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.

Bird Season Arrives, 2011

Our first day dawned gray and cool, but the older dogs knew the purpose and anxiously waited near the door.  Up there in the big woods every day starts with one of my lumberjack breakfasts, so they were forced to wait.  Methodically, things were gathered and piled near the door to later put in the truck.  It seems something is always forgotten.
     Two dogs rode on the backseat, my younger GWP, Colby, and Georgia, a friend’s five-month-old GSP that came along for the week.  Chara, my oldest GWP, rides on the passenger side next to me.  She, better than the rest, knew the routine.
     Yellow leaves still lingered on some of the poplars, and green leaves defiantly clung to roadside apples, but most of the trees were bare.  Heavily loaded logging trucks passed us on the highway, a good sign in difficult economic times.  And timber harvesting provides great cover for ruffed grouse and woodcock.
     About four miles up a logging road I parked in an old logging yard, one that provided great hunting the previous fall.  The views from there are spectacular, with rolling hills to the eastern horizon, and make the stop worthwhile if for nothing else.  To the west, north, and east of the yard the trees are about twenty feet tall,  maybe logged over about fifteen or twenty years earlier, but to the south the timber is older, perhaps cut sixty or more years ago.
     I let the three dogs out, corralling each to put on an orange collar with a bell.  With three dogs there definitely would be pandemonium and bumped birds, but I knew they all needed to blow off steam.  Following an old tumbling stream, we hunted up the hill.
     Chara covered the ground like the old pro she is, working the cover and tasting the air.  Colby hunted hard too, but at only two hasn’t figured out all of the tricks.  Little Georgia sometimes followed Chara, sometimes Colby, but often followed her own instincts.  A bit of independence is a good thing. 
     Everything in the woods dripped from the previous night’s rain, but the dogs never seemed to notice.  We worked the edge of the cutting, and then out into the cut toward a cluster of softwood trees, which might provide shelter for grouse.  Nothing.  Working back toward the older growth, we hunted the edge of a softwood stand and then around back toward the truck.  Still nothing.  Soaked to my hide, I was ready for the truck’s heater, yet the dogs’ enthusiasm never wavered.
     About a mile down the road, and surrounded by an old clearcut, a dense stand of spruce and fir spelled shelter for partridge on a stormy night.  I parked and let out the girls.  They plunged into the mesh of branches and I tried to follow. 
     A bird thundered away unseen ahead of us, and then I heard Chara’s bell stop.  Colby and Georgia were working off to my right and out of sight.  Wet, cold, branches clawed at my clothes as I hurried toward Chara.  About the time I could glimpse a piece of the white dog through the green needles I heard the bird leave.
     Coffee for me and fuel for all of us back at the truck!
     The logging road took us up over a hill and along a ridge, into miles from anywhere.  I found a side road that led into country that looked very good on Google Earth, parked, and started hunting up the road with all three dogs.  The country looked perfect, and probably deserves another look sometime, but we only found one partridge that flushed ahead of us and one woodcock that Chara pointed with Colby honoring.
     Everywhere I stepped seemed to be spongy, saturated to the point of soupy from the previous rain, and then rain started to fall again.  With tired aching legs I drove out of the woods, the dogs all curled up on their seats.  A few flakes of snow mixed with the rain at higher elevations, making it easier to call it quits for a while.
     It was time to go back to the house and take a nap.    

