Saturday, December 31, 2011

Closing up Grouse Camp

     Everything ends, whether it is spring, summer or fall, day or night, and the hunting season is no exception.  The leaves have long dropped and the trees are all silvery sentinels, waiting for the snow to pile up deep around their bases.  Most of the song birds disappeared over a month ago and the geese no longer honk up high in the sky.
     My bird hunting companions have all gone back to the flat country, only my two dogs and I remain.  The last day or two is usually spent in the woods alone with them, often with the intention of looking for new cover to hunt the coming year.  With the barren trees it is easier to see distant ridges and hillsides than it has been any other time of the year, so I drive almost empty logging roads, stopping occasionally to poke around with my girls someplace that I’ve never been before.  Somehow it just feels right. 
      On what I know will be the very last hunt of the year I seek out an old favorite covert though.  A couple of years it’s been over on South Hill, with the snowmobile trail, abandoned orchard, and alder thicket.  Once it was the alder patch on the other side of the stream from our camp, but it felt so empty, with the woodcock long gone and all of the grouse missing, that I’ve never hunted there as a last hunt again.  And one year I hiked up North Hill, mostly for the views of rolling hills that seemingly stretch out forever, but found the abandoned orchards empty, as I thought I might. 
     Most often the last hunt is up the hill from our camp, through mixed age forest and along old grown-in skid roads, up steep country to a boxed-in basin where weeds and grass keep the forest at bay, creating a natural opening about the size of a suburban house lot.  There always used to be a half dozen grouse on that hunt, but the forest is maturing and the number now is more likely to be half that.  It’s the memories that keep me going back though, and on that last hunt of the year that is what I seek.
     The bird seasons always seem too short, and the years so few, but there are certain places memories accumulate, like snow or leaves do in the corner by the bulkhead.  One August, when we thought we’d lost our crazy Vizsla, we found her pointing a whole covey of grouse up on a rocky knoll way up that hill.  In a dozen places I can still see my oldest wirehair pointing grouse, often finding birds in almost the exact same location year after year, like one particular cluster of red twig dogwood that almost always produces.  Oh, there have been bumped birds and lots of missed shots, but if any of this were easy we’d soon get bored with it.  So I now laugh at the follies and rejoice at the triumphs, relishing both with almost equal joy. 
     I remember my youngest wirehair standing next to her elder, together pointing the first grouse of that bird hunting season, which was also the youngest one’s first point on a ruffed grouse ever.  Remembering their contentious retrieve, with each of them bringing me back a wing while the breast of the bird stayed where it fell, still makes me chuckle.  Fortunately, since then they haven’t been as argumentative.
     And somewhere along that last hunt of the season their bells will stop and I’ll walk up a partridge, and maybe we’ll get to bring it home, or maybe not.  It doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to.  Hopefully it will be another memory that sticks though.
     We’ll be back at the house when the shadows are gone.  Whatever is left in the refrigerator will make dinner; it has to be empty and off when we leave.  The dogs will be fed, probably getting some bonuses out of the collected leftovers in the fridge, and my gun will get a good cleaning, and then I’ll whittle away at the chores, things like sheets cleaned, clothes collected, and my desk packed up.  And when I’ve done all I can do until morning, I’ll curl up in my favorite chair and savor a single malt along with a favorite book, until I just can’t stay awake any longer.
     In the morning the heat is shut off and the water drained from the pipes.  The dogs always know what is happening and stay near the stacked gear or the door, their heads down and resting on their paws.  As I shuffle about closing the house up, I sometimes talk to them just because it makes me feel better.  The older dog will look reserved, accepting our departure as I do, but the younger will watch in disbelief, as if to say, “Why can’t we stay here and hunt forever?”
     Spring will come soon enough and we’ll be back to chase trout and listen to the grouse drumming in the woods.  The way time passes, with ever increasing speed, bird season will return before we know it and we’ll again hunt.  I have to wonder though how many more seasons my oldest dog will hunt, with her accumulated wisdom and white muzzle.  And my years can’t go on forever either.   
     When the truck is packed, my girls will anxiously jump onto the back.  I know they’ll soon be asleep and in dreams of hunts for the long trip home.  I envy them that.          

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas


     There’s never been a Christmas hunt for me.  Somehow it just seems wrong to kill on Christmas day, and even the wild things deserve a day of rest.  I know that hawks still harass the grouse on this day, or that snow or freezing weather can make life miserable for my favorite birds, but none of that is my doing.  Instead, I’ll spend the day inside with loved ones and the dogs, all of us warm and snug.
     Hopefully under the tree there’s a book or two about dogs or bird hunting for me to read during the winter months, maybe even a new knife or other toy.  Later we’ll eat too much and walk the dogs in the fields out back.  It’s a great time to remember just how lucky we all are.
     Merry Christmas to all.     

