Every bird hunter dreams of the perfect trifecta: A dog that regularly finds, points, and retrieves his birds, a shotgun that shoots where you look, and a hunter that makes good on the shot at the chaotic flush. Unfortunately, as every gunner knows, it doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes it takes time for all these symbiotic parts to come together, but when it does it is sweet.
I came into this hunting season with high hopes. My Brittany Misty had finished last hunting season strong, finding, pointing, and retrieving numerous ruffed grouse. Last spring, I also purchased a classic Ithaca NID 20 Gauge shotgun originally built in 1927. This side by side was advertised as “a Grouse Hunter’s Dream,” which I couldn’t pass up. From March to the season opener, I dreamed of carrying this double gun while following Misty in the grouse woods. Admittedly, however, I had a little concern about trying to learn to shoot a two-trigger gun.
The forest grouse (i.e. dusky, ruffed, and Franklin) season in Idaho opens on August 30th, but I couldn’t make it out until the day after the opener. I took off from work Monday at noon and met up with a friend, Scott Johnson, his son, Brigham, and Brigham’s friend Alex . We headed southeast to a mountainous covert I call, “Grouseketeer Ridge.” This covert consists of an abandoned logging road cut across the side of a steep mountain flanked by Douglas Firs, Quaking Aspens, Mountain Ash, and some Choke Cherries. Blue grouse love the upper and lower edges of the logging road and we sometimes find a few ruffed grouse along its reaches.
It did not take long for us to get into grouse and Alex soon shot his very first grouse. Misty, my Brittany, and I then walked up the logging road to where it forks and we took the road to the left. We slowly walked the edge and pitched rocks into the Mountain Ash hoping to flush a grouse or two along the way. About fifty yards up the road, I stopped above a Mountain Ash tree with its bright orange fruit and a grouse flushed below me and flew straightaway downhill through the timber, which is one of my favorite shots. I raised the NID and, although I watched a few feathers drifting, the grouse did not go down at my shot. I tried to tug the front trigger again, which obviously wouldn’t work on a two-trigger gun. I call such missed opportunities “groaners” for obvious reasons.
I had a few more difficult shot opportunities that afternoon with the same result—never getting off the second shot. Although I loved being in the grouse woods again, I was a little frustrated with my ineptitude with this new gun. A shooting slump was not how I wanted to start off my hunting season.
I hunted alone with Misty on the Friday and Saturday before Labor Day. Misty located numerous grouse both days and I had a few shots at those she did not bump, but, in the thick cover, it was often difficult to see them, let alone get off a shot. And my struggles with the dual triggers continued. Saturday morning, I whiffed an easy quartering shot at a ruffed grouse in thick timber. After missing, I again tried to pull the front trigger to no avail. Needless to say, I felt extremely disappointed at that moment. To top it off, I noticed that the stock of the NID was loose and rattling.
On Sunday, I took a break from hunting and invited a good friend, Cliff Warmoth and his family, over for dinner. As we visited, I told Cliff—who does some gunsmithing—about the rattle of the NID’s stock. He generously offered to see if he could fix it and we drove over to his house. In his garage, Cliff took the gun apart and tightened each of the screws so that the wood held tightly to the receiver.
As I told Cliff about my shooting woes, he said, “Andy, with this classic shotgun, you are taking your hunting to the next level. Just as you and Misty are hunting partners, you and that gun will become partners. Just give it some time.” Cliff’s encouraging words gave me a new determination to learn how to shoot this classic two-trigger gun.
The following morning, Labor Day, Scott Johnson and his sons, Brigham and Wyatt, joined me for another grouse hunt. With the volume of birds on Grouseketeer Ridge, we again opted to hunt this covert first. To our delight, it was loaded with birds. Not five minutes from the truck, I missed one bird that Misty pointed which flew up to a nearby pine tree. Near a place where the logging road forks Misty struck a stellar point on the steep embankment above the logging road. As Brigham and I approached her position, three grouse sparked out of a Mountain Ash thicket above us. Brigham and I raised our guns and Brigham dropped a grouse in front of us. I, on the other hand, could not get off a shot because I had forgotten to reload. I was happy for Brigham, but bummed about another missed opportunity.
After unsuccessfully hunting the left fork for a minute, we then took the right fork which leads through some idyllic, old growth Douglas firs. A blue grouse soon flushed wild from the road without presenting a shot. As we hiked up farther, another blue flushed and crossed the road. I swung the little gun and tugged the front trigger just before the grouse reached a big pine tree near the downhill side of the road. Sure that I’d hit the bird, I watched for the bird to fall and, when it didn’t, asked out loud lamely, “Did I hit that bird?”
As we walked up to the tree in which the grouse lit, the bird surprisingly fell twenty feet into the brushy, log choked woods below us. We scoured the area and a clearly wounded blue grouse attempted to flush, but did not get far with its broken wing. “Fetch! Get the bird Misty!” I commanded.
Misty pursued the grouse in the thick, brushy cover and, each time she got close, it tried to flush to elude her. In the meantime, Brigham located a covey of ruffed grouse nearby and shot two of them. In the chaos of the moment, I lost track of the blue grouse and believed it was hiding in the hellacious cover below us.
Scott Johnson then said to me, “Let’s get Brigham’s birds in the bag and then I’ll help you find yours.”
“I’m not sure that we are going to find it. Mine is probably long gone,” I lamented.
We located Brigham’s second bird under a nearly impenetrable stack of three downed trees surrounded by thick snowberry bushes.
After bringing Brigham’s birds to hand, I then hiked down the steep hillside to where a huge downed tree blocked my progress. Misty and I skirted around the exposed roots of the big tree on its left. To my surprise, Misty quickly found the winged blue grouse below the downed tree sitting near the base of a big live Douglas fir with gnarly, mostly needleless lower branches. When Misty approached the grouse, it ran, but she soon caught up and pinned it until I could get to her.
“Good girl Misty!” I praised. I was so pleased to bring this grouse to hand with the help of my canine partner.
No doubt, it had been a tough start to the grouse-hunting season, which made this first bird with my new double gun that much sweeter. From this experience, I have realized that sometimes the good things in life, like a classic shotgun with double triggers, take some time to learn and appreciate. Misty, the NID, and I still have a long way to go, but we are on our way to becoming first-rate partners.