COVID-19 was hard on everyone. When the lockdown came in Idaho in March of 2020, winter still maintained its chilling grip on the landscape, and even though the seasons all came that year, the isolation from other people and the fear you saw in their eyes made it seem like Ol’ Man Winter never really left.
At least one could find some solace in the outdoors during this difficult time. I took to the outdoors more than usual that year fishing and hunting whenever I could. Fortunately, the grouse population stayed strong and all my coverts held plenty of birds throughout the hunting season. I relished every second of my time in the grouse woods that fall.
For Thanksgiving, my extended family decided to meet up for dinner. This would be the first time we had joined together since the onset of the pandemic. Because I would be away from my home coverts, I planned to get away to a beloved covert named “Grouse Rock,” not far from my mom’s hometown, for a Thanksgiving morning hunt.
To my surprise, we awoke that morning to a snowstorm, which laid down a light dusting in the valley. From experience, I knew the mountains surrounding us would likely have much more snow than at home. Even in November, winter can rear its ugly head and shut things down quickly. Of course, I questioned: Should we risk it? What if we get stuck?
I conferred with my oldest son, Tommy, whether he still wanted to come hunting with me. He declined carrying a gun, but agreed to tag along for a quick hunt. I promised we would keep it short due to the weather and the forthcoming holiday feast and festivities.
We loaded up our dog Rainey into the Expedition and made our way southeast to the mountains. There was a break in the clouds as we approached the canyon letting a little sunlight through. The further up the dirt road we drove, however, the skies became gloomier and the snow deeper. Once we rounded the bend past the reservoir into the narrow mountainous valley leading to my covert, the snow fell in earnest piling its powdery substance up to our front bumper. The car’s momentum caused the snow to fly over the car making visibility difficult.
“This is sketchy Tom, should we turn back?” I asked concernedly.
“I don’t know, Dad.” Tom replied.
“We are so close, and even though the snow is deep, we are not slipping around. Besides, I don’t even know where I would turn around. Let’s just keep going until we get there and then get turned around and go for a short hunt.” I resolved.
“Okay Dad,” agreed Tom.
When we got to Grouse Rock—a prominent rocky outcrop on the righthand side of the road—I heaved a sigh of relief as we plowed our way off the road to where I typically park. I backed the car in and out of this spot a few times just to make sure we could make our escape when the time came. So far, so good.
With the huge snow flakes steadily falling, the desperate hunt seemed more like some stubborn act of rebellion: A firm statement to winter that I would decide when the grouse hunting season was over. To quote Dylan Thomas, this was my own “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” that winter always brings. Tom and I bundled up, released Rainey from her kennel, put a bell on her collar, and pushed towards the timbered draw.
With the deep snow, the going was tough as each step required more energy than a typical saunter in the woods. Rainey didn’t seem to mind as she barreled joyously through the powder. As we reached the timber, the snow’s accumulation lessened some, which made things a bit easier. Still, I wasn’t sure how far we could make it up into the covert as it steepened, and the trees—both standing and deadfall—thickened.
Despite the muffle caused by the deep snow, the chime of Rainey’s bell still cut through the woods. We tried to keep up as she traversed through the forest. As Tom and I approached near where the covert transitions from Quaking Aspens to Douglas Firs, I suddenly noticed the absence of the bell. I scanned the woods to where I last heard it. Through the whiteout, I finally saw Rainey on point beneath a large pine tree.
“Tommy, Rainey is on point. Let’s get over there!” I said as we both made our way towards her.
As we drew closer, a solitary ruffed grouse hammered right to left across the opening, trying to make it to thicker cover. With only a split second to shoot, I swung the Ruger Red Label 12 through the grouse and tugged the trigger as it disappeared behind the forest canopy and the shot rang loudly through the wintery woods. I honestly had no idea if I made the shot or not.
Upon the flush, Rainey followed the bird’s trajectory and—though her retrieving left something to be desired at the time—she disappeared into the woods and then reappeared with a beautiful, limp ruffed grouse in her mouth.
“Did you see that Tommy?” I asked incredulously. “I can’t believe I just made that shot!”
“I sure did. Good shot, Dad!” Tommy praised.
Rainey dropped the bird beneath a nearby pine tree and I quickly made my way over, picked it up, and admired its beauty through the falling snow.
“Tom, I’m not sure we can top that: One point, one shot, and one almost nice retrieve. That’s a perfect hunt in my book. It can’t get any better than that! Should we get out of here?” I asked.
“Yes, let’s get while the getting’s good.” Tom suggested.
We trudged our way through the accumulating snow back to the Expedition and, to our relief, we were able to pull back onto the road without a hitch and make our way safely back home in time for a Thanksgiving feast. My little rebellion had paid off and I felt grateful. Ol’ Man Winter could now firmly reclaim his own. Looking back, I can honestly say that my time in the great outdoors that difficult year made life more livable.
This year, when you count your blessings on Thanksgiving, be sure and express thanks for the limited days we get to spend with our bird dogs in beautiful places. As I always say: Every day in the grouse woods is a gift. Savor every second!
Happy Thanksgiving to everyone from the Wayment Brothers!