A Hard Look at the Future of Grouse Hunting

With bird numbers down, what does the future ruffed grouse hunting realistically look like? Michigan’s Ned Caveney has astonishing memories that point to many uncertainties

A hunter walks through the woods, obscured by the trees.
Some of the best grouse and woodcock covers are found in 5- to 15-year-old clearcuts growing back with aspen. Bruce Mathews

Teddy died two days before grouse camp.

Ned e-mailed the news, and that my 2-year-old Brittany would now be our “A-team” for our hunting visit. His English Pointer, Karen, at 9 months wasn’t coming along as fast as he’d like, and Charley, his 3-month-old Gordon Setter was still chewing up his rubber ducky. Cute as the dickens but not ready for the big grouse woods. You felt the loss and heartache between every line. Teddy lived to hunt for Ned and took his last slow breaths as Ned held him close, telling him what a good boy he had been.

Ned hoped Teddy would make it through this season, but it wasn’t to be. We arrived two days later, with the only certainty for grouse camp being broken hearts and unproven bird dogs.

“The last bird season I didn’t have a good dog was in 1977,” Ned lamented as he greeted us.

A hunter wears hunter orange in the woods.
Ned Caveney in one of his beloved Michigan grouse covers. Bruce Mathews

Teddy was only 11, but he’d been ailing for some time. He died with a lifetime total of 460 points on grouse and 773 on woodcock. Ned said later as we hunted a certain cover that “Teddy’s last grouse point was in those thornapples. Joe was hunting with us, with his flintlock shotgun. He missed.”

When you hunt with Ned, you see his grouse woods through the eyes of a professional forester, an insightful and talented land manager, a keen-eyed hunter and a man carrying on a full-bore love affair with dogs, birds, and the grouse woods of the North Country. Retiring from the Michigan DNR in 1998 as the regional forest manager for the northern lower peninsula, Ned’s 31-plus-year DNR career and an additional 21 years of private consulting give him an intimate knowledge of the northern Michigan landscape, not to mention a record of every clear-cut and potential bird cover in the area. We’ve been hunting together almost every fall since just before he retired.

Ned keeps meticulous records—since 1970 reporting annually to the Michigan DNR the results of his woodcock and grouse hunts. His records include hours hunted, the numbers of ruffed grouse and woodcock flushed, pointed and bagged, and by which dog.

“How many hours do you think a dog hunts in its lifetime?” Ned asks rhetorically. “Teddy hunted 836 hours, and he pointed 1,233 grouse and woodcock. The only dog I hunted more was Bit, when we hunted in the ’70s and ’80s. She hunted 948 hours.”

Wooden markers next to grave stones in the woods.
In Ned’s woods there’s a small knoll overlooking a young stand of aspen, where all of Ned’s bird dogs rest not far from where a grouse drums. Bruce Mathews

Ned grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside D.C. in the ’50s, where there were still wild places nearby. He says “I can’t remember not hunting. We used home-made slingshots until my Dad got me a genuine Wham-O slingshot. Mom said no BB guns, but we still got in trouble. My second-grade buddy and I discovered a target-rich situation at my neighbor’s bird feeder. We knew our cover was blown when we heard her scream. The police took our slingshots and made my dad come get them. I didn’t get a spanking—and I got my slingshot back.”

Growing up, most of his hunting was with a bow and arrows, some of which he made himself. Ned still has a mounted weasel, an arrow-shot trophy from his youth.

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Ned’s grouse hunting began as a forestry student at Michigan State University, with a borrowed double-barreled, hammer-locked 12 gauge that “wasn’t too reliable.” He started with the Michigan DNR and soon moved to Traverse City where he acquired a beagle named Ranger that Ned taught to hunt woodcock. “He was just a flusher,” Ned shares, apologetically.

Ned’s serious bird hunting started with his move to manage the Pigeon River country in 1974, where his duties included participating in national studies on grouse and woodcock. In 1977 he got “Bit,” a Brittany who became his first real bird dog. Ned’s reputation eventually led to hosting President Jimmy Carter for a hunt in 1986, with Bit and Ruark (an English Pointer).

A sheet from a wildlife cooperator logbook.
A page from Ned’s wildlife cooperator logbook. Bruce Mathews

Days of Grouse Hunting Past—And Future

Ned’s grouse woods are full of places he’s claimed and known by the memories of what happened there, and with whom it happened. This northern Michigan landscape is well-mapped and story-marked in Ned’s memory.

As we hunt together, he wants me to remember these stories. He constantly asks if I remember hunting this cover. Or, who we hunted it with. Maybe he asks because it helps him remember. Maybe it’s just because it’s worth remembering. “You think maybe these things are just gonna last forever, but they don’t,” he says.

Neither do we.

As you push through these woods hoping the dog will point a bird, you wonder, are we running out of time? Out of dogs? Places to hunt? People to hunt with? Maybe even a body that can still take you hunting? How many more seasons do you get?

What you have is today. And it’s a beauty—a crisp blue-skied glowing October day.

We take a break. Ned says, “You know, I don’t get out of breath much, but my legs get tired. Never used to. Pisses me off…”

A hunter walks through a trail behind a hunting dog.
Ned Caveney’s grouse woods are full of places he’s claimed and known by the memories of what happened there, and with whom it happened. This northern Michigan landscape is well-mapped and story-marked in Ned’s memory. Bruce Mathews

Ned’s records document a decline in the birds we’re hunting, a decline supported by the Michigan DNR’s data from other cooperators like Ned. Last year’s flush rate for Ned was 1.57 birds per hour. And so far on this year’s hunt we’re under 1 flush per hour.

