Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas Time


     It is the season to be jolly, but it is also the time when the local hunting seasons are winding down.  Upland bird hunting in our state is but a memory, and in the surrounding states it will soon be over. Snow will be piling up in the woods and the ruffed grouse will have enough of a struggle without us adding to their woes.
     Duck season lingers, but ice will close the season here long before the law does. As I get older, the idea of setting out large spreads of decoys seems daunting, so I usually just throw out a few where blacks or mallards have been congregating, and then wait.  Many morning the most excitement I have is seeing the sun come up or tasting coffee from my thermos, but the ducks do drop into the decoys often enough to keep me coming back. 
     I hate to put the guns away for a last time and wonder what the dogs think, watching me do that.  I’m sure the oldest recognizes the little rituals, and I have to wonder if she will hunt another year.  
     But I fight the melancholy, trying to remember the grand days, like the day we moved thirty-eight grouse, or the visiting German shorthair’s first solid point on a grouse, and that old country road where the grouse seemed to be everywhere, and the morning by the pond, where pairs of ducks dropped in one after the other.  Looking back at pictures taken and my notes, there are so many great times that it is hard to separate the memories. This past fall more friends visited and shared a hunt than ever before.
     We truly have a lot to be thankful for. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Country Road


     You know those places, spots that are so familiar that you hardly notice them. I had driven by that logging road a hundred times.  It goes down to somebody’s camp, maybe a mile or so down, and then dead ends against a stand of softwoods. Somewhere beyond, in the thick dark stuff, a good sized trout stream tumbles to the north. The country is pretty wild there and you’re about ten miles from the nearest asphalt.
     In a Google Earth image I had noticed that a large clearcut bordered the uphill side of the road and that softwoods remained throughout it in scattered clusters. The place had all the makings for good grouse country and easy walking to boot, if I stayed along the road. I’d been looking for some easy terrain to hunt for when a few of my older friends visited.
     So I drove down to that road to investigate, and before I’d driven a hundred yards a grouse jumped off an old bulldozed-up hump and flew across the road into the clearcut on the high side. In the first flat spot that looked hard and dry, I pulled the truck over and parked.
     All three dogs had seen the bird, so it was pointless to suggest one or two stay behind. Besides, I love the pandemonium of hunting over multiple dogs. So I let them all out and then gathered my gun and gear while the dogs searched the road’s edges with their tails all a blur.
     Less than a hundred yards from the truck, the young German shorthair, Georgia, bumped two birds that had been sitting on a mound next to the low side. They sailed down through tall hardwoods with the pup in hot pursuit, disappearing toward a distant softwood edge. We could hunt that line on the way back later and maybe find them. I waited for the young dog to return.
     Further down the road, Chara, the older German wirehair, started to get very birdy up on the banking of the road’s high side. Colby, the three-year-old wirehair disappeared up into the woods behind her. A mixture of hardwoods with young softwoods created great cover for birds, but if any flew in there just seeing them would be almost impossible.
I pushed in, trying to follow Chara who had her nose to the ground, obviously tracking foot scent. She looked convinced that the bird had walked ahead of us along the banking as we came down the road. Shooting at anything looked to be tough though.
Chara pointed, relocated, pointed again, then trotted ahead into a dense stand of wrist-sized fir trees. I detoured around. Her bell fell silent, so I hurried. Colby’s bell rang further ahead. George still worked the low side of the road.
With a whir the bird came back at me.
Reflexes caused me to duck as it passed low overhead and I shot as it went away, missing as it ducked to the right to sail out over the road and vanish on the low side.
Back out on the road, where a man could walk in a proper fashion without ducking or stepping over or around something with every third step, we continued on. Both of the wirehairs were tightly wound by then and hunted hard.
Chara pointed from the road and Colby honored about thirty feet further away. Georgia stopped behind Colby. Boy do I love that. The three of them indicated that the bird hid somewhere among little firs on the high side of the road. Before I even stepped off the road the bird flushed out of sight. Georgia took off after it as if she’d been shot in the backside with a missile.
     I continued on down the road.
     Nobody was at the camp, but we made a wide detour around it and into the cutting behind it. Someone had tagged a path with ribbons, probably a deer hunter marking the way to a stand. Following a softwood edge, we circled uphill and around, heading back into the direction we had come. Twice grouse flushed wild ahead of the dogs, both times out of sight, but the thunder of their wings let us know they were there.
     The sound of birds really put Georgia into overdrive and she rocketed through the woods, way too excited and almost in a frenzy. I knew the chances of her stopping to point were small, but you have to give credit for enthusiasm. On a year when the grouse numbers were low it might have been extremely annoying, but with the abundant birds of the past fall I knew we would find more. Patiently, I let her blow off steam, hoping that she learned something with every bird she bumped.
     In a stand of softwoods the size of fence posts Georgia rocketed through and bumped three or more grouse, while the wirehairs methodically searched the cutting beyond.
Colby pointed a grouse and I hurried ahead, but it flushed wild before I could get close enough for a shot. Ignoring Georgia, I hunted behind the wirehairs, finding one more bird.
By the time we reached the logging road again, my legs were protesting and all three dogs looked tired. Well, maybe not the young rocket-dog Georgia, who still wanted to hunt. The exact number of birds moved in that cutting remains something of a blur, but I was smiling.

