Back starting in the nineteen sixties my father and I would religiously go fishing and hunting for 5 to 6 weeks starting in early August in northern Quebec avoiding the hordes of mosquitoes and blackflies present in June and July.
The region we favored was located close to the main southern access to the immense Baskatong reservoir, some three hours north of Montreal, at the confluence of the Piscatosin and Notawissi rivers.
Renowned back then for walleye, northern pike, lake trout, and several other species of gamefish. A pristine wilderness paradise, especially back then.
Although an avid fisherman from a very early age, I also had a passion for grouse hunting, most specifically ruffed grouse.
Now, across from our rustic camp on the other side of the Notawissi river was an old cart trail that went on for miles and miles.
Every year I would boat over to that hidden trail with my trusty Ithaca 20-gauge Featherlight pump-action shotgun with enough ammo to start a small war and some food and beverages for the day.
I would be walking in hunting for a good 4 to 6 hours, the stamina of youth being a wonderful thing.
I remember with great fondness the quiet environment of those long trail walks seeking the oddly elegant and elusive grouse.
This trail ran 100 yards away and parallel to the shoreline of the Notawissi river and occasionally through the trees would provide a glimpse of the river and provide a slight breeze rustling the early autumn leaves.
Now, for those who’ve never hunted grouse, the whole exercise boils down to two things: a sharp eye and a keen ear.
As these birds peck away at seeds in ground cover plants as well as fine gravel for their gullets to crush them, they have particularly good camouflage making them very difficult to spot, especially from 20 or 30 yards away. And happening upon them without warning causes them to explode upwards at a great rate of speed, making on the wing shots very challenging indeed.
So the goal is to see them before they see you. Otherwise, even at a greater distance, they’ll freeze and melt into their surroundings.
But they have one weakness. They can’t help but make the slightest of head bobs every few seconds, even when deadly still.
And that is where the sharp eye comes to play, as it discerns this minor movement amongst the busy landscape. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than it sounds and requires a lot of practice and acute focus.
As for the keen ear, the grouse’s call, usually in a more wooded setting, is muted and unrecognizable to the untrained ear and calls for very close listening.
Another sound giveaway is the breast drumming done by the males, either for territoriality or mating. The batting of their wings against their chests can be heard from quite a distance and again come from more covered areas, not open trails. After all, foxes, lynx, and wolves love this music.
Hours of walking can pass with no actionable signs or sightings. I’ve shot six grouse in thirty minutes and also have seen no grouse for several hours on occasion.
Regardless of that, the sheer deep delight of the blood of being surrounded by the wind’s symphony in the trees, the warm late August sun on your shoulders in the crisp fall weather, the carpet of multicolored leaves surrounding you, and the general glory of unspoiled nature make every trip a soul-calming event.
The total absence of civilization and the innate stillness of the forest while you sit on a log by the side of the trail, pouring some coffee from a well-worn thermos to rinse down a well-deserved sandwich, munched with the greatest appreciation, remain vivid in my memory some 50 years later as does the quintessential feeling of peace and place in the universe.
When shooting grouse you’ll frequently miss your target as they can run and fly away at great speed and know how to use the natural cover when they do.
My instinctive reaction after missing a shot or even a successful one is to take a knee, as it were, becoming completely still for a minute or two to let things/the environment resettle, look and listen attentively. I avoid rushing after them, as that only pushes them further away.
There may be more birds from the flock scurrying around as well as the fact that grouse don’t fly very far, twenty to thirty yards at most before branching or returning to ground cover.
Scouring nearby trees often reveals other grouse, which being alerted by now, are on their guard, but sadly believe that you can’t reach them and that they’re safe on their new perches.
Many a grouse has made that fatal mistake, to our belly’s delight.
Excerpt from my upcoming e-book “Recollections from my time on earth” - Snackable short stories