Fair Chase or Taboo: Is it OK to Ground Swat Grouse?

Fair Chase or Taboo: Is it OK to Ground Swat Grouse?

This is part two in Pat Durkin’s series looking at differing cultural perceptions of fair chase. In part one, he discussed shooting turkeys in flight.

Unlike those who fuss or waffle about ground-swatting ruffed grouse, Randy Newberg knows where moral uncertainty ends and sober practicality begins: 65 miles south of his boyhood home in Big Falls, Minn.

That’s where U.S. Highway 2 cuts northwesterly from Duluth to East Grand Forks, separating wing-shooting “city slickers” from partridge-potting branch-blasters in Minnesota’s northern third. Only “city slickers” drove all the way to Koochiching County just to walk behind dogs to find grouse, force them to fly, and strafe them from beak to tail to fringed toes.

Well, at least that’s what Newberg, 54, learned during his youth. He also observed that urban professionals from “south of 2” typically wore game vests, shot side-by-side 20-gauges, and doted on $2,000 pointing dogs. The Newbergs and their cohorts “north of 2” wore flannel shirts, shot long-tom 12-gauges at perched partridge, and cursed when finding No. 6 pellets in breast meat.

Newberg learned those distinctions while riding shotgun with his father on Northwoods logging roads and skidder trails. Delbert Newberg drank Grain Belt beer, ashed his cigarettes out the pickup’s vent window, and judged men by whether their truck box held gundog kennels and water bowls, or Hi-Lift jacks and logging chains.

Master of the Hi-Lift Jack
“It wasn’t a good day of hunting unless we got stuck at least once in a slop hole, trying to get into those sand ridges where grouse live,” Newberg said. “A four-wheel-drive truck in Dad’s time was a novelty, so he became the Charlie Daniels of the Hi-Lift jack. That jack was actually a winch in his hands. If you have a jack and enough chain, you can pull a truck out of anywhere. That jack got us onto more grouse than the best dog ever would.”

Newberg embraces the term “pot-hunter,” and cherishes grouse meat. If God created anything tastier, He’s keeping it to himself. And nothing ensures purer, more virginal grouse breasts than stationary targets. Newberg estimates that for each grouse he’s shot in flight, he’s potted 100 off stumps, branches or clover patches. The sole grouse mount in his home honors an oddity: His wife, Kim, shot it on the wing—a rarity for her too.

Newberg is no unrefined, uneducated man. He quotes Aldo Leopold as well as anyone, but he spent far more time studying Delbert Newberg, who never would have imposed the rules Leopold’s father instilled in Aldo, as per “A Sand County Almanac:”

“When my father gave me the shotgun, he said that I might hunt partridge with it, but that I might not shoot them from trees. I was old enough, he said, that I might learn wing-shooting. My dog was good at treeing partridge, and to forgo a sure shot in the tree in favor of a hopeless one at the fleeing bird was my first exercise in ethical codes. Compared with a treed partridge, the devil and his seven kingdoms was a mild temptation.”

In contrast, the Newbergs stressed efficiency. The bag limit was five partridge—Delbert Newberg never called them grouse—and their goal was to fill their quota with no more than five shotgun blasts, preferably less.

The best way to do that was sneaking down remote two-track trails on foot early in the season when grouse converged on green, still-fresh clover. Newberg carried a 12-gauge with a 28-inch, full-choke barrel. “You’d stalk in, steady your shotgun on one knee, wait for a bunch of their heads to pop up together, and lob in a volley at 30 yards,” Newberg said.

Later in the fall they targeted tree-borne grouse when ice, snow and cold pushed them into the hardwoods to eat buds. “They’d be up in the birch branches like pears waiting to be picked,” Newberg said. “We’d walk in, shoot them one by one till we had our limit, and then go into town to brag.”

Cultural Tensions
Newberg’s recollections aren’t repentant. He hasn’t lived in Minnesota’s Northwoods for over three decades, but he’ll always be Delbert’s son. He hunts grouse in his adopted Montana much as he did in his youth, whether with arrows while bowhunting elk, or when stalking them while toting a shotgun. He assumes pot-hunting remains common around Koochiching County, and that cultural tensions between hardened pot-hunters and pious wing-shooters endure.

Newberg’s perspective gets little argument from Wisconsin’s Dan Dessecker, 30 years a biologist and conservation-policy director with the Ruffed Grouse Society; or New York’s Jim Tantillo, a professor at Cornell University who teaches environmental ethics and history, and the philosophy and morality of hunting.

Tantillo and Dessecker are devoted wing-shooters and gundog owners, but neither condemns hunters like Newberg. In fact, Tantillo and Newberg are longtime friends. Still, Tantillo estimates his wing- to pot-shooting ratio at 95%, meaning he shoots 95 grouse in flight for each five shot standing. Dessecker puts his wing- to pot-shooting ratio at less than 99-1, and won’t shoot grouse his dog didn’t work.