Friday, October 28, 2011

Back from the Big Woods

     The time up north passed way too quickly, as it always does.  This year the weather stayed gray, with occasional showers breaking up the days, and temperatures held steady with daytimes in the fifties and nights in the forties.  Migrating songbirds, which usually long gone by the third week of October, still lingered in flocks and the flights of migrating woodcock didn’t show up until the day before I left.
     Ruffed grouse were abundant, with almost twice the flush rate of the previous year, but the birds were skittish like I have never seen them before.  Often the partridge flushed forty or more yards ahead, frustrating both the dogs and I.  But there were places and moments where things came togethern and the birds held for points and then flushed in multiples.  And on one day the sun shined like a jewel in an unblemished blue sky, and even though no birds were shot, it will stick in my mind.
     A five month old German shorthair pointer pup came along for the trip, providing lots of laughs and interesting moments.  She pointed her first woodcock five minutes into her first bird hunt, honored the other dogs easily, and carried my boots around back at the house.
     Hunting with friends and visiting old acquaintances made the week special.  Watching three dogs, with one pointing and two honoring, made the week magic.  But like the lingering leaves on the poplars, it was time for me to go.
     I’ll write more on the trip soon. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Stocked Pheasants

Our state stocked pheasants today, in preparation for the season that opens this coming Saturday.  For the last few days I’ve been working with a friend’s five-month-old German shorthaired pointer, and, because we had easy access to the area where some of the pheasants were stocked, I decided to take the young dog over there, along with my two German wirehaired pointers. 
     We poked around the woods a bit, and then I led the dogs to the spot where the pheasants had been released every year for as long as I’ve been around.  Sure enough, as we approached one of the pheasants let out a squawk and my oldest dog, the one that is supposed to be a hundred percent steady and reliable, bolted for the bushes and flushed the bird upward.
     The poor bird barely could fly, but did manage to land in a tree about twenty feet above the ground.  All three dogs were very excited as they inhaled the scent and zigzagged all over the place where the bird had been.
     On the way home the younger wirehair pointed into to a tangle of thorns.  Then the older wire honored.   The shorthair pup sort of poked around the edges of the thicket, trying to figure out this puzzle.  The demeanor of the two older dogs told me the pheasant was walking, and soon both of them re-located on the far side of the mess.  Then I spotted the pheasant sneaking out from under the brush and heading my direction.  It froze when it saw me, sort of hunkering down in the leaves.
    I called the young shorthair and she circled around the thorn-pile the long way, then came straight toward me with the pheasant between us.  Coming around a tree trunk the pup almost ran into the bird. 
    I’m sure the pheasant was as surprised as the dog, and the dog certainly hadn’t ever seen a bird that big, nor one dressed like a clown before.  That bird didn’t fly much better than the previous one and if the tail had been longer I’m sure the pup would have snagged some feathers.  It too landed in a tree, that time not much higher than a dog could jump.
     Not much sport was presented by those birds. 

Hot Weather

Grouse hunting in hot weather is awful.  The clothing that is required to protect a hunter in typical grouse cover has to be hot to work.  So it’s either roast, or let the forest make mincemeat out of your arms and legs. 
Several years ago I started using a strap vest, back when they were hard to find in the catalogs.  Now there are a lot more to choose from and some are pretty fancy.  A strap vest is much cooler than a traditional bird hunting vest and certainly cooler than any jacket ever devised.  A cotton shirt heavy enough to protect your arms is all that is needed under the vest on warm days.
Brush pants are available in light weights.  Find a florescent orange hat with mesh panels and that’s about the best you can do.  You will probably want to carry water to stay hydrated, and don’t forget the dog’s water too.
And then where do you find the birds?  Try looking around stream bottoms, particularly if they are lined with softwood trees and a food source isn’t too far away.  Maybe the moving water makes it cooler, along with the shade, and probably the birds like a drink on a hot day just like we do. 
It has worked for me.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Season is Here!

