We were munching corned-beef-and-cheese sandwiches and sipping coffee beside a little New Hampshire brook. Duke, our old setter, snoozed on his side in a patch of October sunlight. Our open shotguns lay in the grass beside us. After a day and a half of hard hunting, all four barrels were still clean.
“Slim pickin’s,” murmured Dad.
I nodded. “Mighty slim.”
“First Chance, empty,” he said. “Ditto Bullring. That one wild grouse in Mankiller. What was it, two woodcock in all of Tripwire?”
“Maybe three,” I said. “Duke bumped ’em. Never saw ’em.”
“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe our covers are just petering out. They don’t look as birdy as they used to.”
“They’d probably look birdier if we were finding birds in them.”
Dad smiled. “Hand me that map, will you?”
He spread our topographic map on the ground between us. Circles had been inked on it. Our secret grouse covers, our string o’ pearls. Black Alder, Henhouse, Clumps, Schoolhouse, Jackpot, County Line, Long Walk In, Tap’s Pines.
He squinted at the map, moved his forefinger over it, paused, then looked at me. “You up for an ex-plore?”
Brush scraped both sides of our station wagon as we crept over the old rutted roadway. It paralleled a rocky little stream that surely held native brook trout. The road, we happily observed, did not appear to have been driven on for a long time-perhaps, or so we wanted to believe, not since the farmer who cut it through the woods had loaded his family and his belongings into the back of his pickup and left for the last time decades earlier.
It ended at an abandoned farmyard on the edge of a sloping field grown to milkweed and goldenrod and sprinkled with gnarled Baldwin apple trees and clumps of juniper. The farmhouse was long gone. The roof and walls had caved into the cellar hole, but the fieldstone chimney still stood, and an ancient lilac grew in the dooryard.
We got out to look it over. The field rolled down to a stand of poplars that gave way to a screen of evergreens. Off to the right, a hillside thick with brush, brier, and birch rose to a ridge lined with oaks. Behind the cellar hole, the glimmer of a brook wended through a string of alders.
“Well,” I said. “What do you think?”
“Looks kinda birdy,” said Dad. “Worth a look-see.”
By the time we got our shotguns loaded, Duke was pointing in the head-high poplars that rimmed the bottom of the field. Dad shot that grouse. A minute later he dropped another one that rumbled out from a clump of hemlocks. He doubled on a pair of woodcock that helicoptered up from a patch of alders, and then he nailed another grouse that we surprised pecking apples in the corner of the old orchard. In between, half a dozen grouse and at least as many woodcock escaped. I missed several of them.
When we got back to our car, Dad emptied his game pocket, picked up one of his grouse, and stroked its crest with his forefinger. “Eureka,” he said softly.
It had been the best two hours of bird hunting that we could remember.
“Do you realize,” I said, “that you just went five-for-five?”
He grinned and said, “Of course I do.” He reached into the backseat, pulled out our topo map, and drew a circle on it. Then he arched his eyebrows at me.
I took the pen and wrote “Five Aces” on the map.
My father wasn’t much for nostalgia or reminiscing about the good old days and how much better they were than nowadays, though they clearly were. He just loved grouse hunting, whenever and wherever he could do it. For him, any day he could go hunting was a good day.
Dad’s New England encompassed the southern halves of Maine and New Hampshire. This, naturally, has been my New England, too. The countryside was different in the decade or so before World War II when he ban hunting ruffed grouse. Winding roads, most of them dirt, connected dairy farms to villages. Otherwise it was mostly young second-growth forest, meadows, stone walls, and recently abandoned farmland pastures, orchards, and woodlots growing thick with blackberry and thornapple, alder and poplar, pine and hemlock, and oak and beech.
