cedar trees where the ground was nearly bare of snow.

Then there was one more grouse just as we neared the car, at a point that I was so disgusted I could have just quit. But at that age, I loved hunting snowy woods, even though too much of it filtered down your back when ducking under branches and vines, and the footing was always more treacherous with all the loose rocks and branches under the blanket.

As I unloaded at the car, I realized my coat was empty of shells and I didn’t have enough in the gun to fill the magazine. I stopped at Wiebkies, the fur buyer in Eitzen to buy a box of shells hoping that they would get me through the rest of the afternoon.

I realize that any well read upland bird hunter would think this chapter is full of gross exaggeration. “Who ever heard of ruffed grouse in Iowa?” “and That many”. I too have read nearly everything written on the subject of ruffed grouse hunting and discussed Minnesota’s ruffed grouse with Gordon Gullion at a book signing and also on the phone with Bill Berg of the Minnesota DNR. Bill suggested an area of the “Northwoods” that held excellent numbers of ‘ruffs. He asked that I hunt it for a few days and then call him.

The very first ruffed grouse I shot north of the cities had two leg bands and a few minutes later I shot another with one. I think I shot six or eight birds in the two and a half days I hunted and called Bill when I got home. I told him about my trip and the number of flushes and he said, ”See. Those are excellent bird numbers.” I replied that I was happy with the hunting, but I would have flushed three times more birds in Iowa, Southwestern Wisconsin or Southeastern Minnesota. Bill replied, “ I won’t argue that. The best bird numbers in the region are from that area.”

At Wiebkies, they asked if I had any pheasants. Pheasants!? It was opening day of Minnesota’s pheasant season! I had only hunted Minnesota twice before but on a private farm I hunted the first day, the timber was surrounded by standing corn and Pitch had flushed a couple of roosters as we followed a fence line from the road to the timber. I bought a box of 6’s and was excited at the prospect of shooting pheasants two weeks before they were legal in Iowa.

There was also a couple of grass fingers extending from the timber into the corn that would get Pitch near the center of the field. She was a good grouse dog, but she grew up hunting pheasants in standing corn. I would just walk along the outside listening for her crashing through the stalks. She would head check every once in a while and even wait up for me if she was too far ahead. She knew that the roosters wouldn’t fall if I wasn’t close.

With renewed confidence we headed to the timber for either ‘ruffs or pheasants. The next two hours proved just how random pheasant encounters were in ruffed grouse country. And also just how quickly your shooting can turn around.

Pitch was working the cover hard both in and out of the timber. I stayed on the timber side of the fence allowing me an opportunity at either side. Pitch flushed a pair of grouse right where the fence met the woods. I didn’t get a shot and they both flew away from the farm I had permission to hunt.

In the next 100 yards we had deer, grouse and woodcock dodging each other, but no pheasants. I finally made it to a round knob with mostly vertical branches that allowed an opportunity for a shot. Probably a re-flush, but Pitch pushed a hard flier diving down the hill. I hit him well and Pitch had to stop to examine the treacherous slope before committing to the retrieve, She had taken some nasty falls over the years, one, at least 25 feet down onto a frozen creek. At 10 years old, she exercised some caution. It was sometime before she made it back to the top with the pretty red phase cock.

I was feeling like maybe my grouse slump was over as I did kill the last two I shot at, but it was some time before we got into more birds. There were a lot of tracks and I would occasionally hear a “whirr” from the trees ahead but it was very difficult to see through the thick cover. There were a few pheasant tracks around the field edge, so I was still hopeful that we might find one.

I hurried to a knob overlooking the side of the last ravine before the cover opened up into pastured woods. I had hunted this twice before and there had been a few grouse here each time. I was careful in my approach. I fell onto a live electric fence at the top of this ravine the first time I hunted it. I thought the wire was just vines and tried to kick my way through it. After falling, I must have made some contact with the ground because my legs burned like Hell. I was wearing nylon chaps at the time and they had melted to my jeans. I think the farmer had it plugged into a welding circuit in his barn. I had brown burns on each thigh that lasted for several months.

I had just gotten clear of the heaviest brush and into the more open timber side, when Pitch flushed a pair from a thicket on my right. A chance at a double. One flew down hill and I swung on him first. He tumbled down but not exactly in a cloud of feathers. Pitch was a relentless retriever and we lost very few birds in a season and never once a ruffed grouse. I swung on the second bird. By now, he was tree top high on the far side of the ravine but I caught up with him. Still more birds flushing, there were at least five grouse in that thicket.

I was sure the second grouse was dead and knew the first was not. I plowed down to the bottom with Pitch, but she ran right up the far side to where the second bird had died.

Every few years, the farmers would push the new tree growth from the edges of their fields into windrows or down into the ravines. Some of the ravines were hell to cross, especially in deep snow, and this one was no exception.

Pitch had been at this for a long time and she knew that ruffed grouse do not flush from the bottoms of ravines. I don’t think she saw the first grouse fall. I tried to call her back down to the bottom as I was certain that upper bird wasn’t going anywhere.

