Grouse of Another Time
By Chris Dorsey
A gruff Russian voice rouses me out of my slumber at 2 a.m. like some sort of knuckle dragger sent `, to interrogate Francis Gary Powers. I am beginning to understand what Ruark meant when he wrote that it takes time for a soul to catch up to its body after a transatlantic flight, a displaced sensation that he felt upon landing in Africa on safari. When traveling half way around the planet, time, indeed, becomes a relative term.
Downstairs, in a chorus of laughter, a half dozen Italian waterfowlers celebrate the success of their hunt by joining in the Russian national pastime of vodka tasting. The hour may be either early or late depending on the amount of vodka on the table, your frame of mind, or the time zone you call home. In a haze, I collect my shotgun, hip boots, coat, shells, and thoughts and amble downstairs. Awaiting me is a cup of coffee and my Russian chauffeur, who will take me to the forest haunts home to capercaillie, an ancient beast that is the Old Worlds largest grouse.
The capercaillie, a turkey-sized bird with an eaglelike head, slate gray body, and sweeping tail fan, is legendary in the annals of European hunting. Its something of an evolutionary throwback, having remained unchanged for millenniums. Its Latin name, Tetrao urogallus, loosely translated, means “ancient one.” Capercaillie have remarkably outsized curved beaks, seemingly grossly overdeveloped for plucking pine needles, the mainstay of their diets. When capercaillie could still be widely found throughout western Europe prior to World War II, there were very restrictive limits placed on them. Today, the coniferous forests of northern Europe harbor the greatest numbers of the birds.
In terms of territory, Russia is the largest nation on Earth, a land mass nearly twice the size of Canada, and by virtue of its enormity holds much of the planets supply of capercaillie. For many European sports, a capercaillie is among the worlds most coveted trophies. For bird hunters the world over, it simply has no rival.
The uniqueness of the experience is still catching up to me somewhere over the Atlantic as I ride with my strong-jawed, Leninesque driver through the dark northern forests. He speaks no English and, at this hour, neither do I. After 20 minutes of driving over twisting roads, we arrive at the banks of the Burnaja River near its confluence with Lake Ladoga, a 7,000 square mile inland sea that is the largest body of freshwater in Europe.
A series of bonfires lines the bank of the river like makeshift lighthouses. I watch through binoculars as the silhouette form of a fisherman drinks from a bottle, staggers next to the bank, and dips a long handled net into the current. I learn later that he is seining for smelt, a right of spring similar to that practiced in my native state of Wisconsin. The only difference, as far as I can discern, is that the Russians are still able to stand at the end of the night.
Greeting me through the darkness is a jovial thirtysomething fisherman who, I later learn, is a former captain in the Russian Navy. He speaks a little English and shouts the few words he does know as if hollering to one of his comrades over the drone of ship turbines. The effect is intimidating in the quiet of the predawn darkness. He directs me to a small boat that will transport me across the calm inlet. On the other side waits Nicolai Kuzmin, a 25-year-old biologist whose English is considerably better than my Russian it took me the better part of a semester to merely grasp the difficult Russian alphabet.
We board another Niva four-wheel drive, a jeeplike vehicle that is remarkably effective at negotiating foot-deep mud and stumps. The forest in which we are about to hunt is part of a 150,000-acre reserve that was retaken from Finland in a territorial dispute in 1939. In the headlights the eerie forms of blown up anti-tank bunkers loom as if we are on maneuvers behind enemy lines.
High temperatures have climbed in recent days to the 70s, and the snow is quickly melting throughout the moss-carpeted forest. The runoff makes the dirt roads through the timber look like woodland streams. Because of its northern location, the forest is covered in snow much of the year, or as one Russian put it: “We have nine months of winter here and we spend the other three months waiting for summer.”
We travel for 20 minutes, coming to a high spot in the forest. Nicolai nods that its time to get out. Its 3:15 a.m. and a full moon sheds what little light there is in the forest. I grab my turkey gun, inject a pair of magnum 2×6 loads into it, and join Nicolai in a slow walk down a winding path. I remember that there are brown bears in the area and slip the gun off my shoulder, trying not to appear edgy to Nicolai. The evening before, my interpreter Andre Golubev with great animation inspired by several shots of vodka followed by beer chasers acted out the events of a typical capercaillie stalk. One must listen for the subtle and peculiar call of cock capercaillie, a sound that is said to posses an almost mystical quality. From their treetop roosts, capercaillie emit a series of clicking noises that build into a crescendo before making a sound that is often described as that of a person rapidly sharpening a knife on a steel. When making the final part of the call, an utterance that lasts perhaps four or five seconds, the bird becomes momentarily deaf. Glands within the birds ears swell at this instant, effectively becoming ear plugs. Its during this brief period that a hunter must take two or three quick steps toward the bird. Following the capercaillie two-step, a hunter then has to remain perfectly still, for once the bird finishes its call, it regains its acute hearing and will spook at the first hint of movement or suspicious sounding twig snap. Perhaps 400 yards from Niva, Nicolai pauses in mid stride and reaches his hand out in front of me. He cocks his head to one side to listen to a sound I cannot yet discern. In a few seconds, he points ahead, turns to me, and affirms the presence of a bird with a nod. We move in the direction he pointed, pausing every 40 yards to listen for the birds call. This time I hear the birds eerie notes, looking at Nicolai just as he pans to me. The bird is still several hundred yards distant, so we gingerly slide and tiptoe over the crusty ice patches left in the thawing woods.