     Down through the hardwoods on the low side of the road the softwood edge beckoned, but my legs said no, so we trekked back up to my truck, calling it a day. We would definitely be back though.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Georgia


     I’ve always started working with my bird dog pups the day that I brought them home from the breeder. It is never too early to expose them to feathers and birds, as long as you don’t scare the pup and keep it fun, that’s the way I feel anyway. By the time they are a few months old they are always pointing quail or pigeons and well on their way to becoming bird dogs. Without birds you can’t have a bird dog—I think we’ve all heard that.
     So this story is about a dog that friends of ours, who are non-hunters, acquired about a year and a half ago, a German shorthair pointer named Georgia. This couple has always had shorthairs, and I think this was their third. The idea of their dogs doing what it was been bred to do has always appealed to them, and one day two summers ago I asked how old the pup would be come last October. It would be six months old that fall they said and I jokingly mentioned I’d love to take her up hunting with me. Luckily for me, they thought the idea of the dog traveling up to bird country sounded like a great idea.
     Or maybe they just needed a break from the pup’s energy!
     Georgia had been well taught her basic manners, came when called, sat, stayed, and was a pleasure to be around. Of course there was lots of energy there, and keeping her sitting or staying sometimes became an issue, but, all in all, she was great for a young dog. Her manners around other dogs were impeccable, never once trying to force things to have her own way.
     So we headed up to the big woods for a couple of weeks, with Chara, my oldest German wirehair, and Colby, the young wire who was having hind leg issues that year. Georgia loved it up there, bumped some partridge right of the bat, and explored the new woods with its new and wild scents. The other dogs tolerated her or ignored her, often acting as if she were invisible. Sometimes Georgia stayed in the kennel in the back of the truck so the other dogs could hunt without her bumping the birds.
Georgia on an early woodcock.
     And then we went to the biggest alder patch that I know, where woodcock always are present and sometimes very abundant. Right off the bat Colby pointed a woodcock with Chara and Georgia both honoring. Georgia bumped a couple, and then pointed one. I made very sure that I killed that one on the flush. She was starting to see how things are supposed to work.
     The day turned out to be sort of controlled craziness, with dogs pointing and honoring and bumped birds flying all over the place, but Georgia learned a lot and learned it fast. I don’t know how many woodcock we moved, but there certainly were dozens.
     This past fall we headed north again, Chara another year older and starting to show it, Colby a year wiser and in better physical shape than the year before, and Georgia, anxious to go hunting, but with no additional real training on birds.
Grouse country.
     And what a year! Grouse seemed to be just about everywhere and I lost count of how  many were pointed. Georgia would lock up like a statue though and then take off like a rocket, determined to catch the birds. The other dogs ignored her bad manners and when they pointed I tried to hurry in before Georgia would notice them. When she spotted another dog pointing she would honor for a moment before storming in with the predictable and disastrous results. On woodcock she did fine, but those nervous grouse were just too tantalizing to not chase. Each of the dogs spent time in the kennel, and Georgia was forced to sit out some great grouse cover.
     And then one day, when all three of the three dogs and I worked down through a clear cut that I had never hunted before, it all clicked in. While Chara tried to relocate a grouse that had flushed off to my right, Georgia locked up solid on another bird ahead and stayed that way. What a sight!
Yeah, that's what it is all about!
     It happened in a thicket that all but swallowed up the dogs, where their bells went silent and I could barely catch a glimpse of Colby’s rump as she honored Georgia’s point ahead of her. Georgia, with her darker color, was almost impossible to see. The bird flashed up through the fir boughs and I fired as it disappeared. Both dogs vanished into the foliage and I feared a miss, but then Colby came pushing out of the greenery carrying the bird with Georgia following close behind.
     I took some time to praise them both, which they definitely deserved. They each looked cocky as hell and anxious to hunt more.
Georgia looking proud.
     After that Georgia pointed nearly as many grouse as either of the older dogs. Most of what she knows is in her genes and not from anybody’s training, so it’s kudos to the breeder, Hedgehog Hill Shorthairs in Belmont, Vermont. Of course she is smart too, which lets her figure things out quickly, like how to grab that unattended last half of a sandwich from the tailgate of the truck.
     I’ll hunt over that dog anytime. I keep finding myself singing that Ray Charles song…Georgia on my mind.
   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Morning Duck Hunt


