Growing up on the North Hill Marsh in Duxbury, Massachusetts was an outdoor kid’s dream. Fishing, hunting, trapping, camping, living off the land – this is how I spent much of my childhood.
I remember waking on a cold, frosty dawn, crawling from my tent pitched high on a hill. Ducks and geese were noisily feeding on the pond below. A smoky mist whisked over the water’s surface. As I stood up and stretched, I nearly had a heart attack when two ruffed grouse exploded into the air no more than ten feet behind my camouflaged tent. I’ve studied and hunted grouse all my life, and I still jumped a foot off the ground when they launch themselves into the air like rockets – at 45 miles per hour! If you haven’t experienced the shear exhilaration of a surprised ruffed grouse flush, you’re missing out on one of the most spectacular rushes nature provides (see your doctor first).
One day, I was hunting a hillside where I had seen and flushed (and missed) a ruffed grouse on three different occasions. Grouse are the hardest game bird to hunt because they are literally as fast as lightning. One flash and they are gone. On this particular evening though, I was confident I would come home with supper.
As I side-winded around the hill, I came to a beautiful pine grove that smelled with the sweet perfume of fall. As I stood there deeply breathing in nature’s bouquet, a ruffed grouse came roaring into the grove at full throttle. He spotted me just as he put on the brakes and dropped his landing gear. If ever a grouse was surprised, this bird sure was. I swear his eyes were as big as saucers as he touched down no more than five feet in front of me. (Ruffed grouse are never supposed to come towards you. In fact, they are heard and rarely seen as they pour on the afterburners and disappear through the woods like a super sonic jet at an air show – now you see me now you don’t!)
He immediately started making a nervous, red-squirrel-like whistling. He strutted, contemplating, not quite sure what to do. I stood there in utter surprise myself. When I realized supper was at hand, I tried to raise my gun. Only one thing stood between me and the tender, white meat: tall and medium-sized pine trees. Actually there were three and I was standing port of arms right up against them. When I had first come upon the “cathedral in the pines,” I leaned against these trees and poked my head into the grove. Sort of like when you crack open a door and stick your head into a room to look around. Now I was so close to the pines, I couldn’t snap my gun to my shoulder for the shot.
Suddenly, the ruffed grouse got his wits about him and exploded into the air. I nearly had a heart attack. In the blink of an eye he was gone without a trace. I stood there, heart pounding in my chest, and laughed out loud. Somehow, this bird had skunked me again. As I walked home re-playing the scene in my mind, I wondered – if I were a fox, would he of gotten away?
Capt. David Bitters is a writer/photographer and a striped bass/sea duck hunting guide from Massachusetts. His photos and essays have appeared in over one-hundred magazines. Capt. Bitters is currently finishing his first book, A Sportsman’s Fireside Reader – Tales of Hunting, Fishing, and Other Outdoor Pleasures. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org (781) 934-2838. You can also write him at P.O. Box 366 Duxbury, MA 02331.