| the wet fur. "We need to think how
to do this right, he added, unconsciously head-gesturing toward
They had been together six years and for the last four of those
years man and dog had hunted the large covert up from the backwater.
But the man always stopped and considered "how to do this
right" each time he worked the area. And the setter, following
his owner's lead, sat quietly, as though he too was assessing
the wind, moisture, and time of day, and pondering the imponderables
of exactly where a ruffed grouse would be at that moment.
The setter's cast away from the backwater took them along the
riverbank, led them through a stretch of alders, then angled
back toward the tangled growth of berries. Light bell sounds
kept dog and hunter in touch, though for grouse covers the setter
ran big, wide, and easy, his mouth open as if was drinking the
wind. The dog ran precisely as the man trained him to run: at
bell range, fast over earth that was his, stopping only when
the breeze swirled in confusion, or when he winded grouse.
It was the setter's business to find birds, then the man's to
find the setter. It was the grouse's job to outwit them both.
At bottom, it was a question of how often skill, experience,
and thought can get the better of skittish paranoia and a complete
knowledge of home ground.
Near the thread of water, on the slope where aspens
and berries bowed to each other, the setter did its job. The
hunter turned and moved toward the final jangle of the bell,
looking for white amid the hues of covert color. Confidence in
the setter showed in the man's steady but unrushed pace. The
dog would be where the bell sounded last, at the point where
he had made game.
It was the grouse's job to outwit them both
The hunter worked up the slope, skirted the dense edge of
berry brambles, and eased into the aspen clusters. He weaved
between two Pines, then saw the setter's tail arcing above a
jumble of scrub growth. Three side steps revealed the dog locked
up hard and staring, narrow-eyed, straight at the hunter, twenty
yards away. That left the bird pinned in a sunny aspen glade-with
nowhere to go but up-between himself and the bright image of
the dog. "Perfect," the man whispered. "Just perfect."
He took two steps forward, eyes focused above the setter, and
the grouse flushed low and straight, just clearing the scrub
growth. Not in front of the hunter, where it should have been
but behind him from under one of the pines he had
passed. And the savvy bird was gone, screened by the
tree, before the pine duff settled beneath its explosive exit,
before the hunter could turn and swing on the hint of departing
A tap on the head released the setter. "Gone," the
man said a moment later, telling the dog what it already knew.
He kneeled in the scrub and called the dog to him. "You
were perfect," he said, smiling wide at the setter and scratching
a black ear. Then he laughed into the aspens, immensely pleased
with both dog and bird. He offered a full hand salute and yelled
down the flight line of the departed grouse, "Nice work.
I'll see you again.
To be sure, ruffed grouse require thought. When we think that
we have them, we usually don't. When we think that a bird is
ours for the shooting, it usually isn't. Even the uncommonly
fine work of a legitimate grouse dog guarantees nothing - at
least nothing but opportunity here and there. And that's the
way it should be with a bird that has transcended the realm of
Joe Arnette hails from Kennebunkport ME
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