The Biggest Liars of All

A New Hampshire resident, NEWTON F. TOLM w is a tree farmer and licensed guide who spends most of his time training grouse dogs while waiting for trees to grow.


YEARS ago we used to run into old Tom Blodgett every bird season. On warm sunny days he would be sitting with his back against the stone wall at the south corner of the Blueberry Hill cover. He would sit there all day, waiting for “pa’tridges” to come out and feed. When they got within a few yards he would blast them on the ground with his rusty single-barreled ten-gauge.

Old Tom was the soul of honesty in most things; but he always told us, “The shots I like best are high and pretty near overhead, crossing. I set here and wait for ‘em to break out o’ them tall pines, and when they git just over the road, I knock ‘em.”

At their best the trite little exaggerations of fishermen, deerstalkers, and the like cannot stand up against the polished technique of bird hunters. All bird hunters are trained liars. Oh, we might except a few who shoot only pheasant; the pheasant is a first cousin of the Rhode Island Red, so there is no need for lying. The real experts are the upland grouse shooters, the ones who use dogs alleged by their owners to hold points on the elusive grouse. These are the true artists.

They always give the dogs the benefit of the doubt and lie accordingly. They will tell you the dog was pointing beautifully when he only stopped to lift his leg. They will tell you a bird flushed wild when they know well the dog ran smack into it. And they will tell you the dog that ran off after a rabbit just couldn’t hear the whistle because of the wind.

New Hampshire Fish & Game figures show that grouse killed in a two-month season, divided among the licensed hunters, would average three quarters of a bird per hunter. Let’s say one fourth of the kill was unreported — giving one bird per hunter. Now for every hunter who killed, for example, six grouse, there must be five who got none. Yet who ever heard a grouse hunter admit to getting no birds in a whole season?

In defense of the upland gunner’s fanatical devotion to the untruth, let it be said a truly honest one might well trade his gun for binoculars and take up songbird watching. Find a good cover; then just forget to lie—just once — when someone asks where you’ve been. Next weekend you’ll think they’re holding a field trial there. Station wagons bumper to bumper, bushes swarming with setters and pointers, Brittanys and Weimaraners.

Safety is the first lesson the novice must learn. We start drilling him on it when he takes his first tottering steps into the cover. He is taken to no choice spots until his lies are natural and convincing. He must watch his footwork when referring to specific terrain, such as mountains, lakes, and streams. A gunner is safe only when, asked of an evening if he remembers the village where we stopped that day to buy some shells, he will at once name a place at least fifteen miles removed.

Our upland grouse is the hardest bird in the world to hit. Rarely does a foolish one sit on a limb waiting to be nipped off. It follows that many a gunner, because he is a novice, or too slow on his swing, or just unlucky at finding birds, ends the season with a borrowed feather in his hatband. These unfortunates always say, “Well, I didn’t get quite as many birds as usual, but of course it was a poor year anyway.” (We always agree solemnly about the poor year even if our logbook tallies up to an all-time high.)

Sportsmen often claim our bird shooting has nothing in common with the British version. They overlook two main points — the same type of gun is used, and the same type of imagination.

A friend of ours casually mentions “that day a few years back when old Spot was in his prime and I killed five grouse over him,” and we politely say we remember it well. We do remember well that he killed three.

His British counterpart will mention the day when, on Lord Somersby’s grouse preserve, he killed five hundred. And we can assume he did kill three hundred.

If an English sportsman relates in the letters section of The Field the circumstances of how, in 1949, he accounted for three grouse on the wing with one shot, the next issue will have a letter topping it. Major T. S. R. Throke-Chillingham, Ret., will write that in August of 1927, shooting from butts near Inverness, Scotland, he brought down four grouse with one barrel of his twelvegauge — adding that it was raining, temperature forty-six with a thirty-mile wind, time 11:30 a.m. This will bring still another letter, from an old gentleman in Ireland; in 1902, near Killarney, he walked up to a covey of grouse, and getting off but one shot, picked up no less than five dead birds.

After that the editor will presumably have decided to knock it off before they get back into the nineteenth century. Some blighter may even have written him earlier on, displaying the bad taste to doubt the five-bird story.

OUR New England birds never fly bunched up in great numbers; even our most skillful liars would hardly attempt a claim of dropping several with one shot. However, a neighbor told us the other day he fired at seven partridge by the roadside and bagged the lot of them. They were ringed round an apple, feeding on it, and his shot got them all in the head. It makes him admittedly six times more guilty than the unsporting gunner who stoops to shoot one bird on the ground. My own method of handling such a shot puts great emphasis on getting the bird quickly under my coat, sprinting back to the car, and getting under way in a flash.

The veracity of our friend the Doctor is legendary in medical circles. Outside his career, the love of his life is a lumbering, fat old pointer named Mercury, The Doctor is a delightful field companion and fine shot. But he couldn’t hunt the simplest cover without a guide; not if you gave him a relief map showing every thorn apple and hardback bush. Still he undertook the entire training of Mercury by himself.

Once we got softhearted and let the Doctor bring Mercury along on an all-day hunt. Pointers are noted for staunchness and Mercury is no exception; he is the staunchest ally of the Audubon Society. On his first cast he expertly chases all birds out of cover well ahead of the guns. Then he relaxes an hour or two, deaf to whistle, frolicking in hardwoods, hayfields, and highways.

While not bird-hungry, we do like to shoot at one now and then. The Doctor was firmly discouraged from ever bringing Mercury with us again, on the pretext that our own dogs needed work. This seemed to have an extraordinary effect on Mercury’s behavior. Now every time the Doctor hunts with us we get another bulletin.

