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Photo by Todd and Julianna Kuhn.

A Huckleberry Grouse tale

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A river ride transforms teenage minds creating revelations on grouse, girls and more.

***

It all started in a place where farmers tip their John Deere hats to strangers . . . where everything you’d ever need to know, you learn sippin’ coffee at the local cafe . . . and where a young boy’s imagination runs wild from the waterfall down the aimless drainage . . . because frankly, it had to . . . or I might’ve gone insane all those years back. 

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When I was that small-town boy, I fancied scrambling like Tarkenton and all that went “boom” at anything with wings or fur. I had no time for “pretty facin’, hair doin’ girls” . . . not yet, anyway. What did they know about bird dog breeds, option reads or skinning squirrels?

Despite my youthful lust for the outdoors, I enjoyed reading and learning just as much back then. My buddies poked fun at me for caring about school. 

“You can’t read a book while you’re shadow castin’, boy,” Paul and Jesse would josh.  For me, though, a Twain tale unlocked my imagination to the escapades a river run could provide.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was my favorite. The connections to the water, floating and fishing were all too familiar to me. Now honestly, our sleepy creek was no “Mighty Mississipp”, but it’d do when you’re livin’ the teens in central Minnesota.

I was just barely smart enough to understand the deeper meaning surrounding Huck’s quest. I appreciated how he learned to accept new people and cultures on his river ride with ol’ Jim.  

But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t get too deep into the controversy as a kid; I liked the river adventure part much, much more.

“Boys, time to go!” I exclaimed, hurriedly peddling toward Jesse’s house. 

Paul dribbled between Jesse’s legs for a layup on the pitted, gravel drive. Jesse stood bewildered, both at Paul’s sneaky move and the surprise of my grand entrance. 

“Why so puzzled, bud?” I asked.  “Don’t you remember?” 

For months, we’d planned to float the Pelican River in the middle of bird season, and the weather was right.

“Um . . . I . . .” Jesse started, when Paul interjected, “Man, he’s goin’ to see about a girl.”

“A girl?” I thought to myself fleetingly, but actually said nothing. It didn’t register, and I moved on without a pause.

“You ready? We gotta get some shells and the cedar skiff, and we’re on the water!”

Like a posse, with slung packs and shouldered doubles, we peddled toward Main, which was acceptable back then. About half way, I couldn’t get Paul’s comment out of my mind. From the lead, I abruptly stopped and looked back.

“About a girl . . . huh,” I said. “Gals over grouse, really Jesse?”

As the confusion got the best of me, I continued, shaking my head, “It’s Emily isn’t it Jess? We have a huntin’ trip to think about. I don’t have time for this.” 

Jesse stood still, his mouth shut. A slow, red blush crept up his face. All the while, Paul looked over his shoulder, clowning as was his nature, nodding up and down furiously with a Cheshire grin.

I don’t know why I even asked - I already knew. Undeterred, I turned back around continuing on a northbound route.

Brenna’s Sport Shop was a staple of the community with all sorts of upland supply that held the attention of inattentive youth.

Ol’ man Mike was just plain “full of it”, and Lee, his son, grew up with my dad. They always welcomed us with open arms. I think we reminded them of their exploits from days passed.

I’d spent countless hours there with my dad, hanging in the back amidst the boat motor parts and minnow tanks. Back in the day, we butchered deer or mixed bear bait while sipping spirits from styrofoam minnow cups . . . well, at least my dad would - and I guess I did too – when the time was right, of course.

As I opened the front door, Mike immediately piped, “Oh my, looks like trouble.  I hear Warden Jensen’s lookin’ for ya boys.” He always liked to give us grief. 

“Just need some shells today, Mike. We goin’ river campin’, hope to get us some birds.”

“Ya know where they at boys; shells are on me today,” Lee said pointing toward the back. 

I knew where to look. Lee kept a shell bucket below his reloader on the way to the biffy. It was a colorful menagerie of 12s, 20s and even some 28s mixed in. We all shot 20s then, so we picked through the pile and filled our pockets with everything from yellow 2 to 8-shot and didn’t complain one bit.

On our way out, Mike poked, “I’ll tell ol’ Jensen ya guys went spearing suckers up at Prairie Lake.  That’ll distract ‘em ‘till ya get downriver.  G’luck.”

Heading back south, we found our cedar strip canoe stashed in the bushes behind Morgan’s Laundromat, just where we’d hid it the last time. Paul was gung-ho to load, but I noticed Jesse was slow to go. At the time, I just thought he had too many yellow shells in his pockets.

We had a six-mile journey with a midway overnight stop. We’d shoot ducks downstream, and the young-forest camp was excellent grouse cover – a teenager’s dream. We’d creep along the meandering waterway, as best we could in the current, and Paul would use his wiry frame, reflexes and left-hand style to shoot greenheads rounding boathook bends. 

After a sharp “click-boom-splash”, Paul let out a, “Wooo-hoooo!”