Two of our sleeping dogs with their visiting cousins, all sharing the heater.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Oooops!

     About four years ago, my German wirehaired pointer Chara and I left our New Hampshire house walking northwest, more or less parallel with the brook that runs along the bottom of the valley. I knew it would be the last hunt of the season and we had the whole day, so there was no hurry.
     I’d traipsed this same course the year before, so I picked our way carefully.  To the right the land climbs steeply, in places sheer ledge that is almost impossible to go up or down.  A stream the width of a single lane road hurries down the valley to the left, impossible to wade across except in the driest of seasons.  Much of the flat area along the banks is covered with alders and softwood trees, but in a few places the hill comes straight down as ledge to the water’s edge.
     Not far from the house, beneath tall spruce and fir trees, a partridge flushed wild ahead of us.  Chara was younger then and full of enthusiasm, so it may have been her fault, sometimes it is hard to tell. 


     It is excellent bird country there, a plateau covered with softwood trees as big around as my waist, but with openings in the forest that are filled with weeds and leaning alders.  Where the hill rises it does abruptly, hemming one in between it and the stream.  We poked along, crossed an old abandoned beaver dam and then followed a narrow shelf between the water and the hill.
     That shelf ends where ledge plummets into the rushing little river, but a person can carefully climb up a bit and go along the top of the granite face, which we did.  On the other side, the land becomes less steep and is covered with hardwoods, mostly maple and birch, which go down to the stream and uphill to where it’s desperately steep again.  A major game trail crosses there and climbs the hill, the first place that animals have been able to go up the hill at all for almost half a mile.
     Ahead the water takes a turn to the southwest to detour around a large bony knob in front of us, which is covered with spruce that reach for the sky, and one giant white pine that towers to the heavens.  In several places the mound is faced with sheer granite, the largest expanse bending the stream.  We detour inland up into a tight little valley that is blanketed with knee-high ferns that remain boldly green.  It felt like elves should live there somewhere.
     The going was rough, with ground made of barrel-sized boulders covered with slippery moss and all hidden beneath the ferns.  I chose a route up on the hillside some, where the ground was mostly fallen leaves below large hardwood trees.  Chara stayed the course though, hunting the tiny valley’s bottom.
     My mind wandered, taking in the surroundings, and then I noticed Chara was acting birdy as all hell.  I tied to catch up to her, but as I worked downhill the footing became rougher and hurrying proved impossible.  About thirty yards ahead of the dog a grouse flushed from the ferns.
     The valley petered out into a large hollow that ran ninety degrees to our course.  It looked like every other tree there had fallen down, dropped like pick-up-sticks and every which way.  Most were softwoods or poplar, and picking a path through the chaos took time.
     On the far side of that mess, softwood trees grow downhill to the stream and open hardwoods cover the land up the hill to well beyond where one can see.  I chose a course slightly up the slope and through the hardwoods, hoping to find an ancient beaver pond that I’d visited once before.  The softwood/hardwood edge had provided plenty of birds on my previous visit to that country, and at that point I planned to save it for the hunt home.
     After the softwoods of earlier the hardwood stand felt wide open.  I could see a hundred yards or more in every direction, but it sure didn’t look like bird country.  And it wasn’t.  Eventually, a wall of green foliage that ran up and down the hill intercepted our course.
     We entered the softwoods and immediately crossed game trails.  Young birch and poplar mixed in with the conifers.  A moose rub shined on a maple trunk. 
     Chara started to get birdy, sorting out scent, but we never found one. 
     Walking diagonally across the grade, we gradually climbed into woods thick with young poplar, birch, and maple, all no bigger than my forearm.  An old logging road, edged with young softwood trees, slanted across our path and we followed it upward into almost flat country that looked familiar.
     Clusters of fir trees, about the height of a bread truck and not much bigger around, grow where the young hardwoods meet the edge of the old beaver pond.  The pond is more meadow than pond, all silted in and much of it covered with blown down cedar trees, creating an opening in the forest about the size of a football field.  In the center a small puddle remains, not much larger than a residential swimming pool.  Chara started to get birdy again next to one of those clumps of young fir trees, so I watched and waited, gun held at arms.
     A partridge exploded out of a fir next to my right ear.  I barely saw it.  Then a second one burst unseen out the far side of another tree.
Chara still worked the ground, sorting things out, her bell frantically ringing, and I waited.  Where the softwood trees thinned out into hardwoods she locked up like a statue. 
     I started toward her, and then a third bird took off, barely seen and about twenty yards ahead next to a blown down fir tree.
     The far side of the meadow is thick with softwood trees, and I thought about exploring over there and then down to the stream, or maybe hunt right back down the hill to the stream from the closer side of the opening, either of which would have led me to the softwood edge along the stream to follow it toward home.  I suffer from a malady though called “I-wonder-what’s-around-the-next-corner-ism” and, standing there, it pulled me in many directions. 
     It is a disorder that’s sometimes even stronger than my hunting addiction.  Finally, I decided to see how far I was from the top of the hill, which probably was the direction of the least amount of partridge.  But you never know….
     Upward we went, past maples and birch and even some beech trees with their bark like  elephant skin.  It seemed like forever, but I don’t really know how long the trek was.  There weren’t any birds, but I didn’t expect any unless we found different cover.
     About the time my legs really started to ache and it felt like my heart would pound itself to pieces, we came to an opening, either a small abandoned field or grassed over logging yard.  On the far side an old woods road disappeared southward, into the trees and upward.  Following, things started to look familiar.
     Pin cherry, mountain maple, white birch, and red maple, all not much bigger around than my wrist, covered the ground.  I thought I might have been on that road once before, coming in from the other direction and when snow bent most of the trees to the ground.
     Sure enough, the road crossed over a shoulder of the hill and started down into a bowl that I had hunted before.  My watch told me it was getting late, so I decided to hunt that basin and then work back down the hill toward home. 


