A worn 1976 Georgia license plate reads “RUFF61,” as a reminder of the previous 1975 ruffed grouse season in the Georgia mountains. It had been his best season ever with 61 birds. Not only is he a seasoned veteran, he’s also a seasoned backwoods philosopher.
Seven decades of chasing the “big three” in Georgia has made Sam “Bird” Fite, of Douglasville, a passionate bird hunter. Sam’s big three—quail, turkeys and grouse, with grouse way out on top—have been his life’s obsession since his mid teens. Grouse became his reason for living. Now a spry 85, Sam can look back and reflect on a life well spent in the woods. I hesitate to call Sam an “old timer” because he’s so young at heart. But Father Time has a way of catching up with us all.
“Time was when I wanted to shoot every grouse out there,” Sam says. “Now I’m beginning to wonder why I ever wanted to kill one. I love those beautiful creatures.”
This happens with many veteran hunters. They so deeply grow to love the deer or turkeys, or in Sam’s case, the grouse, they’ve been chasing for decades that one day they no longer have the desire to kill. With Sam, there have been a few extenuating circumstances.
“I can’t walk anymore,” he says. “My legs are gone. I used to think I was on level ground whenever I climbed to the top of a mountain. Not anymore. My legs are shot.”
Stage 4 colon cancer didn’t help the situation either. For most men, it’s a death sentence. Despite the odds, Sam miraculously beat this terrifying and despicable cancer. He’s been cancer-free for more than 10 years now, but there have been some inconveniences. Being alive beats the alternative.
But the real reason he stopped hunting grouse in the Georgia mountains is simple and sad.
“They’re gone,” he says.
“Nowadays, you may go all day without seeing a single bird, and that’s using a good dog. If they were still there, I’d find a way to go after them. I’d drive my old truck to the edge of a cutover, and I’d find a bird or two. I can still shoot. I just can’t walk.”
That’s an understatement. He could probably shoot blindfolded.
It’s been a few years since Sam has been in a mountain grouse cutover with a shotgun in his hand and an eager-hearted dog leading the way. That may seem sad, but he’s not complaining. He loves to go back and drive around to some of his familiar old grouse haunts. The mountains are in his blood, and he can’t go for long without physically being surrounded by them. His memory is sharper than a turkey spur.
“I could take you to any number of cutover places I used to go in the Cohuttas or over around the Blue Ridge country and show you where this bird flushed or that bird went down. Even if I don’t have the desire to kill anything anymore, I love reminiscing about many of the hunts I’ve been on over the years with some mighty special dogs I’ve owned.”
And Sam has owned some exceptional bird dogs.
In his heyday, Sam was good; one of the best ever in the state for grouse. If a quail or grouse flushed, he seldom missed a shot, and he could read cover like a book. He always knew where to put his dog out when he saw the right spot. Sam was a natural with a shotgun. In 1974, he brought down 60 birds. The following year, he beat that record by one.
That’s why his ’76 license plate read, “RUFF61.” It was a constant reminder that he intended to break his record with 62 or more. Not that numbers really meant that much to him. But it was sort of a pinnacle of his career, and he almost did it. Only the hunting gods didn’t cooperate.
“We had a fresh snow the last weekend of the season,” he remembers. “Grouse won’t flush in a new snow.”
So his record remained at 61. Only one other mountain hunter that Sam ever encountered, the inveterate Arthur Truelove, ever killed more than 70 grouse in a single season, and Sam wanted badly to tie that record.
Sam’s love affair with grouse and grouse hunting is reflected in everything he does. His home is a virtual museum and an art gallery of bird hunting memorabilia, mostly grouse.
Every wall is covered with limited edition prints or paintings done by friends of grouse, turkeys and quail, or dogs.
Several mounted grouse and quail adorn the cabinets. Sam’s bedroom is a time capsule of his long hunting career. An impressive mountain gobbler—with a long beard and wings spread in the flying position—hangs over his bed on a wire like a guardian angel. He mounted the trophy bird himself.
When he wakes up in the morning, a life-size grouse greets him from the foot of the bed. In addition to more prints and photos in his bedroom, old shotgun shells and hunting gear, the room is filled with catchy hunting quotes like, “Hunting isn’t everything, but it sure beats whatever is second.”
“Two old men, two old guns on a long walk back through time.”
“I’ve spent most of my life hunting. The rest of it was wasted.”
Those quotes describe Sam to a “T.” Even his attention-getting mailbox reflects his obsession with bird hunting. It’s a large, round shotgun shell painted bright red that he made himself, with a cast-iron bird dog standing on top.
“If that doesn’t put you there nothing will,” Sam says with a grin.
“Sometimes when I get in or out of bed, the air from my covers makes the turkey swirl a little as if he’s flying. I’ve often said the first and last things I would like to see each day is the mountains. For now, I have to make-do with the turkey and grouse.”
Like many things we all face in life, Sam didn’t realize the mountains meant so much to him until after he’d moved away. Born and raised on the Tennessee line, he moved to Douglasville when he was 26 to find work. But he returned often to hunt in his beloved high country.
During his heyday of grouse hunting the Cohuttas in the ’70s and ’80s, one of his occasional and much cherished hunting buddies was John Roy Brackett, who grew up in the same area as Sam. Their lives parallel each other in many ways. Sam stills goes to visit 93-year-old John Roy once or twice a year. (See the Nov. 2016 issue of GON for John Roy’s full story.)
Today, Sam feels even more blessed to be able to drive to the mountains whenever possible and spend time along some beautiful mountain stream that “no human could possibly have made…
“Whenever the mountains come into view, I turn into a different person; mentally, spiritually and physically. One of my favorite saying is, ‘A real hunter can experience fatigue beyond words, see his best efforts go for nothing, and still leave the woods feeling he is a lucky man.’ I am truly blessed with so many hunting memories that took place in those wonderful mountains.”