“Nice shot Pauly,” I yelled. 

As we approached, Jesse reached down, grabbed the drake by the bill from a swirling pool and calmly set it in the skiff, saying nothing, not even admiring the shimmering green.

“Why so somber?” I asked. 

Paul interjected, “She’s gonna be mad at ya, ain’t she?” Again, Jesse said nothing.

With a few drakes down and even a wood duck ‘to boot’, we pulled ashore near the aspen stand. A high spot on the river’s edge was our bivouac location. At that moment and in that place, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else than with my best friends, shotgun in hand, pretending I was Jim Bridger.

We soon took to the young forest, which seemed to go on for miles from there. For some reason, the grouse were being grousy that day, not even a woodcock to be had. Flushes were hard to come by, and my belt bore no birds.

As we approached camp from the other side of an afternoon circle, I trailed the boys licking my prickly-ashed, bloody wrist. Just as I could make out the shelter tarp through the underbrush, Paul hit shin to oak branch and crashed to the ground.

Paul’s expletives caused a tightly-holding grouse to burst from our right toward the river and hopefully, it thought, across to safety. I took an instinctive shot, but the right-to-left pull left me slow – clean miss.

Then past Jesse the grouse flew, still right to left through the thick cover. Paul was still on his knees and in no position to try, but Jesse calmly waited, waited and waited some more until the grouse entered the only opening available over the river, a split second before never seeing that bird again. 

“Boom . . . splash.”  The grouse came down post shot and dumped into the water. 

“Holy . . . ,” Paul yelled and took off for the flow. He had two things on his mind: one, to clean the mud off his rear, and more importantly, to save that grouse before it floated all the way to the Erhard.

Back at camp, jubilation ensued after the long afternoon hunt, for Jesse’s valiant shot and for having game in hand. We sat down on rough-sawn logs and admired the handsome bird. Despite the delight, Jesse held the grouse, fanning its tail to show off the dark, black band, and sat quiet. 

“One helluva shot, Jess,” I said proudly.

“Thanks,” he replied. 

“She’s mad at ya, ain’t she?” Paul said again needling with a smirk. 

Before Jesse could answer, I interrupted, “This about Emily again? What’s goin’ on here?”

Jesse knew I was annoyed. He slowly started, “I’d plans tonight . . . a date. I know this trip meant a lot to you. It means a lot to me too, but I forgot. Sorry Matt.”

Surprised at his honesty and this girly revelation, I said, “Ok, Jess, no prob’.”

But still a little confused, I continued, “You’d rather spend time with her than chasing ruffs with us?”

“It’s not like that man. There’s just somethin’ ‘bout her I can’t explain. I’m thinking ‘bout getting serious with this and takin’ a break from all this tom-foolery and skull-duggery.”

“Whoa,” I cried trying not to be insulted. “Really?”

“She’s gonna be mad, mad, mad at ya, bro’,” Paul clowned, not helping the situation.

There we were, riverside on an epic adventure, and Jesse’s honesty bit me, hard. Like Huck’s epiphany about Jim, I regretfully surmised that, maybe, there were more important things in life than double guns and bird dogs.

With an internal struggle raging in my mind, I fought the thought. “Well, maybe . . . sheesh . . . maybe, girls ain’t so bad.” Hating the idea, I realized that we were growing up, and I had to let my friends go a bit.

Just then, I stood up and snatched the grouse from Jesse’s hand, securing its neck in my belt - if nothing else, the grouse was going home with me.

I directed, “Boys, pack up your stuff . . . we’re going to see about a girl.”

Three miles downriver in the dark, we reached the village of Erhard and its only eatery, the Depot Grill, which just so happened to be owned by Emily’s father. It was late by then, way past the time for Jesse’s date, and because of that, Emily took to waitressing instead.

I led the way through the door, and while sheepishly determined, I approached Emily with my story. We three stood, wet to the waist, hoping not to experience the wrath of a woman.

I fell on the sword as best I could and tried to take blame for everything. Paul just stood on the side and snickered, not having a dog in the fight.

I told her it was my fault, and that Jesse really liked her. I promised to never lead him astray again. Soon, luckily for my sake, she wasn’t looking at me anymore, but through me, at Jesse.  They were both smiling.

Jesse stayed at the Depot that night. I’m sure Paul and I went to a party or something . . . maybe to find some girls.

Jesse and Emily eventually got married – true story. I always joke how my grouse obsession and adventurous spirit almost got in the way.

Unfortunately, I have broken my promise to Emily over the years. We get a wild hair now and again; you know how boys are. Every time, I fall on the sword just like before, and she forgives me. I’m happy to do it for Jesse’s sake. 

What keeps making it hard for me is that Paul, on the other hand, keeps cracking jokes. We learn as life goes by, but some things never change.

**

Matt Soberg is the editor of the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine and splits his time missing birds and losing fish between Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

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