     It’s a boxed in flat spot, surrounded by shoulders of the hill on three sides, up quite high and mostly wet underfoot.  There’s a large opening, filled with tall grass, weeds, and shrubs, all bordered by big spruce and fir trees.  Three long abandoned logging roads converge there, and maybe it was an old logging yard at one time.   The only manmade structure is a lone wooden post that stands in the middle of the opening, tilting to one side.  Every time I visit that spot we find partridge, but I’ve only killed two there over the years.  Usually the birds dash across the opening and disappear among the green boughs faster than my reflexes let me shoot.
     We worked the opening counter clockwise, as I always do.  Usually Chara searches the edges through the weeds and bushes, and I follow just back and further out in the woods a bit.  In the same exact place that it had happened before on two different occasions, Chara went on point just outside thicket of red twig dogwood.  I approached over a hardwood-covered knoll toward Chara’s silent bell.  As if in replay, two birds burst across the clearing and disappeared into the waiting limbs of spruce and fir trees, exactly like on the previous visits.  My gun rose to my shoulder, but I never touched the triggers.
     Chara started to hunt again, and I followed, continuing up the tote road that goes east.  At the height of the land I turned us around to start homeward.  We didn’t go twenty feet when a lone partridge burst up and away from the backside of an old maple tree, just behind my left shoulder and not fifteen feet away.  The bird was smart enough to fly low and remain behind the tree all the way, and I barely caught a glimpse of the bird before it disappeared over the crest of the basin.
     We hunted hard on the way down the hill, wanting to stretch the day, and thoroughly worked each of the spots likely to hold birds, but never found another.  Some days are like that.  My legs grew wobbly and my feet hurt by the time the roof of our house came into view.  Chara still hunted diligently, never giving up until we reached the edge of our field.  It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d found partridge or woodcock right there, but I’ve never even tried to shoot one so close to home.
     Stepping out into the grass, I opened my gun to see two empty chambers.
     I had walked for almost four hours over miserable country, hunting hard, seeing eight partridge flush, and all with a gun that I forgot to load. 
     I never told Chara.                 
  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

First Snow

     The fist snow usually isn’t a hard or driving snow, more likely drifting flakes that accumulate slowly, or maybe even melt as they touch the ground.  Sometimes it is silent, the soft flakes absorbing all other sound in the woods, but more often the flakes are harder and bounce of still clinging leaves, creating the sound of trillions of tiny bells.
     Clothing is adjusted to keep the flakes off of one’s neck, maybe gloves come out if they aren’t already on.  The dogs hunt just they did as before the snow started and I often wonder if they even notice it.  But later, when the hunting is done for the year and the snow is deep, they will prance and play in the stuff, caught up in wonder just as we are.
     Sometimes the partridge disappear with the arrival of the first snow, yet other times they seem to sense an urgency and come out looking for that last good meal before winter covers everything over.  Can they guess the amount about to fall?  I often think so. 
     Lingering woodcock will wander to the bare ground under a nearby softwood tree, or maybe the soft wet ground along a stream that melts the freshly fallen snow.  Even the dogs know this and look for them there in accumulating new snow.
     Yet the snow reminds us that winter is coming and soon our hunting will be done for the year.  Later, when the snow gets too deep for the dogs to work, the guns will get a final cleaning and be tucked away in their safe.  In the meantime, we must collect memories to savor through the dark winter nights. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Back to The Valley


