On my Sunday night radio program, “Maine Outdoors,” my guest, Paul Fuller, minced no words. “I don’t have much use for bird hunters who ground-shoot grouse. It’s just not ethical,” Fuller insisted. Fuller is an accomplished gun dog trainer, outdoor writer and a devoted upland hunter. He lives to work his short-haired pointers over grouse and woodcock.
It’s a good and timely question that Fuller poses. Is it fair chase to pot-shoot a grouse in the road? The late hunting ethicist Jim Posewitz was steeped in the nuances of fair chase when it came to hunting game. His definition of what constitutes ethical behavior by the hunter is as good as any other: “A person who knows and respects the animals hunted, follows the law, and behaves in a way that will satisfy what society expects of him or her as a hunter.”
This doesn’t, however, really resolve the ethical dilemma, if indeed there is one.
Who is more ethical in the grouse woods, the Connecticut grouse gunner in the L.L. Bean vest hunting with a 28-gauge Purdy side-by-side and a $2,000 pointing dog, or the dogless guy from Island Falls in the faded flannel shirt who ground-swats a partridge from his pickup with a dinged-up single-shot 12-gauge?
There has long been an undercurrent of cultural tension between the shoot-’em-on-the-ground road hunters and the sometimes pious wing shooters. Is one more pure or morally superior to the other?
Dan Dessecker, a biologist, grouse man and a spokesman for the venerated Ruffed Grouse Society, refused to condemn so-called “pot hunters” as long as they obeyed the game laws and bag limits. Not everyone can afford high-end bird dogs and the other trappings of the well-equipped wing shooters.
I have walked both sides of the street. In my younger days, never was there a hesitation to branch blast a budding December grouse — meat for the deer camp fry pan. Later, as a born-again wing-shooter, I too shared all the joy and romance of working my English setter in grouse or woodcock cover. Many a dog-loving wing-shooter got his or her start as a youngster on sitting grouse with a head shot from a .22 long rifle.
Art Wheaton, a retired firearms executive and Maine guide from Forest City, who writes prose as well as he shoots, has a thoughtful take on this unsettled question. He writes:
“Now, lest we forget, our sporting journeys have progressed a long way from that boy with a .22 rifle or single-shot shotgun and his terms, now we have upped the ante. Many of us remember meager beginnings, most always with great excitement and enthusiasm, measuring our success with birds brought to bag. But “the terms by which we choose to take our game” will change over time from broader exposure, proper introduction, influence and experience. It becomes a personal matter.”
Hunters need to stick together, wing-shooters and ground-swatters alike. However you choose to take your grouse, it is a personal matter or, as Aldo Leopold writes in Sand County Almanac, whatever your acts as a hunter “they are dictated by his own conscience.”
By whatever method, those of us who hunt grouse in October in Maine, find similar rewards, whether breathing snappy air on frosty mornings, beholding flaming foliage or simply frying grouse breast in an iron skillet.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]