Thursday, January 1, 2015

That Last Grouse

The other dogs stayed in the truck, much to their dismay. Chara, celebrating her fourteenth bird season, traipsed eagerly into the woods ahead of me.
It was her day, and her hunt. We’d been up in that country for almost two weeks and Chara had hunted several days, but usually only for an hour or less each time. Often I had one of the younger dogs with her to cover bigger country while she hunted closer to the road.
New country for us.
With her in the lead I certainly didn’t have to walk fast. It was a new piece for me, not big at all, and I’d driven by it for years, never giving it any mind. Young hardwoods mixed with scattered softwoods and small grassy openings mixed in. We followed an old grown-in logging road up a slope. The maples made it look very New Englandy.
Chara sorted out the scents, taking her time. The road wound up to the right until it reached a low ridge. Her hind end is weak, which is always a worry, and looked wobbly, so I turned us back down the hill through open hardwoods and towards the truck.
She looked determined, sniffing and snorting, not missing a thing, hunting to the left then working back to the right.
Chara started to get birdy, almost plowing the fallen leaves with her nose. As so many hundreds of times before, with her tail just a blur, she sifted through the scent, zeroing in on the bird. That grouse didn’t have a chance.
Down a slope she went, sometimes backtracking, but then always moving ahead. Her breath came in gulps and grunts, with head swinging side to side. The setter people might cringe at the way her nose inhaled foot scent from between the dropped leaves, but I was mighty proud of her.
Crawling under a fallen spruce, she froze.
As I walked around the backside, she became animated again, backtracking three or four feet, then marching ahead again. That grouse was doomed.
She zigged, then zagged, went back, then made a half circle before trotting on. Into a thicket of dogwood she trailed.
Chara pointing her last grouse of the past season.
Chara became a statue.
On the far side was a tiny knoll where a few hardwoods stood. I marched around the red-twigged brush and looked back, Chara hadn’t moved, but there were no grouse beneath those maples. It must have walked over the little hump’s crest.
And that never works out well for me.
I took pictures of Chara on point, then started around the side of the mound, hoping to ambush the grouse, but the thunder of wings told me he was gone.
Coaxing Chara on, we headed back toward the truck to rest those weary legs.
Chara is still with me, right now sleeping in my office with her legs twitching in a dream. Maybe she’s dreaming of that last grouse.
And, with luck, she might hunt a bit again next fall, but I’m afraid the odds are long. Yet with fourteen seasons behind her, she has had a glorious life. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

December Frosting

Colby, wondering why I can't keep up.
The six inches of snow began to look more like eight. It hadn’t slowed the dogs, but with every step down the abandoned logging road I reminded myself how much more work it would be on the way back up. The forest looked like a fairy land, with snow stuck to the trees and still coming down. A half mile down the hill lay the covert that always has birds.
Where the thick softwoods opened up, near a trickle of a stream, a grouse exploded off to the left, unseen. Juno’s bell rang nearby, and obviously the young shorthair had bumped the bird. Yet the thunder of wings was still music to this hunter’s ears. Colby hunted doggedly off to the right.
A frosted alder swamp.
The first weekend in December can bring anything to the north woods, from bare ground to abundant snow. I had driven north under the premise of checking on the contractor doing work at Camp Grouse, but of course brought a shotgun and my girls.
Where the road dipped into a hollow and crossed a stream the dogs’ bells jingled off of either side. I stopped to listen. My two girls couldn’t have been happier, dashing back to check on me and then diving off into the woods again, and neither could I.
A short way further on a grouse exploded from a thicket only ten feet away, leaving but a glimpse.
Snow silenced bell.
The snow continued to fall, drowning most sounds and muffling the dog’s bells. Down the road a piece, Colby stopped beneath a fir tree and looked up. Approaching, a grouse sailed away down a steep slope into the safety of a dense softwood swamp.
Where the road met an alder thicket the dogs both got birdy, but none were found. Colby kept glancing up into the fir trees, but the pup still hadn’t figured out that grouse sometimes sit among the branches.
Red twig dogwood among the alders.
In the alder patch a moose had been feeding on red twig dogwood and, looking at the tracks in the snow, it had been there only minutes before our arrival. The creature’s scent must have lingered, because both dogs looked about apprehensively.
By then my legs felt like lead and the falling snow had turned to sleet. The dogs hadn’t slowed, but the deep snow had to have been work for them too. We turned around and started back.
It is nice to know those birds will be there in the spring to breed.

Colby hunting the edges.

With tired legs, almost out of the woods.

Tired girls in front of the heater, back at Camp Grouse