As Dad remembered it, it didn’t much matter where you hunted. Grouse were scattered everywhere. A day of hunting meant wrapping an onion-and-liverwurst sandwich in waxed paper, stuffing it in your game pocket, cramming your pockets with 20-gauge shotgun shells, tucking your Winchester Model 21 under your arm, whistling up your setter, and setting forth. You’d put the morning sun on your back and head off in a westerly direction, following the dog wherever his nose led him. Around noontime you’d stop, eat your sandwich, drink from a spring-fed brook-trout stream, and munch a wild apple or pear. If it was one of those warm October days, you’d lie back on the pine needles with the sun on your face, lace your fingers behind your neck, and snooze for an hour with your dog’s chin on your thigh. Then you’d load up your shotgun, put the afternoon sun behind you, and wander easterly until you got back to where you started. All along the way, Dad said, you’d find grouse-singles, pairs, sometimes whole broods. Even an average dog would point some of them, and even a mediocre wingshot would bag a few birds. My father always insisted that knocking down a flying grouse in thick brush was surely a triumph, but not really the main point of it. Grouse hunting was more about finding birds than shooting them. A good day was never measured by the heft of your game pocket.
By the time I started hunting with my father in the late 1950s, the New England landscape had changed. Grouse were harder to find. The meandering old dirt roads had been straightened, widened, and paved over, the abandoned farmland was being reclaimed by developers, and houses were popping up everywhere. Civilization was spreading over the countryside, and we couldn’t just set forth into the woods for a full day’s hunt. We did almost as much driving as we did walking. A day of grouse hunting meant six or eight stops at pockets of cover that we’d learned to depend on to hold a few birds. Our string o’ pearls. A few of our covers sprawled over several square miles and occupied us for the better part of an afternoon. But most of them took no more than an hour to hunt. They were apple-and-pine corners, grape tangles, alder runs, poplar hillsides, and brushy edges bordering dense evergreens. They were usually good for a grouse or two, and when the woodcock flights were down, we’d sometimes find the ground whitewashed with their chalking.
Every season we lost a few of our old covers to housing developments, to power lines, to highway cloverleafs, and to strip malls. Others just stopped producing. So we were always scouting for new covers. We scoured our topo maps for clues. We drove the back roads, always ready to take the one less traveled. Any break in a stone wall might signify an ancient cart path that led to an abandoned farmyard or an old woodlot. We looked for apple orchards gone wild, alder-edged streambottoms, pastures grown to clumps of pine and thornapple, and hillsides thick with second-growth poplar and birch-anything that looked birdy, which meant anything that looked like a place where we’d found birds in the past. We didn’t have much science for it. A birdy cover had a feel to it that was more than the sum of its parts.
Whenever a new spot produced some grouse, we circled its location on our map, gave it a name, and added it to our string o’ pearls. Five Aces, of course. Hippie House, Stick Farm, John’s Knoll, Arnold’s Picker, Red Bloomers, Lost Eyeglasses, Marilyn Monroe. Just naming them floods me with half a century’s worth of memories. Dad, of course; Burt Spiller, Frank Woolner, Harold Blaisdell, and Corey Ford, the men of my father’s generation who shared their wisdom and their covers with me; Keith, Art, Skip, and Jason, bird-hunting partners of my own generation; Macko, Bing, Duke, Cider, Bucky, Waldo, and Freebie, bird dogs both mediocre and gifted, but all lovable; points and retrieves, flights of woodcock and broods of grouse, shots made and shots missed.
Most of those beloved grouse covers, like our original string o’ pearls, are gone now. They, too, have been cut down, leveled, posted, and bisected, or they’ve just grown old and lost their birdy feel. The last time I went there, I found the road into Five Aces paved over and lined with mailboxes. Half a dozen more or less identical colonial-style houses had sprung up in the field, and the old cellar hole had been bulldozed over. They call it progress.r, Harold Blaisdell, and Corey Ford, the men of my father’s generation who shared their wisdom and their covers with me; Keith, Art, Skip, and Jason, bird-hunting partners of my own generation; Macko, Bing, Duke, Cider, Bucky, Waldo, and Freebie, bird dogs both mediocre and gifted, but all lovable; points and retrieves, flights of woodcock and broods of grouse, shots made and shots missed.
Most of those beloved grouse covers, like our original string o’ pearls, are gone now. They, too, have been cut down, leveled, posted, and bisected, or they’ve just grown old and lost their birdy feel. The last time I went there, I found the road into Five Aces paved over and lined with mailboxes. Half a dozen more or less identical colonial-style houses had sprung up in the field, and the old cellar hole had been bulldozed over. They call it progress.