By Dave Veldman
Finding myself in a reoccurring situation in one of my oldest grouse covers, that particular day was proving to be just as frustrating. After nearly two hours of pounding every historically birdy cover I could think of, the time was drawing near to call it quits and move on. More than 20 years ago when I first walked those federal lands, it was almost too easy to find birds, and that we did — sans dogs. Since those times, the lands have mostly been ignored, the flora has steadily grown older and the number of birds has taken an inverse trajectory. Yet, in the name of tradition, I still find that same piece of forest beckoning me to pay homage and give it an annual “one last try.”
Hoping a dip in a cool stream would rejuvenate the chocolate brown dog that was now baking in the early-autumn sun, we hunted our way in search of flowing water. Rounding a small patch of streamside cover where I had shot the first grouse over Corbin, I had finally accepted defeat. After a quick dip and a drink, we began the trek back to the car. Our route took us along a feeder creek through a stand of towering, mature row pines. It was a solemn walk as we had only mustered one grouse flush all day, and the mid-morning heat was taking its toll on both my aging dog and me.
Following along the high banks of the creek, there was little ground cover amongst the carpeted floor of fallen pine needles. It was a sheer surprise when a mature bird bolted from beneath some early-growth witch hazel, exiting stage left low and over the ravine as it was pressured out by my leading lab. Instincts kicked in and with a quick right to left swing, I emptied my bottom barrel and the bird dropped on the opposite embankment. Not fully comprehending there was now a downed grouse, I had to send Corbin on a marked path across the stream toward the direction of the grounded quarry. Time slowed down as he made his way back across the water and up the near side of the bank, bringing the bird to hand in his gentle manner. After praising him for a fine retrieve, we paused silently by the creek for a few moments.
One bird — that was it for the day. That one bird taken in my oldest covert made me stop and reflect. There is nothing intrinsically special about shooting one grouse, but I am a realist and know that these may be the final scenes of a play being penned right here where it all began.
When I first brought my young dog, Corbin, to this area nine years ago, he had not yet been introduced to wild birds. I was a first-time dog owner and had no clue how to hunt these native grouse over a dog. The only advantages I had was I knew the woods like the back of my hand and knew where the grouse were. So, I played guide to the dog, and we hunted hard. The imprint on my memory of Corbin’s first grouse flush down by that stream will stay etched in my mind long after he is gone. It was a defining moment for both of us. He realized his true calling, and, for me, I realized what I had unknowingly been missing all these years — the pure joy and pride of hunting and harvesting a grouse over a bird dog.
What I didn’t know at the time was where following that dog would take me. Far beyond mere walks among the aspens, it would be a journey into conservation and gaining an understanding of healthy forest habitat management. It would take me down a new road of artistic expression and creation that I could never have imagined possible. It would allow me to travel and see new places. Most importantly, it would allow me to meet so many incredible people who not only share similar interests but who have become great friends and mentors. Many people joke about how in debt you will become once you buy the puppy, but I believe the most significant debt I owe is one of gratitude.
Since our first day in those woods, we have been back to that neglected, hallowed ground time and time again. Sometimes, we find success, but more often than not, we leave empty-handed. We have also covered a lot of ground throughout the state and put our share of birds in the bag. He is by no means a polished upland dog, and he leaves a lot to be desired in the duck blind. However, watching him mature his senses and hone his abilities has given me a whole new outlook on what we have. We have learned along the way how to use each other in the woods and utilize silent communication that cannot be explained. Corbin will never know the impact of the journey he has led me on. I have heard it said that you only get one “once-in-a-lifetime dog,” and if that is true, all the rest will have a pretty big collar to fill.