Fireman’s Grouse camp is located on the Tug Hill Plateau in north central New York state and is one of the loveliest parcels of property I have ever had the luck to discover. A faint trail with a white bucket covering a well pump drew me off the old dirt road, and there I saw the dilapidated green trailer. Its roof was mostly blown off from the harsh winter winds and its crumbling plywood awning, supported by rotted pine posts, would be very unsightly to many. I could envision the wondrous times that must have taken place here in years past. Though the trailer’s cap is long gone, the thin door, with its fireman’s shield emblem surrounded by years of peeling paint, is still padlocked, locking up the memories contained in the old structure. I like to think that the lack of a roof allows the former inhabitants to look down from the heavens to relive their most joyful times here on earth.
It is completely surrounded by state forest with not another camp for miles. As one enters the property, there are pines on both sides of the entry trail that open into what is now a large meadow of golden rod, studded with pine corridors and intermixed with grassy areas that I am sure were once a make shift yard surrounding the old camp. A low-lying dogwood patch borders the east side of the meadow. Thicker than blazes, I flushed a lone grouse in its center during my hunt back in ’07, but nary a shot was given due to the tight-gripping tangle of cover.
The faint trail along this side also leads to the old out-house, which to my testament still functions. Classic in structure and weathered green in color, it blends in with the native pines that surround it. The shabby composition stands out mostly from the yellow and black fallout shelter sign tacked on its front, which is testament to the humor of those that made the 100 yard jaunt from camp in necessary moments.
That same trail tails up into a large hardwoods seemingly topped by a ridge, an area I have not yet explored but further captivates my mind with images of the monster bucks that travel its crown in search of love as a November chill reaches the air.
On the west side of the meadow lies another lowland intermixed with hardwood, birch saplings, and hawthorn. With a ground cover of wild raspberries, the thought of future flushes puts me in a dreamy state. Here again I have not yet explored, as when I reached its border, night was upon me and the chill of the evening along with two hungry hard-working English Cockers summoned me to the fire ring of hand-laid shale with the promise of a good meal and evening coffee.
As darkness descended and flames flickered off the stone walls, I let my imagination run wild as I listened to the laughter and stories told in that very spot by sportsmen of yesteryear. Perhaps the stories of a young hunter’s first buck, the big one that got away, or the passing along of hard learned lessons from the Ole’ Timers in camp. With sleepy eyes and legs weary from our afternoon jaunt, the dogs and I curled up on our foam mat and sleeping bag to gaze at the stars while nodding off to dreams of tomorrow’s flushes.
The night was cold with heavy frost, and I awoke to almost being pushed off our foam mat by two bird dogs whose winter coats had not yet fully come in. It was still dark as I looked up at a clear and seemingly colorless sky, stars appeared as pinprick holes, and pondered about those looking through them from the heavens.
As I will say time and time again, grouse are where you find them, yet I am always drawn to spots where I have previously had great successes. Upon our arrival we had set up camp and immediately headed for a logging trail where I had flushed a number of birds in ’07. Three hours had passed and not a thing had me a bit concerned, but I knew there should be birds in the area. We returned to that covert in the morning but focused on an old orchard on the east side of the trail. Two more hours went by and the absence of any bird left me to wonder if something had happened. Had the wet spring hampered nesting? Had other things killed off all the birds? Predators, bad winter? We worked the whole area, followed a thick pine slashing along a stream and then crossed the dogwood bottom to another saddle of pines working back towards the road.
It was right then that Mr. Buddy flushed our first bird right to the gun. Wow! Relief! At least the dogs would now have the scent of grouse in their noses. Buddy and Mazie were so excited after hunting almost five hours to have the first bird that they strongly disagreed about who was going to retrieve it. For myself I was 1 for 1 and after going 5 for 6 on the ’07 hunt, I started to believe I may be the finest grouse shot ever!
Making our way to the road I heard another shot, and thought to myself “Ahhh, another hunter having success,” and the desperate attitude of only minutes ago had almost disappeared. We headed down to another spot called the truck trail where I also had taken a grouse in ’07. There was a truck parked there with out-of-state plates and I thought “someone surly had come a long way to hunt grouse, better yet how in the world did he find this place?”
We worked the area to the west to no avail, and as we came back out on the road so did the other hunter, an older gentleman with the most tattered apparel I had ever seen. His canvas chaps actually resembled fake fur, I am sure due to countless miles of traveling through brambles and berries. His blue nylon windbreaker seemed to not have one inch that had not been stitched by his wife’s zigzag sewing machine. His wire-haired pointer looked nearly his age, but the Beretta 20 gauge O/U looked like it had just come out of the box.
