By Leon Archer
My brother, Warren, was five years older than me.
He had his own older friends who weren’t interested in my hanging around with them, and in all honesty, I had no desire to hang around with him and his friends either.
There were only two exceptions to that mutually acceptable separation – hunting and fishing. I fished with Warren whenever he gave me the opportunity, but it wasn’t until I was nearly a teen that he went out of his way to take me with him.
Hunting was a little different story. When I was about 9 or 10, I got the chance to go with Warren and my father as they hunted together. I had to walk behind my father, but I didn’t care, and I did get to take my BB gun with me.
It was all so exciting for me, especially when they would shoot at a rabbit or partridge, or even a grey squirrel in the limbs high above us.
I got the job of carrying whatever they shot. It wasn’t child abuse, it was a labor of love. Warren became a pretty good shot during the two years that he apprenticed with my father, and once he was 16, dad let him go hunting on his own, confident that he would be fine.
My father was not a big time small game hunter; although, when the time arrived, he came out of retirement long enough to get me through my two years of being a junior hunter.
I was especially fortunate that none of Warren’s friends were all that interested in hunting, so when he started hunting on his own he often took me with him. My job was to jump on all the brush piles the farmers had made in the fields. Back then, just about every third pile of brush could be counted on to have a cottontail hiding in it.
I also took it upon myself to walk through big clumps of low juniper bushes which were fairly consistent rabbit holders as well. Warren knocked off a good percentage of the fleeing cottontails, so I often found myself carrying three or four rabbits by the time we headed for home.
My best memories are of the times that Warren would bring down a partridge. To my way of thinking, the Ruffed Grouse was (and still is) the premier game bird, even more so than the gaudy ring necked pheasant that I also love to hunt.
I had the greatest admiration for my brother’s shooting ability when it came to grouse. I was present many times when he quickly zeroed in on a rapidly disappearing bird with a load of sixes.
I can close my eyes and picture a spot that my brother and I never failed to check out for birds when we were hunting in the fields and woods in back of our house in Sandy Creek. The lots and the adjoining woods belonged to a dairy farmer, Mr. Allen, who had no objection to our hunting there as long as we didn’t disturb his herd of Guernsey cows, and we took full advantage of the opportunity.
The spot I am writing about was at the edge of the fields that comprised Mr. Allen’s pasture. On one side there was a stand of new poplar saplings that jutted out into the field.
Walking farther west after clearing the thicket of saplings (which itself often concealed grouse or wood cock) we would come to what is my favorite grouse spot of all time. There had been an apple orchard there countless years before, and a couple of long untended trees still managed to survive. They continued to bear well year after year, and the fruit was a magnet for every partridge living in the big woods beyond.
My brother took his share of unlucky grouse from that locale each year he hunted, and I followed suit in the years after he moved away. I have many memories of that tiny portion of my world, but the best is of the first time my brother shot a partridge there.
It had thundered out from underneath one of the apple trees as we approached, putting leaves and apples between himself and my brother. Warren had been tracking the bird even as he brought the gun up to his shoulder.
He shot quickly, directly through the leaves that pretty much obscured the bird, but instinctively targeting the spot where the bird should be.
A moment later, I could hear a putt, putt, putt sound. I did not know what it was then, but like most every other grouse hunter, I have learned it indicates a successful hunt.
It is the sound of wings still reflexively beating, in their diminishing futile attempt to carry the now dead bird to safety. Running underneath that apple tree, I found the bird about 30 feet beyond, while its wings still jerked spasmodically. In moments; however, all movement ceased as I clutched the limp, beautiful warm bird in my hands.
I admired the exquisite brown patterned feathers of its back, the black ruff around its collar, and the long, barred feathers of the tail fan. The breast feathers were darkly barred over a creamy white.
As I held that bird, exulting in the feat I had observed, and feeling that somehow I was at least a small part of it, for some reason I was drawn to smell of its warm body. I can still smell it today.
It was the wild smell of the woods, the fallen leaves and the ripe apples, yet that poor description does not truly do it justice. Over the years I have shot many grouse, but I have never failed to bury my nose in the feathers of each and breathe in that day once more.
I would give a great deal to be able to hunt grouse just once more with my brother on a warm October day, and match skill and wits with those magnificent birds. Perhaps there will come a day.
Who knows? I for one have no problem with the American Indians’ description of Heaven as the Happy Hunting Grounds, but if it exists, it must contain Heavenly wild apple trees and celestial grouse.