Saturday, September 24, 2011


We live on an island of Martha’s Vineyard, where once upon a time skunks never existed.  Many many years ago, some evil-minded person released a pair, and who that was has long been the subject of much speculation.  And now, because we have no earth-cleansing predators other than hawks or owls to keep their numbers down, the skunks are quite abundant and live very happily.
By abundant I mean you never drive to town without seeing a few dead in the road along the way.  A friend, who once raised chickens, used to trap almost one a day, and he wasn’t releasing them alive so none were caught twice.  The skunks almost roto-till lawns looking for grubs.  Ground nesting birds like quail, whippoorwills, and some of the shore birds have all but disappeared.  Every dog owner has a tale to tell and most have a bottle of Skunk Off or other balm handy all the time.  More than once I have heard stories about people finding the skunks walking around inside their homes, coming in through either through a dog door or a sliding door left ajar.
Our older dogs received the wrath of skunks a few times when they were young, but along the way learned it wasn’t fun and have since then gone out of their way to avoid the black demon with the white racing stripe.  Our youngest was only sprayed lightly once and then fell in with the older dogs, steering clear of the stinky little creatures.  Now they loosely point skunks from a safe distance, heads held high with their noses moving slowly side to side, I guess to alert the rest of us to the critter’s position.
There are dogs that attack every skunk they see, and why some do and others avoid them I will never know.  I am just thankful that ours have decided they like smelling like dogs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Grouse Camp

The title grouse camp evokes certain images…old shotguns leaned against a wall, wet and worn boots lined up inside a door, orange hats hung from deer antlers on the wall, pickup trucks parked outside, and, most importantly, bird dogs curled up in contented slumber.
The camp might be anyplace in grouse country, but preferably where trout can be found in a nearby stream come spring.  That would mean woodcock could be handy too.  A remote or rustic location may be preferred, like someplace that a hunter could walk right out the door with a shotgun across his arm and an excited dog bounding ahead, but in truth, most of us drive between cover, so a grouse camp could be even in a rural town in northern Maine or upstate New York.

Inside, magazines like Field and Stream, or Gray’s Journal would litter the coffee and end tables.  A deer head or large brook trout might hang on the wall, but definitely the fanned tail of a ruffed grouse is mounted on a wall plaque somewhere.  Canvas jackets and wool shirts could be draped over the backs of chairs, and possibly LaCrosse boots are upside down over a boot-dryer.  On the bookshelves worn copies of New England Grouse Shooting, Drummer in the Woods, Big Woods, and other classics wait for rainy days.  A stray feather or two drifts around the floor.
Hopefully a fireplace or cast-iron stove heats the room.  A fair pile of wood should be stacked in a corner or outside the back door; it is very reassuring.  The senior dog will be curled up on a braided rug just beyond the hearth, its white muzzle twitching as it dreams about birds pointed long ago.
The only ‘must-have’ for the kitchen, beside a coffee pot, is a cast iron frying pan, preferably more than one, but a large one will do by itself.  The sweetest morning aroma is that of bacon frying, the sizzling the only alarm clock needed.  Mix in the smell of strong coffee and it’s heavenly. 
Bacon can bring out the cholesterol-be-damned attitude in almost anyone, so hearty breakfasts of pancakes and eggs are always served in grouse camps.  The birds aren’t out and about early, they are way too civilized for that, so the first meal of the day needn’t be a hurried affair.  Partridge are hunted by your feet, so the hunters need their coffee and fuel. 
Late in the day, when the shadows are long and aching legs have carried the weary hunters back inside, tired hands will prepare a simple dinner while stories are told of birds pointed and shots missed.  An open bottle of single malt scotch or fine bourbon sits on the kitchen counter, next to heavy tumblers so weary hunters can pour what they need.  Gun cleaning tools accumulate on the table, along with maps, broken dog biscuits, and stray shotgun shells
When the meal is done, heavy-eyed hunters will doze in their chairs and all will soon slip off to bed. 

The dogs never move, not until morning.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Do you need a dog?

