Frosty mornings and flaming foliage. Grouse days are upon us.
In Maine, next to whitetail deer, there is no other game species that draws as much attention in autumn from hunters, residents and nonresidents alike. Deservedly. Can you think of any other game bird that so challenges a gun dog and a shooter?
The bird man himself, John James Audubon, held the grouse-as-game-bird in reverence: “Sometimes, when these birds are found on the side of a steep hill, the moment they start, they dive towards the foot of the declivity, take a turn, and fly off in a direction so different from the one expected, that unless the sportsman is aware of the trick, he may not see them again that day.”
There can be no doubt, either, that our fondness for this fall game bird has something to do with its sweet flesh. They eat well.There is only one way to prepare and cook grouse, no matter what you hear or read in cook books. Cut up the breast in strips a half inch thick. Lightly sautee them in an iron skillet with butter and garnish with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Don’t overcook.
Sportsmen have been known to parboil a partridge breast in a bean pot or smother the overcooked breast with a creamy sherry sauce. This is a sacrilege, a culinary crime of the first order. Drown a woodcock breast in the bean pot if you must, but grouse richly deserve the respect reflected in the cooking adage that less is more.
There is an additional reason why the grouse is the hallowed game bird, why the hunt for ruffed grouse has been the subject of so much attention over the years from sporting artists and legendary outdoor writers. It is the time of year, October, when fall foliage is a feast for the eyes and the air is clear and cool in popple swamps and alder swales.
Then there is, for many of us, the main reason to be there picking our way through the thornapples, alder tangles and wire birches: The gun dog. The Setters, the Pointers, the Britts and the German Short Hairs. It is a rare upland bird hunter who doesn’t nurture and treasure a special relationship with his gun dog. Legendary grouse writer Corey Ford captures man’s romance with his gun dog in “The Road to Tinkhamtown.” The old man in the story spends his final hours reliving his days in the grouse covers with his beloved Shad.
“…Shad was standing motionless. The white fan of his tail was lifted a little and his backline was level, the neck craned forward, one foreleg cocked. His flanks were trembling with the nearness of the grouse, and a thin skein of drool hung from his jowels. The dog did not move as he approached, but the brown eyes rolled back until their whites showed, looking for him. ‘Steady boy,’ he called. His throat was tight , the way it always got when Shad was on point, and he had to swallow hard. ‘Steady, I’m coming.'”
This time of year, especially this time of year, memories of my “Shad” — a soft-haired English Setter named Sally of Seboeis — take up residence in my daydreams. She was far from a “finished” gun dog, but she wanted to please and took to the hunt with enthusiasm and energy. As a youngster, she launched her gundog career at a wonderful pheasant preserve in New Brunswick and, later, the cornfields of South Dakota. Regrettably now, we didn’t hunt her as much as she deserved, but there were some wonderful days in Maine woodcock and grouse covers.
Grouse days are always good, but never quite the same when your favorite gun dog can’t be with you.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors.” His e-mail address is email@example.com . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”