“In the ’90s we were getting over 4 per hour, and were still over three in 2011. But it’s been declining almost every year,” says Ned.

I ask him what he sees as changed.

“In the whole state of Michigan forest re-growth started in the 1920s, so by now most of the cover has gotten too old,” says Ned. “There are too many deer eating the understory. We’ve protected hawks and other predators that target grouse and woodcock, and we’ve all seen how successful coyotes have been in the past 20 years. Unless we do way more clear-cutting to help regenerate young aspen and create better grouse and woodcock habitat this decline will continue.”

A hunting dog with a woodcock.
Foster brings a woodcock to hand. Bruce Mathews

“Some people want to pick one thing as “it,” Ned explains further. “For example, an Ohio hunter I ran into a couple days ago thinks it’s West Nile virus. Swore it could not possibly be habitat. There are so many variables (West Nile virus is but one) all interacting and all; in near constant change. Some are pluses and some minuses. Management aims to help with the pluses and reduce minuses where possible.”

He reflects further. ‘Balance of nature’ is a myth. All those variables are never in balance, always in flux. Maybe they’re seeking that mythical balance. I understand some of the variables very well, others not so well but I am positive after more than half a century of study and observation that good habitat is the key. It takes constant management. We are probably losing the battle unless at least 2% of the habitat is treated/renewed every year.”

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What about the future?

“I’m real concerned, not only about the birds but about bird hunting,” says Ned. “It takes effort to be successful, to train dogs and find covers, and effort’s not something that’s real popular in this instant gratification world. It’s not easy to hunt these birds. It might not even be all that much fun, especially if your fun is mostly watching through a screen instead of being part of it in the real world.

A wooden plank next to a stone grave marker.
Teddy is buried alongside the rest of Ned’s bird dogs, atop a small hill in Ned’s woods. Bruce Mathews

“They say the number of grouse hunters is down, but I’ve been seeing more up here (northern Michigan). I’m always bumping into hunters. There’s fewer birds, less habitat and more hunters coming up here.”

I ask Ned what advice he’d give to a budding grouse hunter.

“Well, it’s like I told Gilbert (Ned’s son-in-law),” Ned says. “Gilbert shot his first woodcock over Teddy last week, which turned out to be the last bird Teddy ever pointed. What’s so special about bird hunting is the triangle of the birds, the dog and you. When all three come together it’s just so satisfying. And all it takes is one bird. It’s not about the numbers. One bird well-pointed is a trophy.

“You know, bird hunting keeps you rooted in the ancient rhythms. It creates deep relationships with your dogs. And with the land that sustains us. You stay in touch with the cycles and seasons of the grouse, and the migrations of the woodcock, and things that are deeply part of us all as human animals. Cycles and seasons….”

And places. The stories that bring meaning to our lives and create the need and desire to take care of the places where the stories happen. Like Ned’s grouse woods.

We work with the pups one morning. Ned’s got a couple quail left over in his recall pen, training birds remaining from the summer. We set them out in launchers to give Karen and Charley a live bird workout. Charlie loves it and takes right after the quail. Karen gets a whiff of the planted quail and beelines back to the truck. “Hmm,” Ned says. “I think she’s blinking. Bid-skittish. Not a good sign.”

Later we take Charlie for a romp in the grouse woods. He’s got some promise.

In Ned’s woods there’s a small knoll overlooking a young stand of aspen. On the knoll are the graves of his bird dogs. Eight stones and their wooden markers bear the names and dates of his dogs—Bit, Ruark, Aldo, Kayleigh, Dawn, Foster, Dan, and now Teddy.

We plant Teddy’s wooden marker, at the stone under which Teddy lies. The woods are quiet, reflecting the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the oranges and golds of the maple and aspen leaves still remaining on the trees.

“There was a grouse drummed here 13 times the day we buried Aldo.” We both squint back the tears. “Lots of memories here….” Ned trails off.

When you lose a good dog, it’s not only about losing a piece of your heart. It’s not only the missing of a vibrant part of your life that in some ways has defined you. It’s the once-again realization that you just don’t get it back. It’s the mirror with the graying hair and the extra wrinkles or pounds and the wonderment about when the hell that all happened. It’s the expanse in the rearview much longer than the view ahead. It’s the face-to-face with mortality and the big question about how much is left.

And what you do, and get to do, with what’s left.

Feathers next to a bottle of scotch.
The ingredients of Ned Caveney’s ceremonial day’s end—a good scotch, a pewter mug with all his dogs engraved along with their lifetime totals, and hopefully a few tailfeathers. Bruce Mathews

One thing we get to do is celebrate. Even in the losses we find the joy of remembrances, and we tell the stories again, and we raise a glass to them all for what they have and continue to mean to us.

It’s not just about what is lost.

We have puppies to train. We have young dogs to enjoy as they point their first birds, and bring us back their first retrieves. We have new covers to explore, and in truth every year each cover is new. We have grandsons and granddaughters with whom we hope someday to share all this. We eat beechnut cookies made from nuts gathered from the crops of the grouse that first found and ate them. We have meals of grouse and woodcock to prepare and for which to give thanks. We have fine scotch to sip over frozen balls of maple sap. We have hope.

We have the ceremonial at the end of each hunting day, after all the birds are cleaned, the guns put away, the sun setting and the air chilling, sharing a wee dram of Famous Grouse on the pickup’s tailgate. We touch our cups together and toast “the resource, the birds, and the places they live; those who use and care for it well, and to the Creator who made it all.”

And so, we celebrate.