Ruffed grouse season starts Oct. 1 and runs through Dec. 31. The bird is Maine’s second favorite hunting quarry, according to Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stats.

About half of all licensed hunters target this bird — 75,000 to 100,000 depending on whom you ask.

In fact, grouse hunting’s popularity in Maine far exceeds the number of hunters in each of the following sports: Rabbit, waterfowl, bear, turkey, moose, bobcat, coyote or fox, as well as bow hunting for deer. (In fact, the above endeavors draw low five-figure and four-digit numbers and a few a three-digit amount of participants.)

Grouse is my favorite food in all the world, a subtly flavored meat that captures everything beautiful and wild about New England’s uplands.

The memory of a simple, unadorned grouse dish cooked on a tailgate remains as clear in my mind now as if it occurred yesterday instead of in fall 1978, one of so many meals with this recipe.

It illustrates how hunting has a whole lot to do with eating scrumptious food — often gourmet fare.

In short, when hunters swing on a flushed grouse and drop it in a puff of feathers, they think of dinner before the bird thumps the ground. Their minds likely see the finished dish and conjure odors wafting through the house.

That stormy morning 33 years ago, I had driven from Augusta to a long tote road off Route 27 north of Eustis. The hauling road had partially grown in, eliminating road hunters, so this spot was a perfect place for an upland bird hunter with a staunch-pointing, orange-belton setter.

That morning, the weather couldn’t decide whether to rain or snow, so was doing both, leaving a thin, slushy, transparent covering — messy hunting.

By noon, though, I had shot two grouse over points and missed two others.

In early afternoon, snow began sticking to the pavement on Route 27, creating awful driving. I headed south to lower country along Route 16 and the South Branch of the Dead River, where rain fell instead of snow.

There, I plucked the grouse, both tender, first-year birds, singed off the hair, rinsed them thoroughly in the icy river water, cut the two into serving pieces and like a glutton, cooked them both then and there.

In those days, my capped pickup carried a cook box in the body, and that afternoon, I grabbed salt, pepper and poultry seasoning from it and took butter and a chilled bottle of French Chablis from a cooler.

I browned the grouse pieces in clarified butter, then covered them with flinty-dry Chablis and simmered the dish until done.

Dozens of times since, I’ve cooked grouse with this recipe and served it on China with crystal wine glasses, French Chablis and candlelight, but none matched the perfection of that solitary meal in the North Country.

As rain fell, I devoured one grouse and complemented it with French bread, Gruyere, ripe plums and a glass of wine. I saved the rest for supper.

Then, I did a rather odd thing. A copy of a Dana Lamb essay collection was in my truck, so I sat there for a couple hours, reading it for a book review. I love reading far away from telephones and people.

Another recipe works well for grouse, too:

Make a bread stuffing out of two tablespoons of butter, half a chopped, small onion, thinly sliced (diagonally) celery stalk, three slices of dry, crumbled bread, one beaten egg, one teaspoon poultry seasoning, half of a diced potato, salt, pepper and enough milk to moisten the mixture before stirring it all together. Let it stand 15 or more minutes.

Put the stuffing into a plucked, well-cleaned grouse, loosely cover it with aluminum foil and bake in a 300-degree oven until the leg joints feel wobbly loose. (The foil keeps the meat moist.)

Pop the bird under a broiler for five minutes or until well-browned and serve.

French Chablis (grouse screams for this world-famous wine), homemade rice pilaf, frenched string beans with slivered almonds, brandied carrots and French bread complement the dish.

Here’s a tidbit about grouse vs. say woodcock or wild duck:

When they’re raw, grouse breast muscles look pink, typical of birds that escape predators by flying short distances with a great burst of energy. This breast meat turns white when cooked and has a mild flavor.

Woodcock and waterfowl have blood-red breast muscles that produce stamina for long migration flights, and woodcock have white leg meat — a reverse bird. The breast meat cooks up dark and has a strong flavor.

In fact, I can barely tolerate woodcock and hate the taste of wild duck, but white-breasted birds such as ruffed grouse and bobwhite quail make a glutton out of me.

Eating is important to hunters. For instance, after graduating from college, I bought a chocolate Lab, 12-gauge over and under and duck decoys with intentions of becoming a serious duck hunter.

Ducks immediately struck me as inedible, though, so I bolted for the uplands with such a passion that it led to a published upland bird-hunting book a dozen years later.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He may be reached at:

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