I remember the early birds. An October Saturday when we awoke to see the backyard blanketed with nearly a foot of fresh snow. Perhaps six years old, I was crestfallen, because we were planning to go partridge hunting. Dad was worried about road conditions, but we headed out around mid-morning. The roads were fine, but the deep snow made tough trudging for little boy legs, cutting short our hunt. When we returned home, we saw tracks in the snow where a partridge had come out of a nightly roost in the neighbor’s Norway pines and walked across our backyard. It was the closest we came to a bird that day and the first time I’d seen evidence of one in our yard. I wondered if Dad would’ve shot it had we been home. Even though we lived in suburban Duluth where the discharge of firearms was prohibited, when you are six you think about things like that.
We called them partridge. Back then, everyone did. I don’t recall seeing the term “grouse hunting” anywhere other than in outdoor magazines until I was in high school. Then suddenly it seemed all of us in northern Minnesota began calling ourselves “grouse hunters.” That was a big step.
The words “ruffed grouse” denote sophistication. A “grouse” is a bird you hunt with a pointing dog and shoot on the wing with a double-barrel shotgun while wearing fancy clothes from some outdoor company out East. A “partridge” is more pedestrian; an everyman’s bird. You can use a hand-me down shotgun to hunt partridge. And you don’t need a dog. And you can shoot them on the ground. They are pedestrian in a literal sense, too, because partridge hunting is a walker’s game.
I became a partridge hunter long before I was old enough to carry a gun, tagging along behind my father beginning at age 4. We often walked a network of two-rut trails north of Two Harbors. Dad called them tote roads. Back then, the forest was about 50 years into recovery from the original white pine logging era. One of the trails we walked was the remnant grade of a narrow gauge logging railroad. Sometimes we sat on massive, slowly deteriorating pine stumps to take a break.
We usually hunted all day, eating a lunch of white bread sandwiches and homemade cookies. We always seemed to come home with a couple of birds. I got to carry them, my small hand wrapped around their feathery legs just above the feet. Even though an adult grouse weighs around two pounds, they’d get heavy after a while and I’d switch from one hand to the other. Dad cleaned them in the basement when we got home, peeling away the skin to reveal a plump breast and tiny drumsticks.
Partridge were often on the supper menu. Sometimes I had sliced partridge breast sandwiches in my school lunch. I’ve always savored the delicate, distinctive flavor; the best of any fowl. The bird remains a constant component of my autumn diet.
I learned a lot while walking down those tote roads. I learned about gun safety long before I was allowed to carry even a BB gun. I learned to stay silent and walk quietly when in the woods; to look at and listen to the world around you. I learned how to identify animal tracks in the mud and know the trees in the forest. And I learned water drunk from a glass jar hung on a stick beside a forest spring is the sweetest in the world.
Our walks ranged deeper into the forest as I grew older. We left the tote roads and walked cross-country, following a ridge, a swamp edge or a deer trail through the woods. For Dad, such walks doubled as scouting for future deer hunts, regardless if he ever planned to return and hunt whitetails there. It was on these walks where I learned what it means to be free to roam.
Not long after becoming old enough to drive I began hunting grouse alone, though I still joined Dad in the woods whenever I could. My first hunting dog was a mutt named Maggie, followed by a yellow Lab named Rebel. Yellow Labs have been a constant in my life ever since. Each of them has loved the woods as much as me.
Although I’ve long called them grouse, I remain a partridge hunter at heart. Living in a county that contains over 90 percent public lands and waters provides endless places to walk. I know close-to-home places where I can hunt for an hour after work and brush-obscured labyrinths of nearly forgotten logging roads where I can wander all day without encountering anyone. Some walks lead to high outcroppings where you can get a long view of Lake Superior or the rugged hills of border country. Others pass secluded beaver ponds where you may flush a few mallards.
The abundance of birds varies from year to year, because the ruffed grouse population follows a well-documented, but little understood 10-year population cycle. I worry little about whether the grouse count is up or down in a given year and just go hunting. Walk far enough and you’ll nearly always come home with a bird or two.
If you measure grouse hunting by the amount of energy expended for the amount of protein acquired, it’s a losing proposition. But there is a certain satisfaction to sitting down to a meal from the forest of which you, too, are a part. It is more than sustenance. It is a communion with the land.
But rarely do I think such deep thoughts when I am partridge hunting. Instead, I breathe deep and savor the wonderful aromas of autumn. I look at the way the deep green of cedars contrasts with the bright yellow of changing birch. Sometimes I’ll pause and listen to a passing flock of migrating geese. On a lucky day, I may find a shed moose antler lying on the ground.
Sometimes I walk so far even the dogs are tuckered out. Those are the best days, because the long walks are just like my boyhood hunts with Dad. Even though he’s long gone, out in the partridge woods, he’s still roams with me.