As we step within 300 yards of the bird, Nicolai pauses suddenly like a cat about to pounce. He waits until the bird makes the “sharpening” portion of its call and waves me ahead as he takes two quick leaps toward the sound. The game of hopscotch continues for 20 minutes as we develop an almost rhythmic cadence as the bird seems eager to proclaim its territory to any available hens. Seemingly very close to the bird its subtle call makes it difficult to discern its precise location Nicolai signals me to go on without him. I wait for the bird to call again and continue shuffling toward it. Between the aerobic hops and the drama of the moment, my pulse begins to keep beat on my ear drums. I scan the forest canopy, but shadows swallow the dark form of the bird, keeping it hidden from view.
It calls again, however, and I spy its movement as it tilts its head back and fans its tail. Its sitting on a thick branch perhaps 30 feet up an ancient pine in front me. I remind myself to shoot when it makes its metallic sounding call, advice Nicolai shared during our drive through the forest. The reason is this: If a hunter shoots and misses while a bird is making the final notes of its call, theres a chance the shot will go unnoticed by the deaf cock. A second shot, then, is possible. I raise up to aim at exactly the right moment and realize that its too dark to see the bead of my gun against the dark bird silhouetted by the pine. I remain motionless, pointing my gun to the sky like a Scottish sport waiting in a butt for high incoming grouse. The bird calls again and I mount the gun to my shoulder and point it toward the faint light of the open sky in an attempt to see if my eye is aligned with the bead of the gun. The mount seems adequate, so I quickly swing back to the semi-visible grouse and fire, sending the bird flushing out of the tree. I shoot again as the bird crosses an opening in the canopy some 40 yards away. It flinches as though its been hit, but when I dash to the area I had last seen the bird, there is nothing but silence. Nicolai sprints toward me as I shoot, but is still some 30 yards behind. Within a few seconds, I notice him bolt perhaps 20 feet to his left, waving me toward him with a smile. There, at his feet, rests the capercaillie, killed by two golden pellets to the neck. I slap Nicolai on the back while hoisting the bird skyward to get a better look at it. While Nicolai grew up joining his father on capercaillie hunts in the Ural Mountains, he has never taken one, so he inspects the specimen as closely as I do. After a moment of repose and reflection, I begin retracing my morning journey all the way back to the lodge near the village of Sosnova.
The two-story brick and stone lodge was built as a sporting retreat for communist officials in 1957. By Western standards, it is a comfortable dwelling but not extravagant. The main entry of the building is lined with mounts of indigenous game an enormous boar, several wolf and brown bear rugs, and an assortment of ducks and other water birds from nearby marshes. A capercaillie mount greets hunters who step into the dining hall and, in an adjoining room, rests a Russian billiard table.
I sit down to brunch with Andre and the three partners of Russian Hunting, LLC: Vasily Popov, Vladimir Selikhov, and Dr. Sergei Shushunov, a Russian expatriate who immigrated to the U.S. 15 years ago. Also joining us are a pair of German hunters including Dr. Jurgen Vocke, president of the Bavarian Hunting Association, and Peter Sieben, a German outdoor magazine editor. While there are still a scant few capercaillie in Germany, there has been no hunting for the birds since World War II. Because of Russias vast wildlife wealth, the Germans, Italians, French, and Spanish have seized the opportunity to explore behind the rusting Iron Curtain.With time to spare, I venture back to the woods for a sunset woodcock hunt the European version of the bird I logged countless hours pursuing during my collegiate days in Wisconsin. While the European woodcock closely resembles its Northern American cousin, its considerably larger and, because of that, lacks the bat-like aerobatics of our woodcock.
Hunting these birds in the spring, I come to find, is more akin to pass shooting ducks than it is traditional American rough shooting. We head to a forest opening perhaps five acres in size. Through the use of finger pointing and head nods, my guide positions me at the edge of a clearing where we begin our evening vigil. I glance back at my host who is checking his watch as though the birds are late for an appointment. From behind us, I hear a strange coughing sound. Excited, my guide hurriedly taps my shoulder, pointing at the coughing bird as it approaches. It is, indeed, our quarry, but it is too high to try with the light loads I am shooting. No matter, however, as my guide tosses his beret into the air, causing the woodcock to suddenly dive toward the hat for a closer inspection. Containing my laughter and amazement at such peculiar behavior, I seize the opportunity to snuff the bird about 40 yards out. The Russian hat-trick method of woodcock hunting takes advantage of the woodcocks natural curiosity as males fly about in search of receptive females.
As though the woodcocking hour was upon us, several of the coughing birds began flying transects over the woodlands, waiting for hens to answer their calls or take short leap flights to advertise their availability to males. Several more cocks find themselves centered in my pattern of eights, completing one of the oddest wingshooting experiences Ive encountered on four continents.
Before bidding farewell to Russia and her expansive forests that span some 6,000 miles and 11 time zones through much of Europe and Asia, I return to St. Petersburg for a three-day tour.
This city of nearly 5 million inhabitants is second only to Moscow in size and is unquestionably one of Europes most stunning destinations. The dramatic architecture and beautiful vistas throughout the city are nearly as memorable as the hunting, and combining the two makes Russia perhaps the last great frontier of sport and culture.
Editors Note: Chris Dorsey is an award-winning author who serves as group manager of publishing and communications for Ducks Unlimited, Inc., the 700,000-member international conservation organization. This story was adapted from Dorseys book, A Wingshooters Journey, released in 2000 by Willow Creek Press. The book celebrates the worlds finest wingshooting destinations with specially commissioned paintings by South African artist, Penny Meakin. A signed and numbered limited edition book and print set will be available along with trade editions. To order, visit Ducks Unlimited at www.ducks.org; or phone 901/758-3825.