What a finish
On the backside of the first hill, which dropped off sharply into the drain leading to the large slough at the end of the waterfowl production area, my lab Ole lit up with the hint of something carried by the northwest winds. As he advanced on the invisible trail through the short grasses under the gray sky, his tail wiggled wildly and I suspected something was up. I did my best to get my legs to believe what my eyes were seeing, but I was still a good 30 yards behind my dog when another 30 yards in front of him a group of eight sharptailed grouse rose against the wind.
I touched off the two rounds of size 7 steel loads readied in the barrels of my 20-guage but knew it would be little more than a chasing shot as the birds booked it to the far side of the public land complex. Ole and I both paused and marked their descent into the bean field beyond the property line into private land about a half mile away. We continued our trek to the northeast, cutting back and against the wind to get scent, and the situation repeated itself on the next outcropping. Only this time, I held off on the shots at a fleeing covey of a dozen more of the laughing, white-gray upland birds and was startled by a singleton that had held in the grass and flushed in a curling arc to my left. I was so surprised by the lone remaining grouse apparently that both shots sailed over it and the bird continued on, untouched to join the flock over the hills and out of sight.
The best chance of the morning went with it, and after a few birdy stops along the hillsides with the wind at our backs, Ole and I returned to the truck to decide where to go next. A nearby mix of yellow and blue on the map page suggested there would be enough PLOTS and trust land to finish out the morning, and my legs, which were feeling my pre-dawn run compounded by the far more challenging mix of grass, clover, rock and three varmint holes, which all seemed to target my left ankle on the first hike of the day. Arriving at the point where the colored squares on the map turned into rising hills, bunches of brush and drying fields of small grains and soybeans, I plotted out a swooping final walk through the trust land along the edge of the unharvested agricultural acres.
Up and down my dog and I went, working our way to the south edge, moving along the sloping grasses to set up an into-the-wind finish on the return mile. Along the way, he’d catch the scent of what had been in the likely holding spots along sprawling evergreen carpets and in the reddish grasses of the hillsides. On three occasions, I readied my gun at his sweeping cues through the cover, but nothing flushed and we continued on.
As we made the turn, each thicket of buffaloberry bushes and wild plum trees notched into the north-facing slopes looked more grousey than the last, but none of them held the birds which Ole had sensed on the earlier hills. I began to think as the truck came back into view in the small valley between me and the final rise that the second workout of the day would be my only reward for venturing out. As we crested the last rise to a small rockpile, Ole caught fire and held frozen on the mix of green, gray and pink field rock stacked overlooking the drop and the return path to the truck. I gave him the “GO!” command and a lone sharpie bumbled into the air, and with one shot, toppled back to the ground for an easy retrieve. Glancing around I quickly opened the little scattergun and popped in a shell just in case another rose, but it didn’t. I met my dog halfway up the hill and examined the bird while plucking the drool-covered feathers glued to my lab’s muzzle.
Tucking the grouse in my game pouch, I thought how similar this chilly hunt had been to the warm ones early in the season, with lots of walking, but only a single bird to show for my efforts, which had previously resulted from a combination of poor shooting on my first day out, and the lone bird on my second trip; and both factors combined on this day.
“All by his lonesome, I guess,” I said aloud, with the slightest hint of disappointment to my dog as we came back up the hill.
As the last hiss of the word “guess” slipped through my teeth, my vision blurred with the sight of 20 gray-and-white footballs at 15 yards lifting into the sky over the red-and-green grasses of the hillsides behind them and my heart jumped into my throat, choking off whatever I was thinking of saying next. Their whirring wings thumped like a bay full of tiny outboard motors, unable to turn over in the continued chill of the gray morning, but slowly gaining on the process. As I raised my gun to fire, I could only think not to flock shoot and risk pegging an extra bird in the bunch with my two salvos.
I singled out the bottommost grouse in the group and it dropped. I readjusted and picked the top bird of the flock and winged it, sending it crashing down away from us at the base of the hill. Ole was quickly on the first sharpie and brought it to hand like a relay baton while I completed the sprint to the valley to find the least hit of the pair. With a few sniffs and spins around the thicker grasses, Ole finished the double and we celebrated an exciting turn of events to go from nothing in the bag to being done for the day in under a minute; a fast finish to a long trek.
Gun emptied and broken over my shoulder with the right side of my vest bearing the weight of our three birds, Ole and I floated down the slope and through the last 300 yards of the walk to the truck, all fatigue swept away by a successful final turn of the day. It served once again as a reminder that while the work is sometimes its own reward, the dividends of such perseverance are a far greater gift when they come in the form of a spectacular finish…in our outdoors.