The last five weeks have been an exercise in endurance. Eight days in the grouse woods of western North Carolina have yielded a single shot opportunity. Naturally, I missed. The bird flushed from the downhill slope of a decades-old logging road sliced into the side of a prehistoric mountain. A quick dive to my left was followed by an abrupt change of direction as it flew toward the thick rhododendron high on the ridge. I shot low, and before I had the presence of mind to move my finger to the second trigger, the bird had disappeared.

I have slumped before, but I’m slumping hard right now. I swear the 90-year-old Parker I’ve been carrying has put on a few ounces with each day in the woods, and she’s starting to get a little heavy. “It’s not about the birds,” I say. It’s the trees and the dogs and the gray November mornings. It’s the tailgate coffee at first light and the well-earned beer in the midday sun. I have repeated these half-truths to others and to myself, and I’m beginning to think that I might someday believe them. I’m not sure if this is acceptance or enlightenment; I’m also not sure if there’s a difference.

I often think about steelheaders in the Pacific northwest. “I’ve caught one,” they might say, but let the conversation go on for a few minutes and you’ll find out that it was two Octobers ago. The heartbeat that inhabits a river is no different than the blood that flows through a grouse cover, and it is this life force that keeps us rambling these Southern highlands in search of kings. So I mutter my prayers—not for an abundance of birds, but for the patience to persist.

Soon the miles I have accumulated will amount to the price of admission, and I will have the great pleasure of a grouse in my game bag once more. The old Parker will shed her extra ounces, and the dogs will taste feathers for the first time in a long time. Then we will begin again.

 

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