Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Old Girl

Chara sleeps at my feet, the old dog’s body twitching in a dream. The Lord knows she has plenty to dream. Her life has been a full one.
We learned to hunt grouse together, each of us in our own way. I supplied quail and pigeons and made certain to spend plenty of time in the field, but it was hours in the grouse woods that made her a great grouse dog. There is no way I could have taught her to track and point, then relocate as the grouse tried to sneak off.
She learned where the birds were, then searched the cover they preferred and the places they hid. Weather never fazed her, except when it turned hot, but I never liked hot weather either. Often I’d call it quits on a cold rainy day long before she wanted to go home.
Those snotty setter snobs might cringe watching the way Chara followed foot scent, but I learned a long time ago to be patient. Just as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police used to always get their man, she always found her bird. Bumped birds were rare because somehow she sensed the bird’s temperament and skittish birds she would sometimes point from sixty or even a hundred feet away.
A friend and I were following Chara through some softwoods in a valley that shall remain anonymous. Climbing up on an almost shoulder-high boulder, she pointed upward. The conversation went something like, “Do you suppose there is a bird up there?” with both my friend and I craning our necks to see up into the limbs of a fir tree. We kicked the tree’s trunk, yelled and hollered, and sure enough a grouse flew away, unscathed of course. Chara went right back to hunting with a very smug look on her face.
Chara learned to love duck hunting.
She’s retrieved geese and more than a few ducks. Her love of water seems unfazed by temperature. Often she’s broken ice to lay in the water for no reason other than to get wet. Hunting the alder bottoms for grouse and woodcock during duck season I often loaded with steel shot, knowing Chara would readily retrieve any ducks I lucked into.
Her first real duck hunting excursion confused her. Why were we sitting and waiting with those carved wooden ducks out on the water? She fidgeted and fused, not at all happy. Shortly after first light a pair of mallards flew in like rockets and one fell to the gun. I looked down to say “Fetch”, but my girl was already in the water to retrieve that dead duck. After that one retrieve she sat still as a statue and waited patiently, her eyes ever searching the morning sky.
Dapper at five months.
My mind’s eye can still see her as a puppy pointing what turned out to be a pair of quail in a wildlife management area. It was her first hunt and at only five months of age. One of the quail fell to the gun and Chara instantly pounced on it. What a way to start. Steady to wing and shot would come later and then fade as she got older stubborn.

Last fall she hunted her fourteenth season. A week of gunning had been planned with multiple dogs, but when her turn came up it was just the two of us on a short hunt. Her hind legs are not strong anymore, but those easy hunts gave her the opportunity to point a couple of grouse.
Chara trailing a grouse.
Her last was a wanderer, which she trailed through a raspberry patch, across an alder flat, and up a slope through young maples. She locked up solid at the base of a knoll and I scurried ahead with leaves scrunching under my feet, only to have the bird thunder off as I crested the rise. I’ve replayed that hunt over and over in my head, and I think she has too.

Pointing a grouse in her 14th fall.
We are getting close to bird season again and physically she is exactly the same as last fall, so I’ll plan a few more of those short easy hunts in some of the best cover. I owe her a fifteenth season.

Chara at her finest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Walk in the Woods

