Finding Familiarity Among Hunters
By Ralph P. Stuart[I]t’s a picture-perfect October day in the Minnesota grouse woods: a bit warm but clear, with a slight breeze rustling the foliage. We are in the afternoon’s final covert, working back toward the truck on an ancient logging road. And I am praying that the dog does not go on point.
I have felt it coming for a while now—a cramp in my hamstring that will end my day for sure. Each step through the brush has brought an uncomfortable tightening, and now I am walking stiff-legged, thankful for the short grass of the trail. Ironically, I may be in the best shape of my life, having spent the summer training for a road race; but miles logged on tar differ greatly from those earned in cover, and the high-stepping has put me in a bind.
The setter, of course, has no quit in him, and he continues searching with intensity. Until suddenly, mid-cast, his nose goes up and he spins. And just like that Jack is on point again, his stock-still form glowing white 50 yards into the alders.
Guide Bert Benshoof notices as well. “Point!”
Quickly weighing my options, I choose discretion over valor and come clean about the leg. Ben doesn’t hesitate and plunges into the thicket. “I’ll try to push him to you.”
And damn if he doesn’t succeed: circling wide and then back before tripping some imaginary wire that launches the grouse in my direction. The bird fights its way through the branches, giving me plenty of time to prepare, and it’s the least I can do to tumble it as it clears the road.[T]hat evening at dinner, Bert and I relive the day with the other guests at Little Moran Hunt Club. Our tally of 13 woodcock and nine grouse moved is about average for all parties, and I am glad for having taken two ruffs and a limit of “’doodles.” It is evident, though, that the other hunters, like me, are not here just to kill birds. The stories about dogwork and hunts past overshadow the small victories of game in the bag. It is the being here that is important—enjoying the traditions, camaraderie and good times that are part and parcel to grouse camp.
My being here is something that’s been years in the planning. Having forged my upland career in the hardscrabble coverts of New England, I realized early that the halcyon days of grousing written about by Spiller, Ford and Foster are but a memory. Maturing forests and gone-by farmland have continued yielding fewer birds year upon year, and a bloom of no-trespassing signs has compounded the frustration. At the same time reports from the Upper Midwest have been uplifting, with active logging and habitat management improving cover and bird numbers—often on public land. And with a hunting culture oft described as bordering on fanatic, the region became one I needed to explore.
But where exactly to go? Which spot in the vast North Woods would give me an exemplary feel for both the hunting and the hunters? The answer came from Minnesota photographer Lee Kjos, who during a phone conversation mentioned Little Moran and its proprietor, Steve Grossman. Lee is not only one of the best photographers I know but also one of the most hardcore sportsmen. And he is not one to give praise casually. So when he said, “Grossman is the man. You need to get out here,” I was in touch with Steve the next day.
That was five years ago and, following a series of scheduling conflicts, I am finally here. My week-long foray is to include two days at Little Moran, in the mid-state town of Staples, and then two days at Pineridge Grouse Camp, a two-hour drive northeast in Remer. Although the camps are fairly close to each other, they offer different experiences: Little Moran hunting smaller woodlots intermixed with farmland, Pineridge working larger tracts of federal, state and paper-company forestland.
The only downside is that during this second week of October, plenty of leaves remain on the trees, and warm, dry conditions are making things tough on the dogs. In addition there have not been cold temperatures to push woodcock from the north, so the hunting is mostly for scattered resident birds.
It is evident after the first day that making the trip was the right decision. Hunting with Bert Benshoof and his string of English setters has been an education in dog handling. (You know it’s going to be a good day when the guide releases his setter, and as she is running up the grassy road he says, “Last time we were in here she pointed a woodcock right . . . about . . . there”—and she goes on point.) Another thing I’ve learned is that grouse are grouse and woodcock are woodcock, and that no matter where you are the birds do not offer up themselves as soft targets. My thoughts of this hunt being recompense for years of suffering in New England went out the window with my first missed timberdoodle.[T]he next day I have the pleasure of hunting with “the man” himself: Steve “Grouseman” Grossman. And it takes but the short ride to the first covert to realize that Steve likely has forgotten more about bird hunting than I will ever know. It’s not that he is braggadocious. Just the opposite, in fact. Steve is one of the most humble, modest gentlemen you will meet. But get him talking about bird hunting, and his enthusiasm cannot be contained. He has a genuine passion earned throughout a lifetime spent in the woods and fields behind bird dogs.
