THE SEA­SON

For late-sea­son grouse, once you find the source of their fa­vorite food, you’ll of­ten find the mother lode

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By TOM DAVIS

Find the right food source, and you’ll find grouse heaven. By Tom Davis

ITHINK OF THEM AS Mac­beth’s witches: a trio of an­cient thorn ap­ple trees in my yard. Not that thorns does jus­tice to their bristling, hard spikes. If I’m not care­ful and take one in the thigh while I’m mow­ing the lawn, my lan­guage can turn a cloudy sky blue. Still, the old crones aren’t en­tirely ma­lign. Some­times I’ll catch an im­pres­sion of move­ment in their tops, look up, and see the sil­hou­ette of a crested head. Be­fore the pro­ces­sors kick in and tell me it’s a car­di­nal, I’ll have a dis­so­cia­tive mo­ment when I think, Grouse! My mus­cles tense in ex­pec­ta­tion of that thrilling, hurtling flush.

Maybe it’s an ex­am­ple of sym­pa­thetic magic, for when­ever I’ve found thorn ap­ples, more of­ten than not I’ve found grouse. Now, af­ter all these years, the con­nec­tion is part of my wiring. The birds come for the fruit, of course, the blood-red, mar­ble-size haws, and they keep com­ing, fil­ter­ing in from far and wide, un­til they’ve gob­bled the last one down.

Late last au­tumn, a thorn ap­ple– crav­ing grouse led me to the mother lode. We were hunt­ing new coun­try. While the cover looked ideal—a rum­pled swatch of brush-tan­gled as­pen in­ter­rupted here and there by taller oaks and pines—close to two hours passed with­out a flush. Tina, my English set­ter, was bust­ing her fanny and, true to her m.o. when the pick­ings are slim, stretch­ing her casts far­ther and far­ther.

I had stopped to lis­ten for her bell when I heard some­thing that made me prick up my ears. It was a faint but def­i­nite rustling, and as I peered through the un­der­story I glimpsed the banded tail and stip­pled back of a grouse strid­ing along. It seemed to be on a mis­sion, so I went into bird-dog mode, fol­low­ing at a dis­creet dis­tance, stay­ing in touch but not press­ing the is­sue.

Thank­fully, it was an ab­bre­vi­ated pur­suit. The bird dropped over a lit­tle hump, and when I got there a few sec­onds later I found my­self look­ing down into a shal­low basin that was stud­ded with thorn ap­ple trees. Some were spindly-scrawny, oth­ers more densely branched; not all of them held fruit. But enough of them did, with their haws the only daubs of color on the sea­son’s stripped-down can­vas. I took a step, and the world ex­ploded.

FRUITS OF LA­BOR

Early in his ca­reer, leg­endary grouse re­searcher Gor­don Gul­lion no­ticed that the birds on his north­ern Min­nesota study area were feed­ing fu­ri­ously in the tops of cer­tain quak­ing as­pen trees. One day he took his .22 along— but not for the rea­son you might sus­pect. Tak­ing aim, he clipped off sev­eral of the branches where he’d seen the grouse and de­ter­mined that the birds were gorg­ing on male flower buds.

This was one of the first aha mo­ments that led Gul­lion to de­velop his the­sis, now a guid­ing prin­ci­ple of ruffed grouse habi­tat man­age­ment, that a stand of 10- to 20-year-old quak­ing as­pens sup­plies ev­ery­thing a grouse needs, in­clud­ing food.

Well, yes. Ex­cept my ex­pe­ri­ence has been that as long as there’s any kind of fruit on the menu, that’s what the birds will choose. They’ll travel a long way to get it, too, es­pe­cially later in fall when food in gen­eral be­comes harder to come by and their caloric re­quire­ments rise in re­sponse to colder weather. For a grouse hunter, know­ing a cover where fruit per­sists deep into the sea­son is like hav­ing money in the bank.

The par­a­digm in this re­spect for my grouse-crazy bud­dies and me will al­ways be the Old Set­ter Cover. Maybe 20 acres in size, it was one of those spots that wouldn’t turn your head if you were driv­ing past. Once you waded into it, though, your jaw tended to go slack. The place was a buf­fet of high-qual­ity grouse food: wild grapes, gray dog­wood berries, rose hips, high­bush cran­ber­ries, wild raisin vibur­num, and of course thorn ap­ples. For a hun­gry grouse—and a grouse hunter—it was heaven.

The Old Set­ter Cover was good from open­ing day on, but in late Oc­to­ber and early Novem­ber, af­ter the leaves were down, well, I go weak in the knees just think­ing about it.

ROYAL FLUSH

A grouse dove out of the clos­est thorn ap­ple a split sec­ond af­ter I saw its head stretched up­ward in alarm. I shot over the bird, but an­other grouse that flushed from the ground wasn’t so for­tu­nate, tum­bling at the bark of my Fox’s left tube. Then more birds ham­mered out as I reloaded, and I snapped breech to bar­rels just in time to miss a grouse but cut down the top half of a wrist-thick as­pen.

By then Tina had reap­peared, rac­ing ahead only to hit point so sud­denly she was bent like the let­ter C. I scraped in her di­rec­tion, reload­ing as I went, and when two grouse erupted, I con­nected on one but missed the other. Tina re­trieved the bird I killed, a gor­geous, choco­late-brown grouse with glossy green-tinted ruffs and an im­pres­sive fan, and as I pushed it into my game­bag I re­al­ized I hadn’t picked up the first grouse yet. I’d lost my mark in the con­fu­sion, but when I waved Tina in the gen­eral di­rec­tion and ex­horted her to hunt dead she found the bird in short or­der. This bird was gray. When I cupped its bulging crop, it felt like a bag full of mar­bles.

Spread Out

A hunter fans the gor­geous tail of a ruffed grouse.

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