Annabel, our senior griff', is eleven years old now, and though she has slowed down quite a bit, and gets up a little gimpy from her frequent naps--a touch of arthritis, most likely--she can still find and point grouse. She sort of moseys through the woods now, not looking particularly intent on anything, but when her nose detects the scent of a bird, everything changes. Very few pointing dogs actually assume the "classic" pointing pose, front leg lifted and cocked. In fact, when one of my dogs stops on a hunt with her foot in the air like that, I pretty much know it's not a serious point.
Instead, they will stop with all four feet planted, stop as soon as they catch the scent of a bird, and turn their heads toward the scent. Then it's my job to find them, frequently in thick cover (an electronic beeper collar helps here), figure out exactly where the bird is, maneuver to gain the best angle for a shot, walk in to put the bird up, and knock it down with my 20-gauge side-by-side shotgun.
Matters do not often unfold in exactly that fashion for me. I miss my share of birds, or they flush wild or fly low through the brush or disappear behind trees. Then Annabel will break her point and run in crazy circles, barking in excitement, or frustration, it's hard to tell which. This is by no means "classic" bird dog behavior, either. In fact, even if I do manage to hit the bird, she still runs around barking at the sound of the gun, and she is of almost no use in helping me find the down bird. Lily is much better. Every bird I've shot with her in the field, she has been right on it. She doesn't retrieve, but that's fine by me. Having a bird in a dog's mouth for any amount of time does nothing to improve the quality of the meat.
On a rare warm day in October, I went out with just Annabel to hunt a smallish state hunting ground near Bide-A-Wee. We started late morning with the temperature climbing toward 60. We hadn't gone far into a stand of young aspen before my moseying dog stopped at the edge of a clump of dogwood within the aspen, and as I approached her a grouse flushed and escaped low behind thick cover. As I watched it go without firing a shot, a second bird got up and disappeared into a grove of white pine before I could locate it.
That was encouraging, and as we worked our way through that patch of aspen we located a couple more grouse as well as two or three woodcock. I think I missed on one of each, and had no shot at the others.
As we left the aspen stand and started up a little knob of a hill covered in dogwood, small oaks, prickly ash and assorted scrappy cover, Annabel stopped--again at a juncture of aspen and dogwood. I moved around to her right, to try to get the bird between us, and just as I crossed an opening in the trees, the grouse flushed. I hadn't expected the bird to be that close to my pointing dog, but the opening in the trees gave me a perfect shot. I turned to my left as I raised the gun, and brought the bird down with the first shot.
Annabel began running around, barking.
I had shot the bird at quite close range, and thought I had seen where it fell, but these animals are extremely well camouflaged. It took me a couple of minutes to find the bird. Annabel was no help whatsoever, but I certainly would never have shot that bird without her point. When I found the bird I called her over, and we engaged in a sort of dog-and-hunter high fives. "Whatta you know, we got one," I said. "Good girl, good dog." But she was off already to look for more.
It was nearly noon then, and getting hot for hunting, so we called it quits shortly after. In just an hour we had moved at least eight ruffed grouse and four or five woodcock.
I gutted the bird as soon as we got back to the cabin, and plucked it a day or two later back in Saint Paul, let it air dry in the fridge, and took it back out to Bide-A-Wee to cook for dinner the following weekend. I had thought I might grill it, then finish it in a cider and cream sauce, but October had returned to its chill, wet, blustery ways, that sun-washed morning in the woods a distant dream, so we fired up the Haggis and got out the cast iron.
First, I want everyone to appreciate the superb job I did plucking that bird. I know that anyone who has ever tried to pluck a grouse will be impressed by how clean that bird is, how intact is the skin. The skin of a grouse is delicate, and often torn by shot or dog tooth. It's no mean feat to wind up with a bird that nice. It's a tedious process, but it's worth it to me, and then, I'm not usually burdened with dozens of grouse to pluck in a season. A lot of hunters don't bother with plucking. They'll usually skin the bird, a quick and simple process. Others will "breast out" their birds in the woods, leaving behind everything but the boneless breast meat. This is both illegal, for a variety of reasons, and a terrible waste of excellent meat and bones--the carcasses of grouse produce a spectacular stock, and there's a decent amount of meat on the legs, too.
In preparation for cooking, the well-plucked bird is cut in half, seasoned with salt and pepper, smeared with butter. It's a very lean meat which benefits from a little added richness. It also benefits from bacon, but then, what doesn't? I rendered off a couple of tablespoons of lardons from our home-smoked bacon, and in that fat I browned an apple, cored and cut into eighths, not peeled.
Some sliced red cabbage and onions, sautéed, then simmered with a bit of water and cider, cooked on the Coleman stove. A handful of fingerling potatoes I grew at Bide-A-Wee were boiled separately and kept warm on the side of the wood stove.
Then I browned the grouse. Threw in some chopped leeks.
Added a cup of chicken stock, a half cup each of Cedar Summit cream and our own apple cider, a few sprigs of thyme (we can reach out the window and snip it from our potted herb garden on the south side of the cabin!). I finished cooking the grouse in the slowly reducing sauce--it was barely bubbling--for ten or fifteen minutes. Towards the end I put in the precooked potatoes to warm up.
And we served it forth. A well-cooked grouse is among the most exquisite things you can eat. This bird, well, I'd say it produced some of the finest meat I have ever tasted, lean but moist and tender, with a flavor both pronounced and subtle (but I'm not going to say it tasted wild...).
Just a really fine thing to eat, and a celebration of the land and the season. That said, there's no reason you couldn't do the same thing with cornish hens, or chicken.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw