Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — It depends, I suppose, on your field of endeavor. Athletes can attain legendary status at a relatively young age. Hunters and anglers? Well, I generally look to see a little gray in the hair before conferring the honor.
But I could be wrong. Because when it comes to grouse hunting, the Heller brothers — Frederick and Ric, aka Fritz and Junior – are as good as any, even though neither is even approaching 40.
I’ve been hunting with the Traverse City pair for about a decade now and I can’t honestly remember a day — from the opener to well into December, during boom cycles and busts, in sun, rain or snow -- when we didn’t kill at least a few birds. Most recently, on a drizzly day just before deer season, the three of us killed six in just a couple of hours before heavy rains chased us from the woods.
There are a handful of reasons why the Heller bros outshine most other grouse hunters. They’ve got it all – knowledge, dedication and desire -- but what makes them stand out is that they do things differently than many.
Need a for instance? Well, in a world where there are two kinds of grouse dogs — English setters and the other kind — the Hellers are in the latter category. They hunt with Labs. In a game that seems perfectly designed for pointing dogs, the Hellers use retrievers.
The guys obviously spend a lot of time with their dogs (they are marvelously well trained) and that, they say, maximizes their opportunity. They can redirect their dogs with a simple whistle — one means turn, two means stop, three means return — so they’re never out of habitat.
“Our dogs are in the best cover all of the time,” Fritz said.
True. And Junior points out a couple other little advantages.
“When you’ve got a pointing dog working a hundred yards out and he goes on point and when you get there and flush a woodcock — that’s 10 minutes you weren’t actively hunting grouse,” he said.
“And with a pointing dog, once that dog goes on point and you step in front of it to flush that bird, that bird’s concentration is on avoiding you,” he continued. “When a flushing dog puts a bird up, that bird’s concentrating on getting away from the dog. That’s when they can make a mistake and give you a shot.”
Although the dogs are part and parcel of the package, Fritz is fond of saying the most important variable in the equation is the guy driving the truck. The Hellers have identified more than 200 different covers over a seven-county area and they approach their days the same way a bass fisherman does – find a pattern and duplicate it. If they find birds using a particular type of cover or feeding on a particular food item, they’ll spend the day in that habitat — even if the forest types are a long distance apart — until it fails to produce. Then they’ll adjust. And the Hellers notice small variations in habitat that most folks wouldn’t even see; it’s the kind of attention to detail that pays off with birds.
Their youth helps them in one department that I think many sportsmen overlook — stamina. There is a direct correlation between the amount of ground you cover and the number of birds you flush. These two cover ground at a pace that would put a lot of endurance athletes to shame. Fritz once told me they average three miles an hour in the woods. (Have you ever tried to average three miles an hour on a treadmill for hours at a time?) Don’t believe him? He’ll show you the GPS.
I know when they take me, they often put me outside of the thickest cover so I won’t slow them down (and I get through the woods a lot better than most guys my age). It’s a challenge to keep up with them just walking down a two track, let alone fighting the shin-tangle and tripping over deadfalls.
“There are really only a handful of guys who can keep up with us,” Fritz said. “I know that might sound like boasting, but it’s just the pace we hunt at it.”
Finally, there’s one other characteristic that sets them apart from a lot of grouse hunters: They hit what they shoot at it. The Hellers keep fairly detailed records of their hunts and Junior’s most recent log shows he’s killing about three out of four grouse he shoots at. In a game where one for three is probably average — and I know I’m quite happy to shoot 50 percent — that’s pretty stout.
I could go on, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll start spilling some secrets that the Hellers would rather not share. And I’ll not do that. Not everybody has the opportunity to go afield with legendary sportsmen. It’s a situation I hope to take advantage of again very soon.