Grouse season is a fine time of year. In southern Oregon, September nights are cool, even wintry at the higher elevations, but by midmorning summer has temporarily reestablished itself. At dawn, as you're preparing for the hunt, you'll be shivering in a heavy jacket, and the dog, frantic with anticipation, will be all but impossible to control. Then, by 10 or 11 a.m., you likely will have peeled down to a T shirt as you climb the region's steep slopes, hunting the berry patches and springs. When you find water, the dog will drink noisily. The deciduous trees along the creeks are turning. Everything has ripened, and soon all will be gone to winter. It is a good season, but one of melancholy change.
Last September, on a grouse-hunting day with my German shorthaired pointer, I learned that the changes people experience can be more abrupt and less predictable than seasons of the year.
During the drive up the north slope of Grizzly Peak, a covey of mountain quail crossed the gravel road in front of us. Visible only in silhouette in the gray early morning light, at least two dozen birds marched by in single file, quick-legged and erect as little soldiers. The moment I slowed the station wagon to let them pass, Otto saw them. His ears cocked forward, and he whined, then howled, then pawed at the window.
"No, Otto! Bad dog! Stop that noise!"
He stopped pawing, but, quivering with excitement, he whined until the last of the quail had disappeared. Fifteen minutes later and 1,000 feet higher, we parked. I knew that it was too early to find the grouse out feeding, but Otto didn't, so for half an hour I let him hunt at his own furious pace.
By the time we had worked around to the eastern slope of Grizzly, the sun was well into the sky. Otto's initial burst of energy had dissipated, and I had warmed with the morning.
"Close!" I told Otto. "Look around, but stay close now!"
I slowly circled a huge patch of elderberries—six or eight acres of them—that was surrounded by Douglas fir. Then I picked my way through the shrubs, Otto working from 10 to 20 yards ahead. In an hour we had combed the entire patch. Otto's tail wagged constantly, but it never became the blur that would have told me we were near a bird.
Up a slope beyond the fir trees was a spring. If the birds weren't feeding yet. I figured they were getting water. The climb was long and steep, and before we reached the spring I was sweating. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist.
Water oozed out of the rocky mountainside and spread as it descended through a 100-yard-long triangle of lush green grass that grew knee high in the shade of the trees. At the bottom the triangle was more than 30 yards across. As soon as I started up through it, Otto hit the scent. With his nose twitching, he crept forward in search of the channel of scent that would lead to a bird. My boots sank into the wet, porous earth as I followed him. "Stay close!" I whispered.
I needn't have, for just as I spoke he froze on point, right front leg poised in the air. tail motionless, head and neck stretched forward—still as a statue except for the twitching nose. His eyes moved to mine, as if he were checking to be sure that I was ready.
I thought I was. For my first bird, I had decided I would take whatever shot presented itself. After that I would pass up the easy chances. Another step forward and a grouse exploded out of the grass a yard from Otto's nose. It flew straight away from me at eye level, giving me the easiest shot there is.
I got my gun up in plenty of time, my cheek firmly pressed against the cool smoothness of the stock, the bead at the end of the barrel squarely on the target. The bird was 25 yards out when I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Though I'd made such shots a hundred times before, I'd somehow forgotten to release the safety. By the time I did that, the grouse was 40 yards away and the gun was no longer on it. When I had the grouse in my sights again, it was better than 60 yards out and into the trees. That was much too far, but—stupidly, uselessly—I fired anyway, wasting both barrels.
I swore at myself for fouling up such a simple shot and for compounding my incompetence by trying one that was next to impossible. As I was breaking open the gun to eject the spent shells, another grouse burst out of the grass a yard from where the first one had emerged. I grabbed two shells from my vest pocket, dropped one, jammed the other into the gun and slammed it shut. As I shouldered the stock and aimed, the grouse was still within easy range. I pulled the trigger, but all I heard was a click. In my haste I had shoved the single shell into the upper chamber, forgetting that on most over-and-under shotguns the lower barrel fires first. I jerked the trigger again in frustrated rage but missed the grouse by 15 feet.
Suddenly a third grouse burst out of the grass just behind me. I spun around and instinctively raised the gun again before realizing it was empty.
Otto and I hunted for three more hours without finding another bird. A grouse hunter is fortunate to get one chance in an entire season as easy as the three that I had ruined in the space of 15 seconds. I was desperate for an opportunity to redeem myself, but by noon we had completed a long loop back to the car without seeing another grouse.
I felt like an utter failure. I was also ashamed that I could allow a morning of hunting to have such a debilitating effect on me. I knew my reaction was ridiculous, yet I couldn't help myself.
As I was brooding, just a minute or two short of the car, yet another grouse flew from under a small pine tree about 10 yards up a steep slope to my left. Without thinking, I spun around and fired. Forty yards out I saw a puff of feathers. A perfect shot. The bird was surely dead before it began to fall. Otto, who had heard the grouse flush, picked it up just seconds after it thudded onto the pine-needle floor of the forest. He brought it to hand, a perfect retrieve.
When I took the bird from Otto, I felt no elation. What I had wanted so badly seemed meaningless now that I had it. I certainly didn't see it as redemption. It wasn't much of a trophy, either. I couldn't even think of it as a meal. I held it—soft-feathered in my hand, warm and limp, a tiny drop of bright red blood at the tip of the beak—and knew I was through with killing.
I had questioned the morality of hunting before, as all reasonable hunters surely have. My opinion had always been, and still is, that there are at least as many compelling arguments in favor of the sport—if responsibly practiced—as there are against it.
Something had changed in me, though. I don't know exactly what it was, but it obviously was connected with the dismay I felt at my desire to prove myself through the act of killing. What was left to prove? I had made and missed all the shots, in many places over many years. So why continue?
On the way down Grizzly Peak I realized that now I was glad I had missed the first three birds. Until the moment something is killed, hunting is actually a celebration of life. A hunter, a dog and an upland bird are as alive as they will ever be at the moment of that sudden, powerful flush from cover. That is the high point, and nothing that happens afterward need matter.
I still hunt with enthusiasm, but without a gun. Otto hasn't changed. He finds the birds and points, and we flush them out and watch them roar away.