     The drive in is about nine miles over a small mountain, and the after crossing the river it is either left further into the wilderness, or to the right and another nine or ten miles back out to the a different paved road.  We went left.
     About another six miles up the road I parked in the same place that I did back the end of October.  The woods looked more open, with the weeds squashed down by snow that had come and gone.  Every tree was stark naked, not a leaf remained anywhere except on the ground.
     Alders, twice as tall as I, cover an old logging yard there.  Behind them the land climbs gradually upward with lofty hardwoods growing among old spruce and fir.  Across the road young fir trees huddle together like cliques in a school yard, each separated by open expanses of bent or flattened weeds and grass.  Scattered maples and poplar sprouts remained upright, obviously unfazed by the earlier snow.
     Chara pranced a few steps from the truck and locked up on point, staring into the alders.  Hurrying shells into my gun, I slid by her and a partridge disappeared into the limbs of fir trees.
     We hunted behind the alders, more or less parallel with the road, and then crossed to the lower side, drifting between the clusters of fir trees.  About the sixth clump Chara’s hind end went into over-drive and then she froze, pointing into a tangle of green needles and gray trunks.   In the shadows I saw a boulder poking out of the earth, and as I committed to walk around the left side of the trees the partridge burst out of the right, a sound unseen.
     The scenario was played out again, and then again.  Two hunters might have shot some birds.
     Chara pointed into another cluster of firs, older ones this time, and I approached silently across bright green moss.  A partridge that looked the size of a turkey exploded almost at my feet.  Reflexes brought my gun to my shouleder, but as I slapped the trigger the bird ducked around a yellow birch trunk, which collected most of the shot.  I swear Chara struggled to control a laugh.
     A ways further a bird flushed wild from a thicket of raspberries, and another was pointed on the way back to the truck, but both escaped unscathed.
     Unloading my gun and putting it into the truck, I congratulated myself on the valiant conservation effort and the breeding stock that I have left behind.  Chara looked quite proud of herself, as she should with about a half dozen successful points. 
     Another spot further up the road deserved the same treatment.  There the thick new growth of a fifteen year old clearcut covered the hillside above the road.  Chara plunged in and I followed as best I could along wet and lumpy skid trails.  We didn’t find any birds and, if we had, I doubt shooting would have been possible in that thicket.  Eventually our course brought us back out to the logging road about a half mile from the truck. 
     We dropped to the lower side and worked back between the road and a roaring mountain stream.  Nearing the truck Chara’s hind end went into overdrive and, with her nose scouring the ground, she obviously followed a traveling grouse.  The trail went through thick grass, under clusters of young fir, beneath a blown down dead fir tree, directly over the top of a moss-covered boulder, across a log, back into a stand of little fir trees, and then into some raspberries that had claws like a bobcat.

     About fifty feet ahead of us, at the edge of the logging road, old Mr. Partridge decided he had enough and burst up and over the road, to never be seen again.
It was time to call it a day.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back from the Big Woods

     What a trip!  Warm weather had erased all the snow, but a new dusting covered the ground when we woke our first morning.  Up higher, where we hunted the first day, an honest inch sat on the ground.
     My older wirehair, Chara, and I hunted the same cover that held grouse last fall and came up empty.  Dropping down through the cuttings we picked up the edge of the softwood that ran along the river and followed it back toward the truck.  Sure enough, we found lots of our partridge, but the ground was steep, the woods thick, and the walking tough. 
     We found small plateau stuck out in the river, covered with spruce, birch, and fir.  On the side against the hill an old beaver pond hid in the shadows.  I started taking pictures, and then realized I couldn’t hear Chara’s bell, and she was only thirty yards away a few seconds before.

 
     I jammed the camera in my pocket, spoke her name, and two partridge burst from the edge of the pond just below my perch.  One flew straight away and I knocked it down with my second shot.  With dismay I watched it bounce on the ice and then sliiiiide…and for a moment I hoped it would slide to the shore, but no.
     In a panic I called Chara, not wanting her to run out onto the ice.  Seldom do I regret having let her “unlearn” the steady to wing and shot routine, but that was one of those moments.  Fortunately she never saw the two birds, which took off twenty yards from where she pointed, and she immediately started to hunt again.
     I called her to heel, then brought her to the edge of the pond and had her stay while I searched for a stick long enough to hook the partridge and slide it ashore.  It was about eight feet out and the ice was only about a half inch thick, and, like most beaver ponds, there was no bottom to the mud I am sure.
     My retrieve was successful.


 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

One More Weekend

      Tomorrow afternoon I head back up to Grouse Camp for one last weekend.  It’s a bonus weekend, something that only happens once in a while, certainly not every year.  There hasn’t been much snow and the temperatures have been mild, so I’m optimistic.  Some years there is just too much snow for dogs to work.


