Finding Familiarity Among Hunters
By Ralph P. StuartIt’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.That 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 at Little Moran, hunting smaller woodlots intermixed with farmland.
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.The 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.
Author’s Note: For more information on grouse and woodcock hunting in Minnesota, contact Double Gun Bird Hunts, 218-341-2826.