A Bighorn in Bro­ken Coun­try



A young hunter and his dad get a crash course in sheep hunting that ends with one heck of a test: tag­ging a world-record ram.


Leaves are al­ready fall­ing when I ar­rive in Min­nesota, but the pop­ple for­est still smells alive. There’s only a whiff of de­cay, and the for­est floor is quiet un­der­foot. It’s easy to see why grouse thrive here: For ev­ery ruff bagged over the next few days, we will flush five more, heard but un­seen—or just plain missed—in the dense un­der­growth. My buddy Andrew Howard drove 14 hours from Mis­souri for this hunt. He makes this trip nearly ev­ery year. We pull up to a gate in the Bel­trami Is­land State For­est and un­load, dogs and all. An­nie, a la­dy­like Llewellin set­ter, rests her chin on Andrew’s shoul­der as he buck­les her vest. Mean­while, Boscoe races around the truck. He’s a low-slung English cocker spaniel named for the cheesy bread­sticks sold hot at the gas sta­tion. The sign fixed to the gate reads: “Foot Traf­fic Wel­come.” An­other sign, this one care­fully painted, an­nounces the spot we’re hunting is a col­lab­o­ra­tion of the Ruffed Grouse So­ci­ety and the Min­nesota DNR. The lo­cal chap­ter busted ass be­fore the opener to mow this par­tic­u­lar route—one of the 500-plus des­ig­nated hunting ar­eas in Min­nesota’s ruffed grouse range, and just one slice of the state’s 11 mil­lion acres of pub­lic land. This is big coun­try. We en­counter one parked truck but no other hun­ters. It’s also thick coun­try. I shoul­der my way through stands of young pop­ple and patches of thorns, grate­ful for the safety glasses on my nose. Both dogs range ahead, bell col­lars clank­ing. Andrew knows th­ese woods well enough and has learned about the best trails from a few friendly lo­cals over the years. Min­nesotans are no­to­ri­ous for their ge­nial­ity, and as we work th­ese woods, it be­comes clear just how far their man­ners ex­tend. Lo­cal grouse hun­ters do­nated time and toil to this piece of pub­lic land, know­ing any­one—in­clud­ing us out-of-staters—might show up to hunt the ground they worked so hard to man­age. On our way through town, lo­cal hunter and RGS mem­ber Justin Par­tee ducks out of his day job in War­road, jogs across the street, and hands Andrew a map with new trails high­lighted and a few sug­ges­tions on where to hunt. We al­most feel guilty when we pull up to his spots. Later we join forces with other res­i­dent hun­ters, and they’re de­lighted by our suc­cess. They ask questions: How many grouse did we flush? What trails did we check? Are bird num­bers strong? And they an­swer our questions in turn. The first grouse of the morn­ing flushes as I’m crawl­ing un­der a brier. The sec­ond de­parts at a dis­tance and we never even see it. But the third breaks mid­morn­ing when we’re off-guard, tak­ing a rest to give the dogs wa­ter. Andrew is mid­sen­tence, un­cap­ping a tube of lip balm, when we hear the blast of wing­beats, then see the grouse hur­tle by. It flies be­yond him and banks, and then, just be­fore it es­capes around the bend, one shot echoes and the bird falls. We cheer, though we can’t be­lieve Andrew man­aged to make the shot. But Boscoe can, and he fetches up the first ruff of the day.

From top: Head­ing into the fall un­der­growth; Andrew Howard and An­nie with a ruffed grouse.

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