I admit, I was a jerk down there. I had my seventh and eight ruffed grouse of the day on the ground, and Pitch wasn’t helping with the cripple. Ruffed grouse typically don’t run far when crippled. They head downhill and crawl under a rock or tree branch to hide. It was unusual to find one more than ten yards from where it fell. Usually within feet. Once I convinced Pitch to come back and hunt dead in the bottom, she was hunting twenty yards and further away. By now the two of us had made enough of a mess in the snow that I would never be able to track the bird. It was just as well, because I couldn’t keep her in the bottom anyway. She kept climbing back to the top and whining.

I found her trying to climb a high bush that wouldn’t support her. The dead grouse was hanging in the branches near the top, never having fallen to the ground. With a shake I had him down and here was Pitch all slobber and wagging tail, trying to help pull the grouse out of the cluster.

Okay, now we were just one bird from the limit and he was down in that mess at the bottom. Pitch and I proceeded to turn over every branch and fallen trunk that I could move. My double limit ruffed grouse was in here and we were going to find it.

Yeah, well, we didn’t. After perhaps a half hour, I gave up. There was still about an hour of shooting light left and I knew there were several grouse ahead of us along a relatively open fence line. I knew that I would likely never be in this situation again and losing one grouse in ten years and still shooting a double limit was better than losing one ruffed grouse in 10 years and never shooting a double limit.

I was soaking wet, hot and cold and about wore out. And I’m sure Pitch felt the same. We struggled back to the top and sure enough, pitch flushed a single then a pair from a small bush just ten yards in front of me. I waited for the bird to clear Pitch and I shot.

I didn’t want to still be hunting and I didn’t want to shoot that bird. Thankfully, I missed. That was it. I was pissed. Pissed that I gave up on the cripple and pissed that I shot at another bird. We had about an hour before dark and I was going back down into that ravine until I couldn’t see or we found the bird.

Slipping and sliding down and then on hands and knees I started dismantling everything on top of dirt. I threw, snow, rocks and branches to the side. Every once in a while Pitch would poke her head under my arm and dig a little too but I’m sure she thought I was crazy. I didn’t care if she helped or not. If the bird was between me and the top of the ravine I would uncover it.

Well, it wasn’t. I heard Pitch clambering, snapping her jaws and barreling around behind me. As I turned to look over my shoulder, still on all fours, a wing dragging ruffed grouse struggled past me and dove into the mess I was untangling. There was a very upset black lab following him so I got out of the way.

About a bushel of feathers precipitated the separation of the grouse from it’s hide. Then some mild, forgivable crunching of flesh and bone. Pitch wasn’t hard mouth but she had cut her puppy teeth retrieving rooster pheasants and had learned at a young age that a dead rooster was much easier to carry than a live one. If she was able to grasp them across the back, she was firm but kind. But if the rooster was able to swat her with a wing or claw, she rendered them lifeless in a hurry. I really didn’t mind. With all the hundreds of birds I had shot, killing one with my bare hands was still the hardest thing in hunting for me to do.

Once out of the claustrophobic timber, I celebrated. Like a little kid at Christmas, I hooted and thrashed in the snow. I hugged Pitch and exclaimed what a wonderful pair we were. She struggled to get away from me. I’m sure to her this was just another wonderful day of hunting. But I was jubilant. I had read Spiller and Woolner two of the great eastern grouse hunters who didn’t apologize for killing birds. For years I had wondered if I could hold my own with them. And now, after legally shooting eight ruffed grouse in one day, I thought that Pitch and I could do that.

Pitch died a few years later in 1983. I’m not a Heaven and Hell kinda guy, but for a few people and dogs that I’ve known I hope there is such a place as Heaven. She was a better dog than I was a man. And as a youngster, I wasn’t always understanding of a dog’s ways. I just hope that at the end if she could talk, she would say, “Yeah, he was all that. But he sure showed me a good time.”

In 1986 I was again hunting in Iowa, but with a non-resident license. I was probably the only non-resident hunter in the country who picked Iowa as a ruffed grouse destination. I shot a lot of ruffed grouse that year hunting without a dog. Somewhere in the 70’s which was pretty good considering I only hunted weekends. I had several five-bird, early limits that year in both Southeastern Minnesota and Southwestern Wisconsin.

It was late October and I had taken an early five-bird limit in Minnesota. That mourning, I shot my first ruff within 20 yards of my truck and continued to shoot another ruff before picking up the last bird, until I had the five bird limit in something like 10 or 15 minutes. I flushed six grouse in about 60 yards of cover. I then dropped down to Iowa to hunt a cover that I hadn’t hunted for several years. It was public and really not very good but I wasn’t about shooting more grouse. I was just happy to be out of the city and away from work on a nice fall day.

I was living in a condo in downtown Minneapolis and couldn’t have a dog. I was dawdling along taking pictures for a planned magazine article when after just a few hours, I had shot the three bird limit of ruffs in Iowa.

I made it down the ridge to a parking area along the trout stream and tried to take a scenic picture of a double limit of 8 ruffed grouse but that’s not easy to do. I was shuffling around in some apple trees with my birds hanging up when a trout fisherman approached. He offered to take a picture of me with the birds, which was nice, but he was no more photographically inclined then I was or am. “Rode hard and put away wet.” comes to mind for me and the birds. It wasn’t a pretty picture but I guess a lone hunter with 8 ruffed grouse in one day, should look rough.

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