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


     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.