I asked how his flushes were, and he responded that he had had eight. We introduced each other and he said his name was Ron. He mentioned he had a camp up on 177 and that while he was from Massachusetts, he was originally from New York and that he was retired and spent most of the grouse season there until the snow got too deep for hunting.
Now most grouse hunters are very secretive and Old Ron was no exception, but we did exchange some information. He said he had never had much luck on the truck road except at both ends. This I agreed with, as in 2007 I had taken a bird at both ends and seen nothing in between. I asked whether he preferred early morning to evening hunting. He chuckled, saying that he preferred the evenings, when he sometimes having to drop to his knees to see the bird against the fading light of sky. He quickly added that he was not an early morning person! I mentioned the bird I had taken had been eating hawthorn berries and that I also found this to be true in ’07. He thought a second and said yes, “but it should be a bit early for that to be the main food source.”
I thought I would share another a piece of my wisdom in hopes this seasoned hunter would continue to divulge similar findings and told him that I had my best luck working parallel to the road, thinking the grouse were staying close to a gravel source so to enable them to digest the hard crab apples. His eyes lit for a second, as if he was about to disclose something he never thought of, and quickly went on to tell me about his dog, saying in his journal that his 14-year-old had over 900 points but was now aging so he mostly hunted with the 8-year-old that was not quite as good. I spotted a grouse perhaps a 100 yards fly across the road and pointed it out to the old man. He said, “that bird is yours, young fellow.” We then spoke briefly on the peril of the ring neck pheasant and he bid me good luck as I did the same. He glanced at his watch and mentioned an appointment. Most likely with another covert!
The dogs and I headed down the road in hopes of flushing the bird I had just sighted. We cut into the woods about 100 yards from the truck trail and began to work parallel to the road. Coming down off a saddle of pines, Buddy flushed a bird from the dogwoods below but afforded no shot. I stepped quickly to an open area for a clearer view when the second bird flushed. I saw the bird launch skyward, swung to aim at the bird and squeezed the trigger but to no avail, as the bird got hung up in the heavy tangle of cover allowing my follow through to place the load of shot right above the bird. It leveled off and placed nicely a hawthorn tree between us as it escaped over the next ridge of hardwoods. We continued working along in the same fashion till we hit faint trail leading south. The day was warming and I thought of heading for the road but decided to take a short break, pulled out a can of Vienna Sausages for a dog treat and took a sip of sweet apple cider I had been carrying all morning. The trail ahead looked promising and the need to explore took over, as we followed what is now called Vienna Trail to its swampy end.
Back at the jeep by noon, I decided to take a slow ride in the direction of Barnes Corners in hopes of spotting a new covert and just maybe Old Ron’s camp. I stopped in at Tuggers Restaurant and Campground for lunch. After a bowl of delightful soup, I toured their cabins in preparation for a return hunt later in the season. They were small yet cozy, clean and most of all warm! Spending a cold night camping on the ground later in the season is no longer an option for my aging bones. After leaving Tuggers, I decided to explore a few back roads north of Rt. 177. While the cover looked good, both the dogs and I did not want to venture forth during the afternoon’s heat. The temp was about 66 degrees, not overly warm unless one is busting grouse cover. Making our way back to camp, we drove up the next road looking for a shortcut but only found a dead-end. With hot and tired feet, I decided to borrow the roadside lawn of a lonely camp. I set out our lawn chair, removed my boots and socks and basked in the afternoon sun as the dogs napped in the shade of the jeep.
At 4:30 pm, with dry socks, my trusty old Red Wing boots and a new Mossberg 20 gauge O/U, we entered nice cover just across from the camp we borrowed for our nap. Good cover but the trails ended in heavy cover, and though the day was cooling I was not yet ready to bust heavy cover again. The O/U felt heavy and cumbersome compared to my trusty little Ithaca 100 SXS and back at the jeep decided to place it back in its case where it will most likely remain forever, unless by some great misfortune my old side by side should malfunction.
By 6 pm I was beginning to wonder if the height of the grouse cycle I had experienced in 2007 was a thing of the past. On the way back to camp I spotted another faint trail with a promising hawthorn thicket to the east. About 50 yards in I found a year old empty casing that confirmed my suspicion of grouse activity in the covert. I worked its edge to some dogwoods and swung to the west along the perimeter of a mixed conifer stand with not a single flush.
