Ruffies On A Roll

Two dogs and one hunter is a standard bird-chasing trio. But add a wheelchair to the equation and everything changes.

Ruffed grouse have always been the ultimategame species for me. They present the greatest challenge of any game I’ve hunted during the past 50 years. Always wild and unpredictable, they’re hard to see in most coverts, difficult to hit and provide the best eating. I’ve been lucky enough to harvest bears, deer, ducks, turkeys and a host of small game, but the King of the Uplands is also my king of trophies, on the table and in the woods.

A few years ago I made a list of things I wanted to do before I die. One of them was to walk again. You see, I had a fall and broke my spine at chest level, leaving me a paraplegic. Nothing much works below my chest. That makes shooting a shotgun a challenge because I have no trunk muscles to hold the barrel weight while swinging. I found that I can put a strap around my right shoulder to hold me upright, but my ability to shoot is restricted to a range of about 10 o’clock to 1 o’clock.

One of the items on my bucket list was to harvest one more ruffed grouse. For those who don’t know it, ruffed grouse live, breed and die in the thickest, meanest ground cover to be found. If the vegetation looks impenetrable, then grouse are likely to be found there. Through the years I’ve taken many people grouse hunting with me. Only a small percentage ever went more than once—apparently it’s too much like work.

Hunting anything in a wheelchair is a challenge. Just getting the awkward chair into the outdoors is difficult. It seems most wheelchairs are made by timid people who never leave the cement of cities, thus their products are very inept in the woods and fields. Hunting alone in a wheelchair, there is always the possibility of getting stuck—stranded. Unlike when your car gets snowbound, I cannot get out of the chair and walk for help.

Ruffed grouse have become the king of trophies for the author, both in the woods and on the table.

Mid-October found me in northern Michigan with my two German shorthaired pointers, Kasey and Sparky. After searching through local maps and doing considerable driving to look for good cover, I found a spot that looked tempting, so I headed in.

It takes me some time to get into my hunting mode, with a change of glasses, putting on my shooting vest, strapping up my shooting support, putting bells on both dogs, getting my wheelchair ready to go, readying my shotgun and finally exiting the van through the ramp. By the time I’m ready, two impatient dogs are chomping at the bit.

I’ve trained both dogs to hunt close and weave back and forth in front of me, covering both sides of the trail. We’d gone less than a quarter-mile when Sparky ran onto the trail and pointed less than 20 feet from me. It was a beautiful, high-headed, no-nonsense, “the bird is right there” point. I stared at her for a moment before coming to my senses and looking to where she was pointing.

There was a blown-down oak, with the leaves still on it, about 15 yards away. I realigned my power chair so my range of motion could cover the blowdown and I could still watch Sparky.

Normally, the gunner is supposed to flush the bird in such a situation. But because I can’t do that, I must sit until the bird loses its nerve and flushes. I tried to get Sparky to flush, but she was doing what her breeding had imprinted into her: hold the point as long as it takes.

Sometimes a grouse will flush at the sound of a human voice. Not this one. So, there we sat, frozen in time and place: the dog, bird, gun and gunner. The tension was palpable. I knew the grouse and Sparky could maintain their concentration, but I was worried about me. It’s difficult sitting next to a time bomb and not know when it will go off. I worried about the direction the grouse would take. I worried about where it would flush from. I worried about whether I would even be able to see the bird when it did flush. Time passed. How long? I have no idea.

Finally, the explosion came. It started with a rumbling of wings building in crescendo until it was the only sound on Earth. Nothing else mattered. My only conscious thought was, I can see it. Somehow, the gun took over. I don’t even remember it going off, but I will never forget the sight of the grouse folding in the air and beginning its last descent toward the fallen leaves.

Then Sparky was on it, bringing it back to me. She finished her first point and first retrieve all with the same bird.

It happened so fast I couldn’t even get my camera out, but I can run the event back in my mind whenever I want—and what a beautiful sight it is.

Sparky, a mostly white pointer, glistened against the fading fall colors and the deep shadows of that sunny fall afternoon. The gray grouse showed well against her white coat but blended with her intermittent liver-colored hair, making them partly inseparable.

Then, reality began to set in. I had done it! I had taken a wild ruffed grouse from a wheelchair. It took me 6 years, but it was worth the wait. No one felt better than I did at that moment as a million thoughts went through my mind. Other people. Other hunts. Other dogs. And God was thanked, humbly and sincerely. Kasey had reappeared sometime during the episode, and both dogs were sharing the moment with me.

The author gives ample credit to his pointers for him being able to continue to hunt grouse as a paraplegic. I wanted a picture with me, my special grouse and the dogs. I took a chance that some friends who were also hunting in the area would be at their camp, and I headed there. They were as happy for me as I was, which shows the kind of men they are. Their handshakes were sincere and heartfelt, and the story was told and retold. The sun was heading for the horizon, and my chair was in need of recharging, so I left for my hotel.

The author gives ample credit to his pointers for him being able to continue to hunt grouse as a parapalegic.

The following day began with me looking at a few maps again and more driving around looking for good grouse cover. And I found it. An old two-track made a jug handle off a forest service trail. The vegetation was perfect: The aspen was so thick a man walking would have to spend much of his time going sideways. The condition of the trail was not so perfect. Deeply rutted and highcentered with many aspens down across it, I was questioning whether I could negotiate it in my chair. I could see down it for about 60 yards, so I felt pretty safe going that far. If I got stuck, someone going by could be flagged … if someone went by before dark.

Both dogs were still at heel while I made the attempt to get onto the rutted path. I managed, and stopped to release the dogs—when a grouse flushed behind me and flew around my left side. That’s my “better” side, so I loosed a charge of No. 7½ shot at it.

I knew I was behind as I shot, but I also became aware of another flush slightly to my right and ahead of me. The gun barrels were already heading that way, so I refocused on the second bird. By the time I caught up it was going at top speed and nearly out of sight, but I pulled the trigger and watched the bird fold.

Kasey retrieved the bird, and normally she returns quickly, but she was moving very slowly with this one. At first I thought she might be uncertain if she could fetch it because there hadn’t been a point. I could see the big, beautifully fanned tail of a male as she held our prize. And then I thought of my camera behind me in my pack. When I turned back, Kasey was no closer. I talked to her and she made slow progress while I encouraged her.

Each time I stopped talking, she stopped. It was great for picture taking, but I wanted that bird in my hands so I talked to her some more, and she came slowly. Then I could finally see the problem she was having: The grouse’s wings were up over her eyes, so she was retrieving to my voice because she couldn’t see where I was. I had to laugh. Finally, Kasey got all the way to me and there was still enough light for a picture of the lovely gray grouse, with the ruff raised, sitting next to the shotgun that had connected me to the grouse for all time.

My hunt ended there. In the morning I would head home, but there was time to enjoy the sunset with two very tired and happy dogs, one beautiful ruffed grouse and one very elated handicapped hunter. There is definitely life after a spinal cord injury.

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Bonus Video: Prairie Grouse

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