They are called The King of Game Birds. Doves can embarrass. Teal will expose your limitations. But ruffed grouse are Kung Fu masters. They appear and disappear, twisting through dense cover challenging even the sharpest wing shooter. They will fail to turn up where they should, suddenly be found where they shouldn’t, leaving you dancing in the woods with your shotgun as your eyes look for the sound exploding at your feet. Musky fisherman count follows. Grouse hunters count flushes with hope a couple find their way into the pocket of their hunting vest.
Hearing drumming grouse in the spring is on my list of sacred sounds, right up there with sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and loons. Drumming is a territorial and courtship behavior, but for some reason, no matter where, it also makes me stop in my tracks to listen. When I hear those sub-sonic wing beats coming from some unknown location in the brushy tangle, I feel a part of my purpose fulfilled, and I smile.
I don’t get to hunt them much anymore, but I try to squeeze in an opportunity here and there when I travel north. The population is cyclic, presumably on the downside, but a recent October trip to northeastern Wisconsin during 2022 suggested a good spring hatch and the local population was doing well. Driving back roads and morning walks would regularly generate multiple flushes.
On one particular morning a friend and I walked a gravel road near his cottage, only binoculars in hand, searching for wild fur and feathers. During the spring visit, a single grouse could be heard drumming every morning a hundred yards down the road, so I wasn’t surprised when we flushed a couple birds near that spot. Another couple hundred yards or so and another bird exploded from the roadside cover.
Looking at my friend, I jokingly said, “Get ready. There’s more. I’ll hunt this side of the road; you get that side.”
Within moments two more birds launched, and with a slight delay, a third blasted from the brush following his buddies through the pines. I raised my arms as if to aim and shoot, followed the trailing bird with my eyes, and yelled, “bang!” As the bird disappeared from view, I heard a dull thump.
“Did you hear that?” I asked. “I think I got him.”
We walked a grassy driveway leading to a neighbor’s hunting shack just off the road. Twenty yards away the bird lay on the ground, dead, a few feathers floating downward to the grass. Nearby was an old basketball backboard. Apparently, in his haste to escape roadside interlopers, the grouse easily avoided branches and pine trees, but failed to negotiate the odd and out of place backboard, breaking his neck on impact.
I picked up the warm bird and proclaimed, “Best shot I’ve ever made. No gun, no shells, and an easy retrieve.”
Telling the story to another friend, an avid grouse hunter, he wondered, “At what decibel level do you need to yell, and is this a legal method?”
I hear the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has proposed a new regulation - All basketball backboards in Zone A must be removed by October 1 through March 1 of each year.