     So where will the grouse be hiding?  Much of that depends on the amount of snow and what the weather deals.  Time will tell.  I’ll be alone with my older wirehair, just the two of us, like we used to hunt most of the time.  She’ll revel in her task.  I plan to take loads of pictures to remember the weekend all through the winter, spring, and summer.
     I’m sure we’ll poke around the softwoods down where the stream runs below the house.  There’s shelter and abundant food for the grouse there.  That logged over lot just over the town line had tons of birds in late October, so I’ll have to see if there’s still a few hanging around.  And late one day we’ll have to check the clearcut by the apple trees and old field, that place from where a guy can walk for thirty miles to the east before he runs into another paved road.  I just like the thought of that. 
     The one thing that I am sure of is that time is going to pass way too fast. 




I Like Old Things, But…

     Deer season opened here, not something to get particularly excited about, but I do get out for a bit.  I dug my bright orange coat out, knowing that all the paraphernalia that I like to take with me would still be in the pockets from the last time I wore it, almost a year ago now.  Just to make sure everything was as it should be, I dumped out the pockets to double check.
     There’s the short rope, a ZipLoc bag with paper towel in it, a length of string, a plastic case that hold shells so they won’t rattle, and a compass that has guided me to lots of wild places. 
     But the compass’s needle wouldn’t move.  That’s the second old compass that I’ve dug out this fall with the needle stuck.  Both of the compasses are about the same vintage, bought back around 1970, and made by one of the big-name companies.


     I doubt it’s planned obsolescence on the manufacturers part.  The guy running the company when those two compasses were made is probably dead by now.
      So I guess I better check more of my favorite old stuff to make sure it is still working as it should.   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Wandering Walter Woodcock

     The young woodcock, Walter, looked around and tried to catch his breath.  Everything looked just as he hoped and dinner should be easy to find.  A short while before, as he flew down the valley with the wind backing around to the southwest, he started to look for a place to wait out a fair breeze.  Off to the east he noticed alders and young poplars on a gentle south-facing slope.  The place certainly looked inviting.
     Waddling along the hillside, heading neither uphill nor down, he took in the new surroundings.  The same varieties of fern grew there as in his home turf back in Canada, and the moss covering the rocks looked familiar.  The gray alders were pretty much bare, but the golden leaves on the young poplars glowed in the morning sun.  A lone apple tree, crowded on all sides by alders and poplar, defiantly remained green.
    Cocking his head he listened.  Sure enough, the worms weren’t particularly deep and pickings would be easy.  Plunging his bill into the soil the tip felt the soft flesh of Lumbricus terrestris, his favorite meal and a welcome treat.  Extracting the worm from the soil he held it aloft, admired the tasty morsel, then swallowed the protesting critter.  Life certainly couldn’t get much better.
    Foraging along the hillside, he came to a thicket of twisted thorny vines, which he didn’t recognize without their black raspberries.  They certainly would provide protection from overhead, but if he ever had to escape up through them it might prove impossible.  Deciding to not take a chance, he detoured slightly up the hill toward a second old apple tree.
    The slightly damper ground beneath the ancient twisted tree proved rich with worms and he fed with abandon, until an apple dropped to the ground and startled him.  Looking up he noticed a ruffed grouse sitting among the branches.
     The grouse pecked at the soft flesh of another apple, oblivious to Walter’s presence. 
     What snotty birds those grouse are, thought Walter.  They think they are the king of game birds.  Where do they get off with that idea?
     Walter hated the way those ostentatious showoffs took flight, with wings thundering and making such a raucous.  Why couldn’t they learn a little class, creating music as they took to the air, like a civilized woodcock does?
     Walter took two steps to the side, in case the second apple fell, and then yelled, “Hey!  Don’t you see me down here?”
     The grouse glanced his way and then went back to picking at the apple.
     Snob, thought Walter, and he waddled on.  I hope some goshawk makes dinner of that snot.
     After passing under a cluster of ferns Walter stepped out into an open area beneath poplar trees about the same diameter as he.
    “Wow!” he said.  And immediately wished he hadn’t vocalized the thought. 
     There, in the middle of the opening, sat a large female woodcock.
     “Excuse me,” he apologized.  “I didn’t expect to find anyone here.”
     He admired her big round body, and the way her bill stuck way out in front.  And that sexy eye, only one faced in his direction.  And her colors…such beautiful colors that blended perfectly with the surrounding soil.  She was certainly something.
     She looked his way, but didn’t smile.
     “My name is Walter.  Are you new around here?”
     The female woodcock turn away, jammed her bill into the soil, and yanked a white grub out of the ground, which she promptly swallowed.
     After giving her head a little shake, she said, “No, just passing through.”
Her aloof attitude put Walter off a bit, but he wasn’t about to give up.  “Me too,” he said.  He scuffed a foot on the ground and summoned his courage.  “Maybe we could travel together.”
     “No.  We’re doing a girls-night-out sort of thing tonight, or whenever the wind changes direction.”
     If Walter had shoulders they would have sagged.  “Okay, well nice to meet you.”
     As he wandered on he realized she never even offered her name.  Oh well, the next best thing to a new girlfriend was going hunting.  Oh heck, he thought, hunting is a lot more fun than some of the aggravating girls he had met.
     Where might there be more worms?






Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Thanksgiving Hunt

    It happened a long time ago, so far back that the memories are fuzzy.  We had kept the cottage open, planning to have Thanksgiving there.  It was just my folks and my wife and I.  Oh yes, and my rough and tuff Brittany Zach. 
    I’m sure the morning started early, long before daylight, with my father and me setting out our decoys.  The boat was a snug affair with a grassed roof to keep us dry and hidden.  A gentle push would inspire the top upward, with a bungee cord convincing it all the way back.
    We must have tossed out the cork and pine black duck decoys I’d made and then nestled the boat against a bank in the salt marsh.  That was the usual routine.  Together we’d have sipped coffee and waited for the morning sun.  And hopefully the ducks.
    I don’t remember the hunt, but I do remember heading back in.  The crests of the rolling waves were as far apart as the stem and stern of our boat, and snow blew sideways in the blustery north wind.  I remember thinking the boat couldn’t take on too much water, because it was so full of decoys and gear, and wondering if the decoys would keep it afloat.
    And then I remember Thanksgiving dinner, as only Mom could make it, with all of us sitting there and watching through the big picture window, feeling quite content and snug, as the snow blew sideways over the bay.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Doggedly

     Watching my dog work foot scent of a pheasant yesterday, I realized where the term doggedly comes from.  Dogs don't quit. 
     The pheasant ran inside thick brushy undercover beneath stunted twenty-foot oaks, traveling fast.  Chara pushed under or jumped over tangles with almost every step.  My legs ached trying to follow and the oaks clawed at my clothes.
     We were hunting in a wildlife management area where hunters earlier chased all the pheasants out of the fields and into surrounding woods.  The land is lumpy, not real hills but rather rolling crevasses, some twenty feet deep. 
     Repeatedly Chara pointed and I did my best to rush ahead, only to find no bird.  Then she would take off again, nose to the ground, trying to sort out the scent.  Twice I caught glimpses of the bird before it disappeared into the brush, encouragement enough to keep me chugging on. 
     We came to an open tote road and Chara locked up solid about thirty feet from its edge.  My spirits soared, thinking we might finally have the pheasant cornered.  I dashed ahead to the road and pushed back into the mess toward the dog, hoping for a flush.
     Twenty feet to my left I spotted the pheasant, crouched low and long like a torpedo, dashing back up the hill, staying low to the ground beneath the tangled brush, and then it disappeared over the crest.
     I called Chara to heel and we left for the truck, already twenty minutes past when I promised myself we would leave for an appointment.  Chara came along, but with protest in her eyes. 

       

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

First Snow

     The fist snow usually isn’t a hard or driving snow, more likely drifting flakes that accumulate slowly, or maybe even melt as they touch the ground.  Sometimes it is silent, the soft flakes absorbing all other sound in the woods, but more often the flakes are harder and bounce off still clinging leaves, creating a sound like millions of tiny bells.
     Clothing is adjusted to keep the flakes off of one’s neck, maybe gloves come out if they aren’t already on.  The dogs hunt just they did as before the snow started and I often wonder if they even notice it.  But later, when the hunting is done for the year and the snow is deep, they will prance and play in the stuff, caught up in wonder just as we are.
     Sometimes the partridge disappear with the arrival of the first snow, yet other times they seem to sense an urgency and come out looking for that last good meal before winter covers everything over.  Lingering woodcock will wander to the bare ground under a nearby softwood tree, or maybe the soft wet ground along a stream that melts the freshly fallen snow.  Even the dogs know this and look for them there in accumulating new snow.
     Yet the snow reminds us that winter is coming and soon our hunting will be done.  Later, when the snow gets too deep for the dogs to work, the guns will get a final cleaning and be tucked away in their safe.  In the meantime we must collect memories to savor through the dark winter nights. 



Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Cathedral

The trees are enormous there, standing with limbs stretched upward and outward, like the arms on the capital letter Y, reaching up and out until they trees touch somewhere near the heavens, as if holding hands in celebration.  They are giant silver maples, their leaves always golden or gone when I have visited, standing on the shores of the winding river, where bronze or golden ferns and yellow grass create an intricate carpet over the ground.
It’s always been a tough place to find, with a long walk down the railroad tracks and then through an old leaning wire fence.  Down at the bottom of a steep bank, this plateau juts out into the course of the river, pushing the meandering water across the valley toward the highway to the south.  Alders cling to the edge of where the banking levels out, and a tire or barrel or somebody’s dock may be sitting almost anywhere, washed there by the previous spring’s runoff and floods.
Nearly two decades had passed since my last visit; a different white dog accompanied me then, but the same shotgun was in my hands and the place still looked much as it did.  The tannin stained water still crept along beneath the steep banks and the left the same sandbars sticking out on the inside of the river’s bends.  Directly under the tree’s spreading crowns knee-high grass covered the ground as it always had and golden ferns hid the lower spots.  Muskrat holes tunneled everywhere and washed up silvery logs lined the banks.
The young German wirehaired pointer, Chara, hunted as if she’d been there before, quartering to the river’s edge and then back toward the alders where the land climbed upward.  Dutifully I followed, my mind drifting between wonder and melancholy. Twice I called the wirehair by the name of my long dead Brittany spaniel Zach, but both times catching myself and then smiling.  The magic was still there, the bond with a hunting dog, the anticipation, the magic.
Each time caused me to laugh, and I explained to Chara that it was a compliment.  She appeared to not hear, or chose to ignore my remarks, there was just too much ground to hunt and she was all business.
The river turned us to left along its shore, through grass and weeds waist high, to where the giant silver maples gave way to less grand trees mixed with occasional fir.  We searched the low spots and then the higher ground, trying to cover it all, not wanting to miss a thing.  Finally the river backed further to our left, turning us into a stand of spruce and back toward the railroad tracks and the long trek back to the truck.
          I had been skunked there before, back during the days when Zac went everywhere with me, and I knew the woodcock would be back.  Chara and I would be back too.        

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Big Valley

For months I searched Google Earth, looking for that elusive grouse cover that nobody else had ever found.  Clearcuts always show up nicely, as well as logging roads and major streams, but where was that hidden cover tucked in some out-of-the-way corner?  In New England there’s more country to explore than any man would ever have time for, so it is best to whittle down the possibilities.
            A big patch of forest caught my eye, appearing as a green quilt, with logging roads and clearcuts dicing it up.  A fairly large stream ran through the country, almost dividing it in two.  Bordering on one side, an entire township was private and behind locked gates, but entry on foot was still allowed.  In the other direction the logging roads ran until they petered out in the ends of the valleys.  The country definitely deserved a look.
            I found the logging road that left the pavement and then climbed and climbed into that country, passing some great looking cover along the way, and then about five miles from the pavement it crested the height of land.  Driving down into the valley I couldn’t believe my eyes. 
            Mountainous country ran off to the horizon, with clear cuts or forest on all the slopes.  Not a manmade structure could be seen, but I knew scattered camps had to be there somewhere.  The gravel road dog-legged down into the valley and then crossed a wooden bridge over a tumbling stream.  Ahead alders mixed with young poplars, looking like perfect woodcock or partridge habitat.
            Parking next to the bridge I let the dogs out, then dug lunch out of a cooler.  I listened to the stream grumble while I ate and the dogs waited patiently for their share of the sandwiches, but then the rumble of an approaching logging truck drowned out every other sound.  As it passed the driver waved and I returned the gesture.
            I’m not na├»ve enough to think that no one else ever hunts in that valley, but it certainly is a piece of paradise.  You can bet I’ll be spending some time there for years to come.          


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Confusing Math

    A lone hunter will see twice as many partridge as two hunters, yet two hunters will kill twice as many birds as a single hunter.  Does any of that make sense?  Let me scratch my head a minute.  What about three hunters?  Two dogs?  Three?
    Ruffed grouse, called partridge where I hunt, hear pretty darn well.  The bells we put on our pointing dogs probably get their ruffs up a hundred yards or more away, but fortunately the birds are programmed to rely on their camouflage and hunker down, hoping that whatever is making that jangling noise just passes on by.  A bird that can go from zero to rocket-speed in the blink of an eye has little to worry about as long as it can keep track of that sound.  Add a second dog and there still doesn’t seem to be much worry for the bird.  Apparently they can count well past two.
    They don’t seem to be aware of the approaching hunter until he or she is very close, which is when they flush.  Throw in human voices though and the bird’s nerves get rattled and flight seems right, hence an increased number of wild flushes.
    Instinctively a fleeing grouse tries to put something between it and the peril, whether the danger is a pursuing goshawk or a tall strangely-dressed hunter.  When the bird leaps into the air it already knows which tree it is going to duck around or knoll it is going over or softwood to dive into.  One hunter with one prospective is relatively easy to avoid.
    But two hunters, traveling silently, working with hand signals, positioning themselves to cover the partridge’s possible escape routes, and the bird’s odds of seeing another day decrease dramatically.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Big Alder Patch

