For a few weeks each fall here in New Hampshire, the greeting when two men meet is, “Got your deer yet?” But this year, among the shotgunners in the region, the greeting was changed to, “Got your pa’tridge yet?”
Ruffed grouse—or in the New England vernacular, “pa’tridge”—hunting is as much a part of country life in New Hampshire as deer hunting. Walking the woods with a hunting partner, a dog, and a shotgun fills an autumn morning or afternoon with joy. And then, of course, a normal day brings good fellowship, interesting dog work, some shots, and a bird or two for a meal at home. Grouse meat is thick, dense, and sweet. It is not KFC.
But this fall the days in the woods were anything but normal. When meeting, bird hunters talked of woodcock flushes, shots, and retrieves. Some hit the migration just right and spoke of a limit of woodcock in an hour; others of several shots in an afternoon—either native birds or migrators trickling through. But, and this is a big “but,” no one talked of flushing, let alone hitting, a ruffed grouse, And as the season progressed, bird hunters asked each other, “Where are the grouse?” Woodcock are fun, but it would have been nice to shoot at least one grouse, and as the weeks went by the question became, “Got your pa’tridge yet?”
“Moved some woodcock but didn’t see or hear a grouse.”
“Spent the afternoon on the mountain. Heard one bird; no shot.”
“Didn’t move a bird all day. Really a low-cycle year. And that week of cold rain in nesting season didn’t help.”
“Saw a large flock of turkeys and got one, but no grouse.”
“John and I moved eight woodcock and bagged four. The dog moved one grouse; no shot.”
“I’m sick of not moving a bird around here. I’m going up north and try around the Grant.”
“I walked the Grant last weekend. I’m going up to the Connecticut lakes and hunt close to the Canadian line.”
November came. Woodcock season ended. Deer season ended. But the conversations continued.
A good day was no longer one with a bird in the bag. A good day was a flush—yes, one flush. A very good day was a shot—yes, one shot. Apple trees, cranberry edges, oak trees with acorns underneath, barberries, ridges, valleys, swamps, creek bottoms, thick brush, pine trees, cedar trees, thorn thickets, logging roads, and clearings. North, south, east, and west. We tried them all.
“Got your pa’tridge yet?”
More and more of us began shooting skeet or trap or five-stand when we could have been in the woods, but at least we got to shoot our guns on the range. We still went out . . . just not as often. And when the range was open, we broke clay pigeons and imagined they were grouse.
At the skeet range one morning in early December, Dave finally answered, “Yes. Got a grouse yesterday. The dog flushed him thirty yards in front of me. I caught a flash and fired at a shadow. A lucky shot brought that bird down. It was the first bird the dogs moved in five days. I’m proud to say: ‘I got my pa’tridge.’ Dogs were pleased, too.”
On Sunday, New Year’s Eve, my dog Mocha looked at me—an eager, significant look. It was bitter cold outside with knee-high snow, the last day of the season. The parties could wait; Mocha and I went hunting.