We begin in what I dub the Corpse Covert, where years earlier the car of a missing local man was discovered, but his body was never found. Recently the area was hit by a microburst, and large aspens litter the ground like so many pick-up sticks.
We work our way through the blowdowns and alder tangles behind Swagger—a young, hard-charging setter that Steve predicts will one day be one of his “brag dogs.” Swagger is hardly fazed by the cover, but the birds he points know how to put thick stuff between themselves and my shot in making their escapes.
When we’re almost back to the truck, Swagger’s bell goes silent at the edge of a grassy swamp. Steve offers to flush the bird, and the next thing I hear is thrumming wings as a grouse goes streaking through the trees. It is a crossing shot at 35 yards, and I pull the trigger just as the picture of barrels and bird comes together.
“Nice job!” Steve yells. “That was a William Harnden Foster shot.”
It’s a short drive to the second covert: a regenerating clearcut from which alder strips radiate like spokes. We are pulled around the perimeter by Blue, a young setter that is still learning the game, and I take two woodcock over nice points. Steve is disappointed that we aren’t finding more grouse, but he believes that the nesting season was poor. The veterans we are hunting excel at eluding dogs in dry conditions.
During a tailgate lunch we talk about Steve’s guiding career, which began in North Dakota in 1979. Five years later, at age 23, he moved back to Minnesota with his wife, Gayle, and infant son and started Little Moran—named for a small stream that runs through the family farm. The club began as a pheasant preserve, with a string of German shorthaired pointers, but then Steve began training dogs for the late Jim Marti and Burnt Creek Setters and was given an English setter female named Shiner that was deadly on grouse. With Shiner, Steve began guiding Little Moran members for grouse and woodcock. He also began switching over his kennel to setters, which he found had superior noses and did not crowd grouse. In time the preserve hunts became less important as the wild-bird hunting, dog training and breeding—under the aegis of Double Gun Bird Hunts—took precedence. He now keeps the preserve license simply for dog-training purposes.
Recently Steve began operating Wild Prairie Lodge (formerly Prairie Wings Lodge), in South Dakota, where he is able to run his setters on wild pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. He splits his falls, spending Octobers in Minnesota and Septembers, Novembers and Decembers in South Dakota.
As Steve approaches 60, hunting is no longer about numbers but rather celebrating great dogwork, friendships, fine guns and the birds themselves. “It’s not about taking game,” he says, “but how the game is taken.” I couldn’t agree more.
To put a “point” on it, we finish the afternoon in another grown-up cutting—this one a mix of aspen, maple and pine. Zip, a seven-year-old setter, does a fine job handling the only brood of grouse we find, and as the birds jump like so many kernels of popcorn, I connect on one that towers and then falls in an adjacent field. It is a fitting conclusion to a fine hunt.[M]y midweek travel day is spent repacking and driving the 100 or so miles to Pineridge Grouse Camp. The foliage is stunning, and the farther north I go the more colors there are to admire, as agricultural lands give way to larger contiguous blocks of forest.
The camp is appropriately named—a compound of log structures and cabins nestled among cathedral pines. The property was purchased in the late 1980s as a deer camp by the Havel Family, but about 10 years ago son Jerry was diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer, and it was decided to build a business based on Jerry’s passion for bird hunting. Today Pineridge is operated by Jerry and his wife, Brenda, with Jerry’s parents, Randy and Jo, assisting with hosting and cooking duties.
I am barely out of the car when I am met with a big smile by Brenda, who gives me a quick tour of the premises, and then invites me on a “puppy walk.” I join her in circling a large field with a half-dozen precocious pointer pups—all legs, ears, tails and enthusiasm. The young dogs chase, point, pounce and seem to have as much fun frolicking as we do watching them.
