East Tennessee grouse hunters comprise a small but loyal few among the state’s more popular game pursuits. (An estimated 20,000 hunters bag 50,000 grouse seasonally per TWRA.) This is due in large part to the species range being restricted to the eastern side of the state. Perhaps too because “pheasants,” “thunder-chickens,” “rocket-roosters,” “rough necks” a.k.a. ruffed grouse are few and far between, inhabit the roughest terrain, and most of the time, will leave even an experienced hunter standing with mouth agape.
No sir! Ruff (rough) is not dangling there in front of grouse without a purpose. They’re rough to get to, rough to find and even rougher to hit. If you value a well-laden game bag, best take up another gun-sport. And like I’ve said for a long time, “The only thing you can predict about a ruffed grouse is that they’re always unpredictable.” But oh the thrill of the chase! A more challenging game-bird is yet to be created by the Maker.
I am approaching a quarter-century of grousing experience, starting at about ten years of age toting my own shotgun. Before that I clung around my Dad’s neck and rode his back or trailed along behind like a whipped pup through the horrific coverts my Dad could find. I have been a contributor to the TWRA’s (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency) ruffed grouse surveys for several years.
The first dog I remember was “Old Tony,” Dad’s high-strung setter. This is pretty much setter country as far as grouse hunters are concerned. They’re great dogs. But like one author I recently read believed, there are dogs and then there are grouse dogs, and not all necessarily of one breed either. When I got my own dog, I elected for something a little different, a Weimaraner. Believe it or not, my mother knew exactly what it was when I brought the two-month-old little fellow home. As a young girl on her family’s Kentucky farm, she became familiar with them via a neighbor who was a flyer in World War II. He had managed to “appropriate” himself a “gray ghost” and bring it home after VE Day.
Upon seeing what I had “thrown” my money away on, others informed me that they were just for pets. The hunting instinct had been bred out of them they lamented. “Ruffus,” as I named him, was described as a “lop-eared hound.” And a dog that blended so well with the natural environment would certainly be invisible to a hunter and therefore totally useless. They were right about one thing, they sure do make a fine pet. Intensely loyal and loving to their family, Weimars are more like a big kid than a dog. When I roll in from a hunt my wife Yvonne and daughter Rebekah race to the truck to see if Ruffus is O-K. They eventually get around to greeting me.
Ruffus is nearly three now. Over all the objections from my fellows, I trained him exclusively for “ruffing.” A highly motivated natural retriever from the start, but he was a little tough to get to point. Always wanted to get right in there and get those birds himself. Weimars can be hardheaded, but oh-so-eager to please. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but that’s the way they are.
Several grouse have now fallen to the interaction of skeptical hunters and this “monetary waste” of a dog. He is still a little hard-mouthed, but hey, I get excited when the shootin’ starts too! And that is another trait I like in this dog. I have seen otherwise good dogs that when the shooting started vacated the woods. I do firmly believe that Ruffus is never more fully alive than when working after a gunshot. A Weimar’s amber eyes will dialate with excitement, and after a shot his are almost black. It does pain me though when we’ve done a lot of shooting and not dislodged the first feather. Ruffus can sure make the gunbearers feel low with that hurtful “ya’ missed again!?” look that he casts back at the crew.
Weimars can be big clowns too. A fellow that I hunt with likes to say “Like dog, like owner, you’re both good for a few laughs.” And as for the visibility factor, Ruffus is definitely a close-working, methodical dog. With an orange collar I can keep track of his 86 pound hide better than I can some small setters.
Weimars were developed as an all-pupose breed by the Germans, so be very aware that they have a tendency toward furred game also. Ruffus had to be trained early on not to pursue whitetails. Old Ruffy can hit 35 miles per hour with his big muscular build. A deer “ain’t” all that much faster. However, I do tolerate the occasional rabbit or squirrel in staying with the all-purpose dog theme. They are always retrieved right to hand. Purists might scoff at such a thing in the grouse woods, but again, the Weimar is a versatile dog bred for feathered OR furred game.
Weimars are big, strong, energetic dogs. They’re not a breed to put in a kennel and keep constantly confined. They enjoy almost all aspects of the family’s life. They need room, exercise and attention and are prone to “separation anxiety.” They tend to regard small dogs, cats, etc. as prey animals and if this would cause a problem stay away from the breed. Also, being so big, they can be a handful when “roughhousing” with master or especially a child. Not intentional attacks or anything like that, they’re just big, rough dogs. As far as health goes, they’re prone to bloating, tumors and hip dysplasia.
My best day to date of the 2001/2002 season was opening day. I harvested two birds out of seven flushed. In a state where the party-hunt flush rate has hovered around one bird per hour for over a decade now, that’s pretty good. We had peaks in 1980 and again in 1987. Since ’87 it has been in decline. Ruffus’s best day thus far in 01-02 occurred on January 28th when he pointed eight birds. Our good days did not coincide though and I got “zilch.” Like my huntin’ buddy says, “my dog, or me, will always provide a few laughs.”
Grousing in Tennessee, you will find the walks long, the “hollers” deep, the mountains tough and the creek crossings deep. We often like to refer to it as just another “armed hike.” Sometimes there won’t be a bird at all to reward your labor. Other times, just when you’ve given up and your mind has wondered far from finding a “rough neck,” the action will go from “zero to a hundred” within just a few yards or the pounding of a few heartbeats. Like general Patton once said of war, I like to apply to grouse hunting: “God help me………………I love it so!”Comments welcome, E-mail Author