To some, former Volunteer basketball coach Ian Morrison is now known as the Grouse Commander. Photo courtesy of Ian Morrison.
When he played high school basketball in Florida, St. Petersburg basketball fans called him “The Rifleman.”
The folks in an assisted living home up in northern Minnesota have another nickname for Ian Morrison.
“They call me the Grouse Commander because I keep them so well-supplied with grouse meat,” said the former Volunteer High School basketball coach.
“I’ve had incredible success up there. Up there you can shoot as many as you want, but you cannot have more than 10 in your possession. So those folks get to eat a lot of my grouse,” he said.
Morrison, who coached the Falcons for five years, played his college basketball at North Carolina under Dean Smith. The 68-year-old Morrison was National Player of the Year in 1963. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show with his five fellow Parade All-Americans — one of whom was Lew Alcindor, later to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
During his high school playing days, Morrison averaged 62 percent from the field and shot an astounding 93 percent from the free throw line. In high school, he drained a national record 57 consecutive free throws in game competition. In college at UNC, he made 536 straight in practice.
At this stage of his life, he is as passionate about wing shots as he was about foul shots back in the day.
“I shoot probably 55 percent on grouse. When I first started out, I was lucky to shoot 20 percent. But I’ve been doing it for 35 years,” Morrison said.
Practice makes perfect. In order to take a lot of shots at grouse (and you don’t get a shot at every one that flushes) many, many grouse need be pointed. The former Tar Heel knows when to give a teammate his due praise.
Buster, his 7-year-old French Brittany, may be one of the greatest grouse hunting dogs that ever drew breath. Of this, Morrison is convinced.
“I’ll tell you about my dog. Over the four previous seasons, he pointed over 200 grouse a year and had 85 a year killed over him consistently. I don’t think that could be said about any other dog in the country,” said Morrison, who has received many offers for Buster.
“There’s not enough gold in Fort Knox to buy that dog,” he said.
Morrison credits Henry Ledford — a cousin of late Kentucky Wildcats basketball broadcaster Cawood Ledford — with introducing him to ruffed grouse hunting in Eastern Kentucky.
Early in his hunting career, good shooting was to be had close to the Tri-Cities, he said. The grouse hunting in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia was much better 30 years ago than it is now, he said. But even then, this was marginal territory for the popular woodland game bird.
“This area has always been right on the southern fringe of grouse habitat. We’ve always had limited cover,” Morrison said. “But you could find places in Hawkins County, Hancock County and over in Scott County, Va., that had pretty good grouse hunting.”
Local grouse hunting certainly isn’t what it used to be. Morrison doesn’t so much blame habitat loss. There are still hollows and mountain benches that harbor grouse. They’re just hard to get to. Grouse struggle to survive and contend in the easier-to-reach areas due to predation and competition.
“We didn’t have all the raccoons and coyotes we have now. And turkeys are another variable. There are a heck of a lot more turkeys than grouse now. Back then, it was the opposite,” he said.
“The habitat is not exactly the same for grouse and turkeys, but there is some overlap. Turkeys are voracious eaters. Grouse are no match for them.”
Morrison’s first foray up north for ruffed grouse was to Wisconsin with pal Roy Smith, a fellow grouse hunter from LaFollete, Tenn. That was good territory, but with a little bit of mutual detective work they discovered that the grouse hunting in neighboring northern Minnesota was even better.
“They call Grand Rapids, Minn., the grouse capitol of the word. Grand Rapids is about 75 miles south of the areas we hunt,” Morrison said.
“They’ve got thousands and thousands of acres of public land — county land, state land and federal land — and much of it is heavily-managed for timber.”
He noted that there are many thousands of grouse up there who’ll never see a hunter. If a hunter doesn’t know exactly what habitat he’s looking for, he may not see many grouse.
“You don’t just go up there and walk down any trail. You have to know the habitat,” Morrison said.
“You’ve got to find acres and acres of aspen cuts of the right age, which is usually seven to 12 years,” Morrison said.
“Everything is after grouse — lynx, bobcats, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, owls ... but they have all that undercover that the bird can hop into a tree or into a popple-cut and have a chance of getting away from a predator.”