    I first hunted that spot about thirty-five years ago.  On first impression it seems the same, but looking around I notice lots of poplars that are less than twenty years old.  As the trees get bigger the walking will get easier, but the alders are going to disappear and, when the trees are large, the prime woodcock habitat will go to. 
    Right now it’s a great place to start a young dog.  Chara, my wise old German wirehaired pointer accompanied Georgia, a five month old German shorthaired pointer, and I. 
    The cover is below the road.  I once thought it was old pasture grown back, but giant old stumps covered with moss tell me that a long time ago it was timberland.  The ground was wet…squishy wet, and in breaks of the canopy vicious raspberries waited to claw at clothing and hides.
    Where wrist-sized poplar stood against the edge of a tiny field Chara locked up on point and little Georgia honored.  What a sight.  Hurrying forward, I flushed the bird and it twittered away, my shot miserably behind it.


    Both dogs shifted into overdrive and scoured the forest floor with a vengeance.  Working down into the alders the plan was to find the edge of the softwood swamp and then hunt to the right.  Later, on the way back to the truck we’d hunt higher up the slope.
    Walking six feet in a straight line was impossible; the leaning alders directed a zigzagging course.   To the dogs, standing only a couple of feet tall, the obstacles were mostly overhead and they dashed about with abandon.  In places water puddled, sometimes thick sphagnum moss was underfoot, or knee-high grass soaked my pants.  Areas of bare soil or matted leaves are preferred by the birds, and there I found white splotches left behind by the feeding woodcock.
    Georgia pointed, frozen like a statue in a thicket of alders.  Chara, well ahead, never knew.  Not certain how long the pup would hold I stepped quickly past her and the bird climbed for the sky.  On the shot the bird dropped and Georgia picked up her first wild bird. 
    Chara came bounding back at the sound of gunfire, but didn’t argue with Georgia about ownership of the bird.  Kneeling, I took the bird from the young dog and rubbed her neck, telling her what a great girl she was.  Georgia shrugged off the praise and went right back to hunting.  She knew there were more birds to find.
    

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Check Your Gear

    The first day hunting I parked miles from anywhere on an old logging road that ran pretty much north and south.  The dogs and I headed west into a clear cut, under a gray overcast sky that promised rain or snow, and then worked our way more or less parallel with the road and south.  When the cut ended at a dense stand of softwood trees we hunted back to the road and then crossed to the east side.
    Boney terrain and scattered softwood trees led down into a promising looking cutting.  The dogs bounded ahead, hunting ever optimistically with their bells clanging.  After walking for about twenty minutes, just to check my bearings, I pulled my compass out of my pocket.
     The fluid inside the dial looked like tea, and twisting the base in my hand the needle followed the card, definitely stuck.  Looking closer I could see flecks of rust along the side of the needle.  I owned that compass for well over thirty years and never gave a thought to it failing.
    Fortunately, we had walked mostly downhill after crossing the road, so by heading up the gradual slope we eventually found the road.  Flat country might have been a bit more confusing.
    The lesson there is always check your gear before heading into the woods, and assume nothing.     
Old cuttings are easy to get turned around in.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

After the Nap

    More out of sense of duty than desire, I picked up my gun and headed for the door.  The two older dogs got up, but the young pup already stood at the door.  Leaving the wirehairs at home, I put Georgia in my truck.
    We drove to an alder patch, one that is near the house and I usually can walk to, but high water in a stream that must be crossed changed all that.  On the way down from an old gravel pit where I parked, Georgia poked through the woods on either side of the grassy tote road.  At the bottom of a slippery slope an old meadow borders the stream.  Deer and moose tracks cover the ground. 
    I lead her across the field and through a hole in a falling-down fence, where we enter the alders.  Almost immediately I notice a woodcock splash on the fallen leaves and look for Georgia.
    She’s locked up on point, crouches low and muscles taught, I’m sure the scent of woodcock filling her nostrils, her stature guided by knowledge that’s been passed in her genes.  A picture would have been priceless, but I’m not sure how long the bird or dog would hold.
    I stepped ahead of the dog and the bird twitters toward sky, curling back over the stream.  I pass on the shot, not wanting the bird to fall in the water or on the far side, unsure of what the dog would do.  The stream is several feet deep and running fast, more than a young dog needs to get into.
    A few minutes later Georgia found another woodcock, and just as she points the bird it climbs for the sky…another lesson for the young dog.
     We hunt through the rest of the patch and then head for home.  What a great first day for her.