“Shooting grouse off the ground or off a branch isn’t something I go out to do, but anyone who says they’ve never done it is a liar,” Dessecker said. “But I’ve also ended hunts and walked people out of the woods when they shot grouse off the ground. That’s for safety reasons. You don’t do that with a hunting dog. From a tree? OK. I can’t condemn that. I’d much rather see folks—especially kids—in the woods than sitting at home watching TV.”

For Tantillo, it’s hard to say what he loves more: hunting over good bird dogs or exploring hunting’s codes of conduct. He said cultures since the Greeks 2,000 years ago have applied “sporting” ethics to hunting. In a chapter titled “A Damnable Pleasure: Sport Hunting as Tragic Play” in the book “God, Nimrod, and the World,” Tantillo wrote:

“Most people don’t go around killing animals all day, every day. Hunters certainly don’t. Reflective, ethical sport hunting is a highly circumscribed, rule-bound activity with a well-established, if uncodified, tradition of hunting norms.”

Game of Preferences
Tantillo includes pot-hunters in that description, assuming they adhere to bag limits, hunting hours, game laws and legal local norms. After all, hunting ethics often vary by place and by game abundance and behavior.

“I’ve hunted places like northern Michigan and Wisconsin where grouse play the game the way I prefer,” Tantillo said. “They’ll hold for a point, and I’ll go in with my double-gun and flush them. But that can go too far. I’ve run into ‘fool-hens’ in Maine that refuse to fly, and I’ve had to leash my dog in Ontario so I could walk over and kick them into the air. That’s not fun. You feel like an idiot. At that point it’s no longer a code. It’s an affectation. I think we’re all trying to find that happy medium.”

Tantillo notes that wing-shooting has a fairly short history, given that firearms are roughly 500 years old. Fair-chase concepts involving guns evolved alongside them. Historical “sporting” artwork shows setters lying near birds they scented, and hunters sneaking in to throw nets over them. Net-slinging hunters probably had ethical codes, too, but guns, gunpowder and shot pellets likely accelerated fair-chase debates as hunters’ efficiencies increased.

“All those ideals of ethics, sportsmanship, manner of dress and personal bearing really took off in the 1600s to 1700s,” Tantillo said. “And it was more associated with upland birds. It took longer to catch on with bigger game; food for the pot. That all changed again by the 1840s as wildlife scarcity became an issue. Eventually, rules evolved to ensure challenge, fair play and fair chase. And they’ll keep changing, and we’ll keep debating and adapting.”

Over-and-Under or Side-by-Side?
Dessecker agrees, noting that he prefers hunting grouse with an over-and-under shotgun. That preference would have pegged him a “city slicker” to Delbert Newberg, but it excludes him from some grouse camps.

“Not all gundog owners are the same,” Dessecker said. “Some train their dogs intensely. They fixate on performance. Some of them also insist on side-by-sides. They won’t invite me into camp unless I leave my over-and-under at home. Or they might welcome me to camp, but not let me hunt with it.

“And then you have gundog owners who mostly value companionship,” Dessecker continued. “They’re more casual. They just want a good dog. My worry is that we’re losing too many ‘Sunday hunters.’ As our overall numbers fall, those with deep passions for dogs, side-by-sides and other traditions keep hunting. Their passion sustains them longer, and they’re making up a higher percentage of a shrinking population. Me? I’m just happy to be out there.”

Perhaps hunters gladly jump into debates about ground-swatting, branch-blasting and wing-shooting because they like weighing motivations that give purpose to hunting. As Tantillo notes, it’s not just about acquiring food or upholding traditions. If food were the only justification, hunters would lack rational reasons to hunt. They’d forgo all ethics and choose the most efficient, practical way to harvest meals.

Hunting also involves fun, doubts, challenges, tribalism, and cultural preferences and prejudices. Borrowing from French sociologist Roger Caillois, Tantillo wrote: “The intention of hunting is not to kill per se, but to derive pleasure from the attempt to do so; and often, if not most of the time, the hunter’s attempt to kill an animal ends in failure. The likelihood of failure is necessary to maintain the tension and enjoyment that arises from the game’s fundamental uncertainty.”

That might also explain why Tantillo, Dessecker and Newberg—independently of each other—mentioned the challenge, difficulties and skill-development of stalking into .22 rifle or .410 shotgun range of grouse and other small game.

“I don’t see a problem in turning grouse hunting into squirrel hunting,” Tantillo said. “You’re creating a whole new game that’s probably harder than wing-shooting over a setter. You have to be quiet enough to get close, spot them, and then shoot them in the head.”

Dessecker finds it tough to discuss hunting ethics, given individual experiences and preferences. Some such tangles, however, render ground-swatting trivial. Dessecker recalls shooting a woodcock while hunting with an “older gentleman” in Louisiana years ago. They were about 15 feet apart when Dessecker took the bird in hand. When his host asked to see the woodcock, he gently tossed the bird to him.

“He caught it with a scowl on his face, walked up to me and said: ‘Son, please show more respect for the dead.’ I felt horrible for being so callous in the eyes of my host. Ever since, I’ve tried to take a moment after killing something to recognize that my pulling the trigger ended a life. That might sound sappy, but his words struck a nerve.”

Feature image via Wiki Commons.

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