Ruffed grouse hunters are a peculiar lot and walk with an unusual gait.  This extraordinary stride carries them over irregular ground, past nasty thickets of twisted tangles, and transports them for hours on end across countless miles without hardly a stumble.
It takes years of practice, and possibly no one really masters it unless they start to develop the skill as a child.  The pace is rather rolling and loose, fluid, almost floating through the forest rather than pushing into it.  Grouse and woodcock cover is often thick and tangled, not to be traveled without due deliberation, so this skill is worth developing if at all possible.
Where's our truck?
As one walks their eyes should constantly scan ahead for the easiest course through the forest maze, but it must be done at an almost subconscious level or it would sidetrack the hunting experience.  Zigzagging around obstacles requires far less energy than wading through even the smallest thicket, and bending to walk like a crab under low limbs tires back muscles and thighs as well as creating a stance from which it is impossible to shoot. 
Of course, until it is truly subconscious, this struggle for surrounding-awareness is distracting, particularly if you are trying to keep track of your dog, the hunting partner that you started the day with, and where on the earth you actually are.  Keep practicing until you can do it at an intuitive level while doing other things, like trying to figure out why the batteries in your GPS didn’t last as long as you thought they should.
This brings up topography management, or, in layman’s terms, keeping track of where your feet are landing.  Again, it should all be with the same subliminal level of thought that you pick a path through the trees with.  Using your lower peripheral vision, watch for obstacles such as fallen limbs, mud holes, and interwoven weeds.  When you step in a hole and mud goes up to your knee, you will know there is still work to be done.
Stride control is another critical skill, particularly if one wants to avoid flopping down on your face regularly.  A foot should never be lifted off the ground until the other is firmly planted, and when it is lifted it should be brought well up so as not to catch on low branches, interwoven grasses, or twisted vines.  Each leg should be straightened for an instant as it carries the torso forward, which gives it a momentary chance to rest, albeit a short one, and as each foot rocks forward the hunter should ride it up onto the ball of the foot to stretch the step as far as possible.  A hurried pace will frequently land you horizontal and embarrassed, while a slower steady pace will carry a hunter upright for hours.
Where are we?
Falling is an art in itself.  Every grouse hunter trips or steps in a hole occasionally, and, unless it is a frequent occurrence, it should not be cause for concern.  Landing is the part to fret about.  At all cost, one’s gun should be held upward and off the ground.  Never use the gun’s stock to break the fall, which could have disastrous results directly proportional to the beauty and value of the walnut in the stock.  If the muzzle comes anywhere near the ground be sure to check for blockage, as ruptured barrels destroy a gun’s value, as well as fingers, and possibly eyes. 
An experienced faller drops loosely to the ground and sort of rolls to one side on landing, while all the time holding his shotgun upward.  Cussing is allowed.  Fortunately our dogs never report our clumsiness or even seem to notice it.  Remember, a broken arm will mend, but a broken stock never will.
Stamina comes easily for twenty year old athletes, but older hunters require a routine of regular walking to prepare for the fall season.  We are fortunate to live where there are areas of ample waist-high brush that one can push through to strengthen legs.  If a hunter is unable to locate similar terrain near his home there are alternatives.  A favorite is to fill two burlap bags each with about twenty pounds of sand and then tie a six foot length of rope to each.  Next, tie the free end of each rope around an ankle.  Walk around the backyard while dragging the bags of sand and soon the leg muscles will be firmed up and ready for the fall, and as a bonus the cardio vascular system will also be brought up to speed. 
If neighbors cannot see you exercising, carry your heaviest target gun with you to gain upper body strength, but if you live in a suburban area and are visible to strangers it is best to carry small dumbbells in your hands to avoid a visit by the local SWAT team.
To test your newly developed woods walking skills take your dog to favorite cover and let him loose.  Put on a broad brimmed hat and start to follow, just as you would on a typical bird hunt.  At the start of this trek though look at your watch, and then keep count of how many times your hat is knocked off as you follow the dog.  When you’ve had all that you can stand, and are hopefully are back at your vehicle, look at your watch again to see how many minutes you’ve been in the woods.  Then divide that number into how often you had to pick up your hat.  For every fall you took where a knee actually hit the ground subtract fifteen, and if you flopped out flat subtract twenty, unless you refrained from cursing, then only subtract nineteen.  If you stepped in a mud hole that went over your boot-top, subtract twenty-seven, but if you never lost track of your dog during the entire walk add thirty two.  If at any time a stick poked you in an eye so that the eye actually watered, take away another forty-one, but if you wore shooting glassed and they were only knocked off ad five.  The resulting number is your wood walking quotient. 
Any number below twenty-three means there is still work to be done.      
Finally easy walking.

             This piece of wisdom first appeared in RGS magazine. Please support that wonderful organization.  http://www.ruffedgrousesociety.org/