A long time ago, when I was a youngster, we hunted ruffed grouse by just walking them up.  There seemed to be more birds then and youthful enthusiasm was on our side.  Thick briars and muck-filled swamps didn’t even slow us down; we just kept marching ahead.  We did shoot a few grouse, but really not all that many.  I have to admit though that we didn’t know too much about what we were doing.
A hunter can increase his odds dramatically if he knows where to look for ruffed grouse.  An area where logging has created young forests is a great place to start looking.  We didn’t know that.  Most of our time was spent looking for the proverbial abandoned farms that bird hunting literature romanticizes.  Old farms can be great places to hunt, but they are getting rare and when you do find one it has probably seen lots of hunters.
My first bird dog was a Brittany spaniel, who was on the large size for his breed and even more bull headed than I.  With the dog I discovered woodcock, which I had pretty much been walking right by all along, and what fun those birds were.  That Brittany did point a few grouse, but never became a great grouse dog.  He spent his time traveling through the woods like a steamroller and bumped more grouse than he pointed.  Woodcock held though, unless he tripped over them.
The second dog in my life, a German wirehaired pointer named Jesse, had an entirely different temperament.  I’m not certain if it was because she was a female instead of a male, because of the breed, or because I was older and a more patient teacher.  Although she was never exposed to many grouse, she seldom bumped a bird.  It was always fun to watch her slow down and taste the air, trying to figure out where the bird was before settling in on point.  My dogs since then have all been great performers, each seeming to be better than the one before.
Almost any dog will find many more grouse than you will ever walk up by yourself.  An ill-mannered dog will drive you nuts though, flushing the birds out of range that you may not even hear or see, and you’ll shoot fewer birds than if you had no dog at all.  With a flushing dog that hunts within range or a pointing breed that will hold a point until you get there, you will shoot more birds. And better yet, with the dog you’ll find the birds after you shoot them.
So no, you don’t need a dog to hunt ruffed grouse.  Just as I don’t need a fork to eat dinner, but it certainly is more civilized with one.   

Thursday, September 1, 2011


My oldest German wirehair, Chara, was ten this past summer.  When I stroke her whiskers back I notice cloudiness in her eyes that wasn’t there before.  Her spirit is still strong, maybe stronger than mine, but she is quite content to curl up on a rug and wait for something to happen.  Yet on walks she still hunts for mice and points song birds for her own entertainment, and physically she is muscular and strong.    She still runs for the back door, excited as a young pup, at the sound of the bell on her hunting collar. 
           Chara’s colors are white and liver, so the new white hairs aren’t as noticeable as if she were darker, but I do see white flecks where solid liver used to be.  Aging catches us all.
            Inside her head are ten seasons of experience, starting with her first season when she pointed quail at five months of age.  I don’t remember if she retrieved them, but I know I killed quail over her points that first fall.  The following season we hunted woodcock and ruffed grouse, and I can remember every detail of her first wild bird, a woodcock shot in Randolph, New Hampshire, at the end of a very long day afield.
            I remember her first duck hunt and how she retrieved a mallard as if she’d done it a hundred times before.  And the first pheasant she pointed, in a field of low cut grass, where I was so convinced that she was false pointing that I never even raised my gun when the big squawking cock finally flew.
            Last season was her best ever, pointing grouse after grouse, almost never bumping a bird.  Certain days stick in my mind and I hope they always will.  Pointing side by side with our younger dog, she never looked better.  With tremendous luck I killed the first partridge of the season, on opening day, while the two dogs pointed shoulder to shoulder.  The retrieve was a bit contentious and they each somehow ended up with a wing, but remembering it makes me smile. 
            So I have to wonder how much longer Chara will hunt.  This season looks like a sure thing, which is good because the bird numbers are up.  Our two year old GWP, Colby, learns much hunting with Chara and hopefully will continue to absorb the older dog’s wisdom.  At times Chara appears impatient with the younger dog, but more often seems oblivious to the youngster’s presence.  Colby honors easily, almost never interrupting one of Chara’s points, obviously respecting the older dog’s rank.  Twice last season Colby pointed partridge on her own, along with dozens of woodcock, none of which I’m not sure would have happened without Chara’s example.
            Now Chara dreams on the rug by my feet.  I see her feet twitch and hear muffled barks or chirps, and sometimes even a low growl.  I wonder if she recalls the same events I do, and, if so, what her favorite memories are. 
            Chara will remain top dog until the day she is done, and I plan to make certain she knows it.  We have a long history together.