Once back at the jeep, a quarter acre semi-circle of goldenrod caught my attention. I was in the center of some rough walking before I realized it was an overgrown logging area full of deep ruts. Stumbling through, I finally reached the back edge where I found the main logging trail, now overgrown but well-defined by 3 foot deep ruts that formed a center flat walkway into the cover. Two hundred yards in, Buddy went wild. I failed to recognize his birdyness and he flushed the first of seven grouse. Had I quickly adjusted my position, I may have gotten off a shot but due to my surprise I remained stationary with only faint glimpses of each bird as they launched behind a screen of pines and basswood. I had spotted the first covey of grouse and I left the cover in fading light with the spot well-marked in my memory.
Back at camp I prepared a fine dinner for the dogs as the coffee warmed. I did not feel like cooking and had cookies, candy bars and a big chocolate brownie for dinner. Darkness came quickly and Buddy decided he was not going to sleep in a cold tent and I found him curled up in the back of the jeep. I covered him with my coat while he was fast asleep. Mazie and I crawled into my sleeping bag, gazing at the starlit sky as we drifted off quickly to dreams of tomorrow’s coverts and flushes.
Mazie and I were roused by Mr. Buddy asking to make a nature’s call around 5 am. Colder than the previous night, the autumn floor of our camp sparkled as if covered with diamonds. We warmed last nights coffee and retreated to the warmth of our frost-covered jeep listening to the local weather station awaiting the first light of dawn. My thoughts turned now to which cover to enter. Once daylight came I was in no hurry as I had decided to pack most of the camp. I had taken a call the previous morning summoning me back to my shooting preserve, Pheasants On The Flats, to provide a member of a very large corporation a tour of our grounds. “Business first” was just killing me, as I had planed to stay in grouse country two more days.
Curiosity must have entered my mind, as the first stop was Ron’s covert. Even though I figured none of the eight grouse he said he flushed would be in the area, I just had to look at the locale selected by a grouse hunter much my senior. I followed the cover along a large swamp about a quarter-mile then headed west, making a large U-shaped trek to survey the covert. No flushes, but I could see why old Ron liked the area. Easy walking, combined with all the elements of food, water and cover made this an ideal stop. Once back at the jeep I decided to head for the rutty trail where I had flushed birds the evening before. Halfway there I spotted a grouse on the side of the road. As I passed it slowly, it flushed low and I could see its short flight of just 50 or so yards into the cover.
Figuring this was an easy flush, I quickly pulled over, let out the team and headed into the cover. Mr. Buddy was first to catch the scent, swinging left to right and then quickly heading up the edge of the wood line that I presumed the bird was running along. On guard, I awaited the flush any second, but after 200 yards I relaxed for just a second.
That’s when the flushes began. The first two birds went directly in front, firing into an ironwood tree not a feather loosened. Reaching in my vest to reload I took a series of steps when three more birds erupted from behind the group of pines. Quickly reloading and circling the pines in the direction of the flush, one, two, three and finally four birds thundered to my left, screened now by the pines I had just broached.
With my heart pounding and somewhat stunned at the reality that I managed to be completely out of position for seven escaping grouse, I paused for composure. Whistling in the dogs that now had noses full of bird scent called for leashes and snacks to assist in regaining their poise. During the short rest I devised a plan to pursue the three birds that flushed to my right, as I had a much better line on their flight. As is often the case in early fall, the cover was so dense I was not afforded a shot on the re-flush of two of the birds. It seems that when hunting alone, the birds always flush on the other side of the tree to a hasty unscathed retreat. I vowed that upon my return I would try harder to bring along a friend to cover the side I happened to never be on.
We left that cover with the warming of the day, deciding to get back to Pheasants On The Flats early and prepare for the next day’s appointment. During the four-hour ride home I contemplated what an honor it had been to be there and how Fireman’s Grouse Camp was so deeply imbedded in my heart. I hold nothing but squatter’s rights to this piece of heaven.
I wrote this account upon my return home and forwarded it along with specific directions to a few of my closest friends. Also was enclosed the following note:
Go by yourself, go with a friend and go with the spirits that have been there before you. Enter a world only the luckiest of men will ever enter!
Please, my friend do not copy this. Let others read but give only the directions of memories for the search of such a place can only be found in their heart. Let others know the joy of discovery still lies in their dreams. While I have given you my most Sacred Coverts, there is never a guarantee, know grouse are where you find them! They are the kings of game birds, shy and weary and your number of flushes is success not the number of birds taken.
Though as of this writing Fireman’s Grouse Camp no longer exists as I experienced it, I for one will search my remaining days to find others like it.