The Grouse Guide
For thirty years Harry Amburn had made two thirds of his income in October. Other months he worked as a wood cutter, a snow shaper on snowmobile trails, a Muskie guide, a fuel pumper at a truck stop, or a relief rural mail carrier. Some months he worked not at all, just stayed in his cabin and read.
Harry was not a recluse exactly, except when he wanted to be. He was a man without material ambition or responsibility for others. He didn’t crave fame or the adulation of others. He was comfortable in his own skin.
He did have a few strong dislikes. He disliked a liar, a laggard (although he could be one at times and he knew it) and a hard mouthed bird dog.
Harry lived in a village in north-central Minnesota that shall remain nameless under the rule that if I tell you I have to kill you. In October Harry guided grouse hunters, only one at a time and never Minnesota residents. His charge for a day was also secret. If a client revealed it he would be struck from the list. Few were tempted to tell it because it was high, quite high. Days were reserved a year ahead and if a hunter missed his day he never got it back — Harry kept a waiting list in the top of the dog box on his Toyota pickup with three hundred thousand miles on its odometer.
A customer also lost his day if he ever hunted back on Harry or told anyone the location of one of Harry’s coverts. If Harry found a vehicle owned or rented by a customer parked in his or any adjoining county he slashed its tires with a World War II bayonet also kept in the top of said dog box for that purpose. Harry had served as a Marine in Vietnam but never spoke of it.
Harry always had two broke setters, and one or two on the way to being broke. With customers he hunted his broke dogs, one at a time. The customer was welcome to hunt one of his own with Harry’s, provided it would back and had a soft mouth. The customers’ dogs mostly backed.
Harry carried a sixteen gauge over-under but shot only to bring down birds a customer winged but did not kill. His customers often shot the limit of grouse and woodcock but never over and never one seen in a tree or on the road and never one the customer’s dog bumped. Harry often guided a customer out of a covert after a couple of grouse were harvested there. Like all good guides Harry protected his coverts from overshooting. Harry’s dogs never bumped birds when hunting for a customer. Harry’s definition of broke meant steady to wing and shot and beyond the bumping stage.
Harry had a safety lecture he delivered at the start of the day and repeated each year no matter how long the customer had been one. “ Don’t shoot low birds. Don’t shoot over a dog’s head or mine or when you don’t know where both dogs are or where I am. Break your gun after you shoot and don’t close it until downed birds are retrieved.”
Harry hunted his dog with a bell and a beeper collar, point only mode. His dogs hunted wide but seldom beyond bell audible range and always within beeper audible range. They hunted the front but swept it in arcs from nine to three on a clock face.
Harry handled quietly, seldom speaking to his dog. When he spoke the dog responded including to “whoa” and to “come”. He expected the same from a customer who hunted his own dog.
On this day Harry was guiding a new customer who had been on his waiting list three years. The customer had retired young from Silicon Valley having made his kill selling a high tech startup he’d founded. He now wing shot and fly fished the world. At breakfast he seemed a nice enough guy. He brought a handsome setter whose looks Harry appreciated, also his gait and tail carriage. We will call the customer Techman and his dog Buster.
When Harry finished his safety lecture at the morning’s first covert Techman fitted on Buster’s neck a Garmin collar but no bell or beeper. Buster and Harry’s morning dog sped away upon release. Harry’s dog’s bell could be heard tinkling in arcs ahead. Buster was unseen and unheard. Every few minutes Techman looked at his Garmin receiver. In ten minutes Techman said, “Buster’s on point, follow me.” Techman struck off to the rear, walking swiftly. Harry followed.
Buster was pointing staunchly into a beaver pond edge when Techman reached him, guided by the Garmin. Harry flushed his grouse, Techman shot it, Buster held point. Twice more before lunch time the scene was repeated with Buster found pointed at 4 and 8 on the clock face (the course faced 12.) Harry’s dog had scored three finds also, between 10 and 2 on the clock face. Techman had missed those birds, Harry suspected intentionally.
Harry had brought them bag lunches, a sandwich, an apple and a Moon Pie. They ate by a stream where Harry’s Toyota had been parked. Techman had brought an afternoon setter as handsome as Buster.
When he and Harry let the afternoon dogs out to empty, Harry asked, “She hunt a pattern like Buster?”
“What do you mean by pattern.” Techman asked.
“Does she hunt where she pleases and you find her pointed with that thing on your belt?”
“Yes,” said Techman, pride in his voice.
“This hunt is over. Here is your money back. You are welcome to hunt alone with your dogs after you have put fifty miles on your odometer. Don’t come back hunting anywhere closer than 50 miles from my house, “ Harry said.
“What did I do to offend you, “ Techman asked.
“You are no better than a road hunter. Your dogs just roam around, don’t hunt for you and you just look them up with technology. That’s not grouse hunting and I won’t be a part of it,” Harry said as he dropped Techman and his dogs off at their truck.