I could hardly believe my good fortune. It was my first season in the grouse woods and here I was about to enter a favorite cover with a wizened old pro. I knew that a serious grouse hunter would rather share a tooth brush with me than a treasured grouse cover.
The gnarled fingers of the master poked two slim shells into his bush worn twenty gauge side by side. I pulled my twelve gauge pump action from its case feeling like I was picking up a battle axe where a filleting knife was needed. He jutted his chin toward the tangled edge of brush running south from our position along the edge of an overgrown pasture. “Sun’s been shinin’ there a few hours warmin’ things up. Ol’ Ruff likes that when it’s frosty.”
We stepped off walking side by side about twenty feet apart. Within two hundred yards my mentor stopped and stared ahead silently. I saw nothing. Finally he said, Ol’ Ruff likes this spot. Flushed him here more times than not.”
“So, what are we waiting for?”
“For him to make the next move.”
I figured I might as well warm my hands while we were waiting and stuffed them into my pockets. That was the brown bomber’s cue to lift off in front of us with thunderous wing beats crashing its way upward out of a dense tangle. My mentor had his gun up smartly and had fired both barrels before I had my gun firmly in both hands.
The bird crossed in front of us heading for the thicker cover. I was astonished that it could still fly after being shot twice by an expert and expected it to drop dead any minute. “It’d be okay to shoot any time,” he said. I stabbed the muzzle toward the feathered rocket, now becoming a speck, and fired as the bird disappeared behind a spruce tree.
The echo of my shot had barely faded when he faced me squarely and explained why he missed, “On the first shot, the low sun was flashing between the tree trunks and strobed my eyes. I never got hard look at it. On the second shot, that devil bird turned on a dime just when I pulled the trigger.” He looked at me expectantly. My heart was still aflutter. Why was he looking at me? Finally he said, “Well, How’d you come to miss?”
I didn’t know why I had missed. There were a lot of reasons. I wasn’t ready. How did I know they flush when I put my hands in my pockets? I thought he had hit it. I shot too late. They all sounded like lame excuses. An expert like him wouldn’t accept them. I blurted, “I don’t know.”
He shook his head back and forth slowly and sadly then put two fresh shells in his gun. I felt pathetic. He snapped his gun shut and said, “Son, if you’re goin’ to last in this game you’ll need to develop some speed. It’s a game of instant reaction. Otherwise these birds’ll stomp all over you.” I nodded agreement confident this gem of truth would help me bag the next bush chicken we flushed.
We pushed brush for half an hour then fought or way through some dense saplings at the edge of an old orchard. A large, grey phase grouse erupted from behind the trunk of a tree on my right. My partner didn’t have a shot because I was between him and the grouse. I was on it quickly. “Develop some speed!”, he had said. The muzzle caught up to the target just as the barrel struck a sapling, stopping my swing. Boom! The shot was behind. I stepped back while racking another round, focused hard on the bird and continued to swing. The sight picture looked right Boom! Six feet in front of the gun, the top half of a sapling jumped up in the air. It was severed cleanly from the bottom part of the tree by the full charge of number six pellets. I stood, mouth agape, staring at the severed tree while the big grouse escaped. The tree was two inches in diameter and it had absorbed the entire shot column.
Instantly I griped, “my barrel hit a tree stopping my swing just when I was about to pull the trigger. Nobody could’ve made that shot!” My mind felt nimble, agile, and quick. The excuses kept flowing. “Then this stupid tree jumped in front of my second shot. Did you see it jump up in the air? Where did it come from? I never saw it!” I picked up the top half of the sapling and handed it to him. “Can you believe this?”
He took it from me and examined the splintered end. A hint of a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “Son, I can’t believe how well you did. Those excuses came pouring out of you like a flood. That’s what I’ve been talking about; speed of reaction. Get those excuses out fast. Convince yourself that bird was yours if only this or if only that. Keep your confidence up. Otherwise, these birds’ll jes’ drive you out of the woods. There’s got to be a million ways to miss Ol’ Ruff, son. You’ll probably see most of ‘em.”