Sam’s legs may not work like they used to on unlevel ground, but he wills them to at least carry him a short distance from the truck.
Born To Be a Hunter
A wise old lady of the mountains who lives near some of Sam’s favorite grouse haunts once told me, “Mountain folk are the most self-sufficient people in the world. Even in the worst of times, they can always go out and catch a fish or shoot a squirrel or a partridge.”
Partridge is age-old mountain dialect for grouse.
That statement pretty well sums up Sam’s early life. He grew up in northern Murray County on the Georgia/Tennessee line in the small community of Tennga (pronounced ten-gee) just off what is now Highway 411. He started hunting with his dad and older brother Bill at around 9.
“Bill was 12, and our dad only had one shotgun, a single-barrel 12 gauge. Bill got to hold the gun because he was the oldest. I would get so mad. We mostly hunted quail and rabbits. I got to carry the game home if we shot something.”
Back then, there were few, if any, deer, bear or turkeys in the area.
Both of the Fite boys were “born hunters.” (Today Bill is 95, and the two brothers see each other almost every day.) Sam came along during the height of the Depression in 1932. Times were tough. As soon as he was old enough to tote a shotgun on his own, he spent every waking daylight hour and much of the night in the woods. He had a lot of support from his parents because he put food on the table.
“I hunted in and around the Cohutta Mountains and fished in the Conasauga River. Some days I would hunt quail and dove from daybreak until dark. Some nights I would sit down and enjoy a good hot meal my mother had cooked from vegetables we’d grown in our garden and the game or fish I had supplied. After supper, I’d go right back out again in the dark to fish or frog gig in the crystal clear waters of the Conasauga until daybreak. We always had plenty of small game around.
“During the war years in the ’40s, you couldn’t buy shotgun shells unless you were a farmer and needed them for varmints or predators. Being a farmer, my Uncle Baxter was allotted a few boxes of shells each year. He would always give one to my daddy at Christmas.
I can still remember how good those shells smelled after being shot. Since we were always short of shells for hunting, we sometimes put a live 20 gauge shell into the paper hull portion of a used 16 gauge shell or a live 16 gauge shell into the used hull of a 12 gauge shell so we could shoot them in our shotgun. Sometimes they would shoot. Other times they would just roll out of the end of the barrel.
“One year during high school, a friend and I came up with a brilliant scheme to hunt during school. I would pretend to go to school, but instead I would meet a friend at a planned location with our dogs and guns and hunt until it was time for school to be out. Then I would hurry over to a bus stop located one stop away from my house. Some boys in the bus would be watching out for me and would open the back door of the bus so I could jump in. I’d get off at the next stop in front of my house to make it look as if I had been at school all day long.
“One afternoon I got off the bus, and the high school principal was sitting on the front porch with my mother waiting for me. Mother was a teacher herself, and my little scheme landed me in a lot of trouble. It really messed up my hunting for a while.”
During those golden days of youth, Sam would start squirrel hunting in mid August. He continued hunting small game through the month of February. Possum and coon hunting took up many hours at night.
“My first shotgun was a single-shot 12 gauge that my grandfather gave me. The first thing I remember killing with it was two doves with one shot. I ran all the way back to the house to tell daddy.”
“We didn’t own a bird dog back then. We mostly relied on walking them up. The only bird dog in the neighborhood was a ‘community’ dog. Whenever anyone wanted to bird hunt, you could just round him up and hunt with him for the day. My dad, brother and I would sometimes borrow the dog to hunt with if he was not already loaned out. Since we only owned one gun between us, we also had to borrow an extra gun if more than one planned to do any shooting.
“My first car was bought solely with bird hunting in mind. I shared it with one of my friends. We each owned half. My friend lived on the Tennessee side of the state line, and I lived on the Georgia side. He would purchase a Tennessee tag for the car, and I would purchase a Georgia tag. That way, we could each buy a hunting license in both states. If there was a way to get around something in order to enhance our hunting, we’d figure a way to make it happen.
“My best dogs were named Rip, Jake and Junior. One morning as I was leaving to go to work, I ran over Junior. He’d gotten out of the dog pen without me knowing it and was waiting under the truck because he thought we were going hunting. It was still dark outside, and I didn’t see him. To kill your own dog is the worst feeling a hunter could ever have. My other two dogs, Rip and Jake, are buried in the backyard beside the dog lot. We shared many happy hours together in the mountains.”
Sam never married, but he does have a special friend named Kathy whom he’s known and shared his life with for many years. Kathy’s daughter Wendie has a son named Colby.
“I consider him my grandson in every way. We four count each other as being family in every way. I love and enjoy Colby very much; more than words can say. To both of us, I am his ‘Papa.’ It’s been a great joy to be able to teach him about gun safety and enjoyment that hunting brings. It’s been so rewarding to see him ‘grow’ in his knowledge of the outdoors, and watch him grow up to be a fine young man. Colby likes to say, ‘My Papa and I will be best friends forever.’ He’s right! We have a special bond that I’ll always treasure.
“I don’t remember ever hearing of—or seeing a grouse—until one flushed in front of me one day many years ago. That bird flew into my heart, mind and soul. An old grouse hunter once told me, ‘If in your lifetime you have one good grouse dog, one true friend and one good woman, you should count yourself a lucky man.’ He also said that to be a true grouse hunter, you had to be a little touched in the head.
“During all my many years of grouse hunting, I’ve received so much enjoyment and pleasure simply being able to spend a day here or there in our Lord’s beautiful mountains. To be able to get my limit of quail or grouse was always an added blessing. That old grouse hunter was right. I truly am a lucky man!”