Mercury held a whole covey of grouse for half an hour. He pointed a bird sixty feet high in a spruce top. And the latest, “You know, Mercury gets smarter every year. I put him down the other day in that Haunted House cover — not the pines, just the open part — well, Mercury didn’t find anything, so he waited till I got out on the road. Then he ran into the pines, crept around a partridge, and put it straight out over my head. And of course, ordinarily, Mercury never flushes!”

Shooting is a tense business. Many a hot altercation, if not bloodshed, is averted by a little dissembling in the field. A gunner snaps a quick one at a bird swerving behind a clump of trees. He cries happily, “I hit it! It’s down, just beyond these pines.”

Meantime from where wc stand we can see the bird sail on, unruffled by a single pellet, over the hills and into the next county. But do we say so? Oh, no. We call back, “Good work! Keep a line on the spot — we’ll get the dog in.”

All hands converge and we start searching every likely thicket. After a decent interval one of us says to the weakening gunner, “You know, I’m quite sure a bird came out, flying strong, after you shot — do you think it was your bird, just possibly?” And pretty soon he decides it might have been, though he was right on it, and we may as well go along.

SOME breeders advertise “perfectly trained grouse dogs — keen hunters, staunch on point, reliable retrievers” from a modest two hundred dollars up. These ads are put out by honest, reputable people, but they use a sort of code the experienced buyer knows how to decipher.

Keen hunter means a dog not only keen about grouse, but anything that crosses his path, from field mice to deer. The keen part means once he has started hunting, it takes from one to three days to catch him.

Staunch on point means that if, when he gets the scent, you attach a stout rope to his collar and tie him firmly to a tree, he will stay there until you flush the bird.

A reliable retriever will come in quickly when you shoot, pick up your bird, and if you reach him in time, will not eat it. While prying his jaws apart you should wear thick leather gloves.

The all-round thoroughly trained grouse dog for our style of shooting is about as rare as the whooping crane. The lucky owner of such a dog will tell you that all the money in New England wouldn’t tempt him to sell. This is nearer the truth than anything else you’re likely to hear from a grouse hunter.

Long exposure to their human environment has produced in grouse dogs themselves an inherent capacity for lying. They can’t talk, some owners to the contrary, but they manage very well in their own way. I will give but one of many examples. It concerns an extremely sly, crafty, clever tan-and-white setter bitch named Sue.

Through a friend of a friend, we were shooting one day with an unknown quantity whose name, we’ll say gracefully, was Smith. He turned out to be a game-hog — and worse, one of those who talk of grouse dogs as “broken” rather than trained. “Never make a pet out of a hunting dog” and all that.

Our Sue was unaccustomed to being yelled at, and she didn’t like it. She would flash into a cover with an air that said, “Just leave me alone, and I’ll get you more shots than any other dog in the business,” and the results usually proved she was right. Smith not only yelled at her. He shot a bird and picked it up before she could come in to look for it, thus cheating her out of life’s proudest moment.

When he shot another bird, Sue got ahead of him. It was obviously dead and had dropped into a patch of thick brush. Sue dashed in out of sight for a minute and reappeared with no bird. We commanded her to hunt dead, and she went back in and sniffed over every inch of ground, but still no bird. Finally we all hunted for half an hour, but we never found it.

Later in the day the same thing happened again. We tried to apologize for Sue’s duplicity, but this time Smith got pretty mad. “That soand-so dog of yours has buried my bird again — why, if I owned a dog like that, I’d shoot her!”

To our great relief, and Sue’s, Smith never asked to hunt with us again, And Sue never buried another bird in her life.

Literal-minded folk — the kind who, finding themselves with only a seventy-five-cent sherry, would never think of decanting it into an old Pedro Domecq bottle — may try grouse shooting, but they never get far. Give them just one day like the one my wife and I ended last season with —

We started off at daybreak with a car full of dogs, lunch boxes, and heavy coats and blankets, hoping it would warm up while we drove thirty miles to The Goat-man’s Cover, one of our best. (Not its real name, of course.) Instead it got colder, about fifteen above. The sun went under for keeps, and when we started hunting, our eyes blurred with tears in the stinging wind.

I was crunching along down a snow-covered sidehill, trying to thaw my arthritic fingers inside my coat. My wife was working a young dog over in the cover somewhere to my left. After a while I heard her twenty-gauge, so muffled by the wind it sounded like a cork coming out of a bottle. A second later a grouse crossed ahead of me at about three hundred miles an hour. I got off both barrels well behind it.

“Did you get it?” she called. “Do you want the dog?”

“Heck, no. Keep on going, before we freeze to death.”

“Well, why couldn’t you hit it? I put it right out to you, didn’t I? Apache needs to have a bird shot over him.”

“All I could see was a gray streak,” I said. “If you’re so anxious to get Apache a bird, why didn’t you hit it yourself?”

We found nothing more until midafternoon. Then, as we were circling back to the car to warm up, our old dog held five points in succession on grouse in open cover. We managed between us to miss all five. After that fiasco we were both too cold, disgusted, and disgruntled to hunt any longer, and we called it a day.

Some weeks later my wife was talking to a friend: “. . . and you should have been with us that last day. It was just heavenly! The air had that wonderful late-season tang, and the dogs all worked beautifully. We never had better shooting.”

“How many birds did you get?”

“Oh, maybe not more than two or three, actually, but it was all such fun — the kind of day you live for, you know.”

And the funny thing is, as I look back now, it was a wonderful day.