Hunting Grey Ghosts

I got my first taste of bird hunting on the lower west slope of North Sugarloaf in South Deerfield, along a power line where we roamed as kids and flushed many “patridge.”

The flushes surprised us as made our many ascensions up the west face of the mountain to the Indian cave hollowed out of the southern tip, providing a breathtaking Pioneer Valley vista. Legend has it that King Philip himself used that shelf cave and another like it on Mount Sugarloaf as 17th century lookouts.

The gun laws were much looser back in the 60’s, when we’d “borrow” a couple of my friend’s father’s field-beater shotguns — one, as I recall, a single-shot 20 gauge, the other a .410/.22 caliber over-and-under — and head for the power line to try our luck on ruffed grouse. My friend, “The Count,” always referred to them affectionately as “grey ghosts,” which he undoubtedly picked up from his father, a devoted grouse hunter and fly fisher.

Hunting licenses were optional for peach-fuzzed boys back then. At least we never felt a need for one. Those were for men, we reasoned, and perhaps we were wrong, but no uniformed official ever corrected us. We never used a bird dog in those days, either. The two of us just worked together, walking along opposite edges of the narrow power line — sumac stands and wild raspberry bushes between us, wild grapes along the edges — trying to flush ghosts, grey ones that that disappear as fast as they startle you.

Of course, the flush was the easy part, hitting them another story altogether. The Count would walk five or 10 steps as I stood sentry, then I’d walk five or 10 while he’d stood on the alert, ready to mount, swing and fire. We knew the location of every cluster of wild grape vines along that stretch of real estate, every wild apple tree, every juniper and we’d approach them with a heightened sense of anticipation. But even on that open power line, in areas where we anticipated action, the partridge had a way of flushing behind a tree or directly into a blinding sun to survive. Sometimes they’d even reveal their presence by drumming before we moved in on them and still they’d flush and disappear before we could find them near the end of our barrel. That’s why The Count and others choose to call them grey ghosts, because all you get is a sound, a flash and they’re gone. That’ll never change, whether hunting behind champion bird dogs or scouring old pastures and swamps dog-less in adolescent bliss.

Times have changed since for me since then. I never hunt without a dog anymore, and The Count resides three-quarters of the way cross-country. However, one thing will never change regarding ruffed grouse: They are the most elusive game bird in the Northwoods.

I have found other hunting buddies over the years, still make time for bird hunting, and can’t help but think back to that lower western slope of North Sugarloaf every time I visit a grouse covert. One such experience came during a pleasant Saturday afternoon in early November. I was accompanied by Jon Cook, who shares my passion for bird hunting and dogs, not to mention my Connecticut Valley bedrock. During our recent pheasant-hunting travels, I kept promising “Cooker” that I’d show him a secret grouse covert I share with few men. That day arrived on a weekend. We didn’t want to battle the pheasant-hunting crowds.

We arrived at the spot, today posted tight, after noon with two experienced English Springer Spaniels of related pedigrees — his 9-year-old bitch, Henna, and my 5-year-old male, Ringo. Both have boundless energy and a love for flushing and retrieving game birds, and both can get grouse-crazy in a hurry.

It didn’t take long for Cooker to give the site his stamp of approval. Less than a half-hour into our hunt, we met in a damp hollow following seven flushes and one kill. Cooker looked across a wooded marsh, wiped his brow and said, “Hey Bags, I won’t be telling anyone about this spot. I’m gonna save it for us.” That was great news to me, because good grouse coverts are worth shrouding in secrecy.

Cooker’s enthusiasm for the site had nothing to do with the blood dripping from scratches on his neck or my arms, or the sanguine stain on Ringo’s shoulders and chest. You learn to live with wounds hunting an old orchard overgrown with juniper, bull briar, raspberries and multiflora-rose, all of which are magnets to grouse and many other birds and wildlife. Of the aforementioned vegetation, you must respect the bull briar and rosebush most, skirting the dense patches until you find a thin enough spot to carefully squeeze through. Even smart dogs understand that. Learn the hard way. And it’s no different for humans. If you try to barge through bull-briars, get tangled and fall, it may require a trip to the doctor for stitches. The thorns are that sharp and unforgiving, and they can snag you totally motionless until you figure out the safest way to get untangled, which usually requires dropping it into reverse, gingerly.

Of course, the rosebushes, sumac stands and unpruned apple trees also provide a dense screen for wing-shooters, which is good news to grouse being pursued by an experienced gun dog. The birds seem to understand that the key to surviving a flush is remaining concealed behind cover for the first 20 or 30 yards, so that by the time they show themselves for an instant, it’s too late for the shooter, even though he’s heard the flush and is anticipating a sighting. The problem is that that sighting is often too brief and faraway.

We were confronted by such scenarios many times on that Saturday and came away with the one partridge from 15 or 20 flushes. Sure, our chances would have been better had we hunted one dog between the two of us, and it sure would have been nice if a few woodcock flights had been waiting there for us as well. But partridge hunting isn’t about killing, it’s about challenge and camaraderie, fresh air and exercise. Furthermore, an experienced wing-shooter worth his salt has learned to respect the ruffed grouse as a regal resident of our woodlands. That’s why he keeps his coverts secret and refuses to overharvest his prey.

You hunt grouse on their turf and terms and, when lucky, you come away with a bird here, a bird there. Nearly every time you bag one it’s the result of a quick, skillful, thoroughly rewarding wingshot at a small grey ghost squirting through thick cover. You shoulder the scatter gun, snap off a quick shot, see the bird tumble and stand in amazement.

That’s grouse hunting. The ultimate.

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