In Scotland, grouse season always opens Aug. 15, "the glorious 15th," when sheiks and counts and assorted billionaires fly in from around the world to take up station in meadows and moors and shoot birds till their arms get sore. In Maryland, it opens Oct. 5, when a handful of crazy people get up before dawn to drive to the mountains and walk themselves weary, hoping for a snap shot or two.
Those Marylanders are no less committed. "October fifth is a sacred day to me," says Jim Farmer, who has been making the four-hour haul to Garrett County from Waldorf on opening day for 30 years, armed with a traditional basket of egg salad sandwiches and breaded pork chops to see him through the day. "One time a friend called to invite me to his wedding on Oct. 5. I said, 'Are you crazy? What kind of person would get married on opening day of grouse season?' "
The key thing to know before making the trip is that on the way to Garrett County you cross the Eastern Continental Divide. That's right, it's so far west, rainfall ends up in the Mississippi River, not Chesapeake Bay. It's also in another weather world. In the first week of October there's already been a hard frost, maples in the valleys are bright red and it's fiery autumn. In another two months Deep Creek Lake will get buried in a blanket of snow that probably won't melt till March.
Garrett is the largest county in Maryland in size yet the smallest in human population, a good combination if you happen to be a bird. As a result, it's a hallowed destination for Marylanders who fancy the king of game birds, the spooky, hard-flying ruffed grouse.
I was happy to join Farmer and another of his grouse-crazed friends, Donnie Rohrbach, to greet the new season last week in the state-owned forest at Mt. Nebo on the far western fringe of Maryland.
Rohrbach, who works for the state Department of Natural Resources at Indian Springs Wildlife Management Area, brought along a topographical map that had been marked up by some of his colleagues at DNR who monitor grouse movements. It purported to show some hot spots at Mt. Nebo where the birds would be abundant. Ha, ha, ha. The words "grouse," "abundant" and "Maryland" should not appear in the same sentence unless it's a joke.
To wit: Rohrbach moved to Western Maryland from the Washington suburbs (his father is a retired District firefighter) specifically to be closer to grouse hunting. Over the years he's had good dogs and spent many days afield. His best year grouse hunting he bagged 19; the worst, he brought home three.
So he's obviously not in it for the meat. Like Farmer, he's in it for the sport, the dog work, the scenery, the healthy walking and most important, for the challenge of outfoxing a creature many consider the sportingest game bird in creation.
The good news is that grouse populations are cyclical and this appears to be an "up" year. The mild spring apparently was good for nesting for both grouse and wild turkeys and food sources this fall are abundant beyond belief. As we wandered the steep hillsides and thick woodlands at Mt. Nebo, we constantly crunched prime grouse food underfoot, including tremendous crops of soft mast including hawthorn berries, autumn olives, apples, crab apples and the like. But where were the birds?
Rohrbach's best dog died unexpectedly last June. He's been training a new English setter pup that isn't ready yet, but we had Farmer's fine English pointer Sally and his Springer spaniel H.A. working close all morning, sniffing for grouse scent.
Neither had come up with a thing after an hour's hard hunting when Rohrbach heard a distinctive thumping echoing down a steep hillside. "That's a grouse, drumming," he said.
I listened and heard it too, staccato booms rolling down the hills. We took H.A. up in pursuit. The grouse drummed some more, pinpointing its whereabouts at its own peril. We slowed, getting near. I remembered an old grouse hunter's trick, which is to stop dead in your tracks when you think you're close. Grouse often will hold in cover while you're moving, but get nervous and flush when you stop.
This one didn't. It waited me out till I was sure we were still short of the spot where it lurked in a hollow. Then, when I dropped my guard and took the first step to carry on, it was off like a shot, launching out of the leaf duff with a great, roaring whirr of wings. I threw the 12-gauge up but by the time it was shouldered the bird was gone and I never touched off the round.
"Did you see him?" shouted Rohrbach from up the hill.
"Well, come on up here. I'm staring at a deer."
I slid up to join him. The deer never blinked. It was a large doe, staring blankly at us from 30 yards away in the underbrush. When she lifted her head, I waved and she jerked alert and pranced off, followed closely by a fawn we hadn't seen in the thicket behind her.
Rohrbach smiled and turned to go. That's when the other grouse blew out from under a damp, downed tree 10 yards from us. This time I saw the blur of brown and gray that accompanied the roaring whirr and snapped off a shot, but the result was the same as the first.
By day's end we'd seen eight grouse, got shots at five and never touched a feather on any. It was typical day of Maryland grouse hunting. You start at 4:30 a.m. and get home at 10:30 p.m. with nothing to show for it but a smile.
"That's okay," said Farmer on the long ride home. "It's enough just to get out and enjoy the day, see the dogs work, smell the fresh air and see a few birds.
"And if you believe that," he added caustically, "I've got some land for sale in Florida I want to show you."