A Hard Look at the Future of Grouse Hunting

Bruce E. Mathews


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

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.

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.”

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