The Christmas Grouse

Wild Apple Jack on the front lawn of the Home Cover when he was 5 months old.

It was Christmas 1987, my daughter was seven, her grandmother was at the house for the holiday and my Brittany pup was finally getting the hang of pointing a grouse.  But there was one grouse just down the road from where I lived then that hung out in a small patch of mature spruce and fir right next to where I usually parked that I hadn’t been able to get.  He’d been pointed and/or flushed numerous times during the season but always managed to escape unscathed.  To be honest, I had developed a bit of an obsession about getting the bird before the season ended on the last day of the year. 
Wild Apple LJ pointing a woodcock last summer.
            I had tried a number of tactics that included trying to cover his usual escape route as the dog came at him from the other side.  It didn’t matter.  There were even times I heard the bird flush when I closed the door of my truck.  Christmas day I snuck out with the dog to take one more run at him while the women folk were messing around in the kitchen.  I parked well down the road from the spot and heeled the dog back down the road.  When I turned the dog loose, I rushed to get into position.  There was enough snow on the ground to muffle my footsteps and I got to the spot just as the dog’s bell stopped.
            The dog stood for a moment and then I heard one ding as he took a step.  That ding was all it took as I heard the bird thunder out and head towards me.  I could hear him coming and brought the gun to my shoulder tracking the sound.  When he broke from the cover he saw me and flared away to my left.  I swung and when the bead passed his beak, I stopped my swing and pulled the trigger missing well behind.  Some might think I had choked on the shot, but I did it intentionally.  The bird had earned the right to go on and live to add to the gene pool in the spring.
Wild Apple LJ and Wild Apple Pi as captured by Chris Mathan pointing a pigeon in the bird field of the Home Cover when they were about 16 weeks old.
            Actually, it turned out for the best as that 100 acre cover has long been a great grouse cover and about 12 years ago I was able to buy it and build a house in one of the old fields surrounded by apple trees.  Most years, when we have a good wild apple crop you can walk out with a young dog and move 15 to 20 grouse in the course of a 30-minute walk.  Wild Apple Jack learned his grouse manners on those birds, as did many of his younger siblings.  Last year when LJ was a puppy he got the Home Cover almost every day in October and November as well as being run and gunned over in our other covers every other day when he was alternating spots on the truck with his brother Wild Apple Pi.  Next fall I hope to have more of Jack’s progeny and even some of LJ’s to make that last hunt of the day with.  Like that bird I spared many years ago, the birds in the Home Cover get pretty well educated but then so do the young dogs.  Even if we tried, we probably wouldn’t get many decent shots at them and we almost never run an adult dog on the Home birds – unless it belongs to guest. 
            So, today as I sit in the middle of that cover thinking about dogs past, present, and future I can place them in my own version of A Christmas Carol.  I continue to nurture the cover here with bush hog and chain saw in hopes that the grouse will be in the wild apples for many years to come.  Merry Christmas. 

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