Once we return to camp, I get situated in my cabin before heading to the main lodge for dinner. There I meet the rest of the hunters, including a contingent from the Old Pats Society—a group of mostly older gentlemen who share a love of grouse and woodcock hunting with fine guns, especially Parkers. I also meet camp owner Jerry Havel. Jerry is a big man with a big personality and a voice and laugh to match. Despite what he has been through with his health—or perhaps because of it—he has a zest for life and a genuine desire for guests to share in his joy of bird hunting.
The next morning I head afield with Jerry and Art Wheaton, a member of the Old Pats and a dedicated Parker shooter. It is a short drive to the first covert, in the Chippewa National Forest, where Jerry releases his lead dog, Big Al (as in “Allegiance”). Al is a well-muscled example of Jerry’s other passion: pointers—Elhews in particular. Pineridge has a kennel full of them. When I ask why, Jerry explains that pointers have superior noses and can handle early season heat better than other breeds.
This particular morning heat is not a problem, as temperatures are cool and there is just enough breeze to send the aspen leaves shimmering down like snowflakes. Al takes advantage of the conditions and puts on a show, leading us through a mix of young-aspen forest, small clearings and swamp edges. His casts are wide but within bell range, and he is under total control—admittedly not what I was expecting from a leggy pointer in tight cover.
Art and I miss a couple of well-pointed woodcock before getting our acts together and bagging several birds. But the grouse prove elusive, and the four we flush live to fly another day.
For me, the highlight comes in the afternoon, hunting behind an Elhew female named Kit. The young pointer is checking in and has passed just in front of me when her bell goes silent. A second later there is a whir of wings, and a grouse flushes on the other side of a large balsam, leaving me no choice but to spin, throw my gun to my shoulder and shoot as the bird clears the branches. It turns out to be a beautiful gray-phase drummer with a ruff Mae West would have been proud to wear.
The mood in camp that evening is celebratory, with plenty of success stories told and ribbing given. A toast is made to a woman from Texas who that day shot her first grouse over a point by her Brittany. And I stay up too late, partaking of red wine and the blues guitar of camp chef Kevin Burt by the fire pit.
[O]n the last day I experience one of Pineridge’s other strengths: the depth of its guiding roster. In addition to being an excellent guide himself, Jerry employs a team of dogmen who are talented and enter-
taining, with life experiences ranging from forestry and wildlife management to dog breeding, field trialing, bird banding and police K-9 training. All share a love of pointing dogs, owning breeds as diverse as pointers, setters, Drahthaars and French Brittanys.
I am hunting with Tony Follen, a former field trialer and SWAT team leader for the Minnesota State Patrol. Tony is running his three-year-old pointer, Lucy, who is full of herself and stretching it out in the stiff breeze. She is not just wandering aimlessly, however, and in the first covert points two woodcock and three grouse—one of which she holds until I can navigate the 157 yards (according to the GPS), flush it and miss . . . twice.
In the second covert—an extended area of flooded grass with islands of thick, young aspen—I make amends by dropping a couple of woodcock. Then Lucy points across a small expanse of water and refuses to come off, forcing Tony to wade thigh deep to retrieve her.
The afternoon is spent on a large tract of state land, and after I take my third woodcock, I insist that Tony use my gun to reward Lucy for several more points. By the time we call it quits, we have moved 20 woodcock and nine grouse for the day.
That evening, following a prime-rib dinner and a second helping of Jo Havel’s coconut cream pie, I am staring into the fire, listening to Kevin belt out a John Lee Hooker medley. The other guests are talking, laughing and recalling their hunts. It is then that I realize that I’ve found what I’ve come looking for. I have traveled to Minne-sota in search of something new, but what I have discovered feels more familiar. The cover is different, and I have seen more birds than I typically do, but it is the hunters—with their shared passions for the game, the dogs, the guns and all of the things that concern sportsmen—who have shown me that we are more alike than anything.
I have found a second home.