October arrived dripping wet, with lush foliage still clinging to the trees, the fall colors not quite to peak, and a forecast of more of the same weather.  Out of sense of duty more than desire, I grabbed by gun and, accompanied by the two eager German wirehairs, headed out into the woods to climb the hill above our north-country home.
The ground climbs steeply there, lung busting steep, up a slippery old skid trail clogged with weeds.  I pushed through soaked raspberry vines and waist-high grass, my feet almost making waves among the puddles where the ground was near level.  By the time we reach the old logging road that is cut into the hill, my heart was pounding.  The dogs hunted with passion all the way up and seemed oblivious to the topography as well as the weather.  Why can’t I be like them?
I always find it amazing how quickly Mother Nature reclaims the land in northern New England.  More trees had fallen into that old tote road and foliage crowded in along the sides.  If I were suddenly dropped there I might not even recognize the spot, even though I’ve been there dozens of times before.  Moose had trampled a path in the past, but they seemed absent this year.
Chara, the older dog, hunted off to the right on the uphill side of the road.  Colby, the two-year-old pup, is off to the left beneath tall spruce and fir on a shoulder of the rise.  My mind started wandering, wondering just how far past its prime grouse-producing years the woods had become.
Snapping back to the moment I realized Colby was on point about fifty feet ahead of me.  It wasn’t the rock solid point we all want to see, but she was definitely pointing, yet looking a little unsure of herself.  In clothes heavy with water, I hurried into the spruce and fir thicket, my eyes searching the ground ahead of her.
About forty feet ahead of Colby a grouse head comes up from behind a log; the bird was at the edge of a precipice, where the earth falls abruptly away over a ledge.  As I stepped past Colby the bird jumped off the edge like an Army Ranger stepping out of the back of a transport plane.  The bird may have been gone, but the memory is with me forever.
Continuing to follow that old road upward we found a few more birds, all of which flushed wild, except one that Chara did manage to point high up on the hill.  At an old logging yard, which looked like a marshy lake that day, we turned around and hunted homeward, only finding one grouse that flushed fifty yards ahead of us.
I never brought my gun to my shoulder that entire hunt, with thick soaking leaves cloaking everything, the puddles covering the ground between patches of slippery mud, and the rain seeming relentless.  Yet I had a ball.   


Resident Woodcock

Three years ago an April snowstorm caught the woodcock in our area nesting, resulting in many lost young, maybe most.  The local population of woodcock plummeted.  For the next few years the Fish and Game Department had the woodcock hunting season start about five or six days after the start of the ruffed grouse season.  The only woodcock around that early are the resident birds, and perhaps the late season was needed for their numbers to replenish.  It was awfully hard to explain to the dogs though, why we had to let the woodcock fly away.
          This year, during the late summer, the woodcock seem as abundant as ever and the season is again opening the same day as the grouse season.  That’s a good thing.
          But they all seem to have gone into hiding on opening day.  How do they know?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

So You Want to Hunt Ruffed Grouse

Where do you start?  The best place would be to find an old partridge hunter who would let you tag along.  That could prove mighty hard to do though, because grouse hunters seem to be somewhat scarce and a pretty secretive lot, and most will only share coverts with the closest and most trusted friends.  Still, it might be something to strive for.
Without a mentor, the next best bet would be to read everything that you can find on hunting ruffed grouse.  Most of what is in the old classics, like New England Grouse Shooting, by William Harnden Foster, still holds true today, and it is well worth trying to find a copy even though it is out of print.  L. L. Bean published a book on upland hunting, written by Tom Huggler, and the chapter on ruffed grouse was one of the best I’ve ever read.  And even if you can’t get the old grouse hunters to take you along, try to get them talking.  A bottle of single malt scotch or aged bourbon might loosen their tongues a bit.  And then pay attention.
Next, stretch your legs and see if you can find some grouse.  When you do find one, look around and see what the cover looks like.  Bird hunters with a lot of experience often refer to a place as looking birdy, even though they might be hard pressed to describe exactly what makes it look that way.  Try to guess the food source and where the shelter is, both are never too far away, and then look for more of the same sort of country.  Along the way you’ll probably find more grouse in cover that is slightly different, but try to notice similarities. 
When you are home again, try to locate where you found the grouse on Google Earth.  Notice what the forest looks like, stream locations and proximity of softwood trees.   Try to find more of the same and mark the spots. 
Then start walking again and keep going until your legs hurt, it will only get you in shape for the upcoming season and you are bound to find cover to hunt.  Finding anything more than one ruffed grouse per hour is doing better than average, so some days are going to be bust, but others are bound to be bounty.  You hunt grouse with your feet.