    Duck season opened this morning. I took the two dogs, even though there is no sane reason to have two dogs. We toted our gear over to a tiny pond on a peninsula that juts out into a salt pond and tossed out a couple of decoys. Then I improvised a blind in the reeds and made myself comfortable.
    The ocean beyond the salt pond and barrier beach roared. As I sipped coffee, the waves seemed loud enough to be headed my way, and I wondered about the likelihood of a tsunami. A cynical person might have thought the ocean sounded like a freeway, but I decided that cars on a freeway sounded sort of like the ocean.
    At four minutes to gunning time I looked at my watch. Birds chirped all around us and ducks and geese made a racket far from sight.  The rumble of the waves against the beach let up and then grew louder again. Three crows flying to the east cawed about something and then disappeared. I poured more coffee. Something in the weeds to our left repeated a low chirping sound over and over, causing the dogs to growl.  I looked at my watch, and it was still four minutes to gunning time.
    Two minutes after legal shooting time passed I realized it was time to pay attention. We waited. The younger dog, Colby, kept moving about, sitting and then standing, and then lying down until she stood again.
    Two mallards fell out of the sky and landed so close on the other side of the weeds that I couldn’t see them. Colby bolted through the growth like a rocket and the ducks took off low over the water, as if knowing that I’d hardly be able to see them. I never fired a shot, but Colby was a tempting target for a moment.
    We listened to those geese, nervous and sounding about to take off. They were behind us somewhere out on the pond, but we never did see them. I looked at the way the morning light filtered around the edges of the weeds, creating a white fuzzy line around the shapes. A faint breeze tickled my left cheek, but barely moved the dried grasses in front of me. The ocean seemed to growl less as the sun painted pink streaks across the clouds.
    Colby was into it by then, and sat like a statue. Chara, the older German wirehair, had this duck hunting stuff down pat, and sat patiently. Both of them waited and trembled, eyes to the sky.
    Two mallards came in downwind from my left and made a wide circle, then dropped down over the decoys. I stood to shoot and the birds flared. It looked further than I liked, but I pulled the right trigger, immediately wishing I’d pulled the left and the tighter barrel. Wings flapped furiously and the ducks never missed a beat. I am sure I shot under the one that I had picked.
    Cursing at myself, I relocated my stool and the dogs closer to the edge of the weeds and the decoys.  My watch said the sun was up, but the gray clouds hid it. It was going to be a bluebird day, so maybe the gunning was already over. To the east ducks clattered periodically, but the geese behind us were silent. I wondered where the pink streaks in the sky had gone. The dogs sat like quaking statues.
    I decided to hunt until an hour after the season had started, which gave us fourteen more minutes, after all, it was a work day. More crows flew across the sky, The sky changed from shades of gray to dull muted purples, and then three puddle ducks, probably mallards, lifted into the sky far away and traced the southern horizon, never coming in our direction.
    I poured more coffee. That didn’t work, no ducks came. I dug out my camera and snapped a few pictures. Still no ducks. I figured that with a camera in my hand the ducks would storm in. Was I going to have to get up to pee to make ducks come?
    Two male mallards came in, rocketing downwind and from the left, passing directly overhead, and then they made a wide circle in front of us, dark shapes against the sky. As they came around to pass straight over my head again, I stood to shoot.
    I should have shot the second bird before he got to me, rather than trying to shoot straight up at the first duck. I almost fell over backwards into the mud, and the ducks flew safely away.
    An hour into the first day of the season, as the sky turned bright blue and the sun changed the grasses to shades of aged bronze, I gathered up the decoys.
     We would try it again the next day.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Prospecting


     The gang had left and I was out prospecting for grouse. Every year I do a lot of that, usually after my friends have left. There is no use dragging them all around the wilds to places that may or may not hold birds. Sometimes the going gets mighty rough. Grouse cover goes from prime to thin-pickens in about ten years, so it always pays to be on the lookout for new country.
     I had spotted this cleat cut on Google Earth and it was back up in a section of country that’s been full of grouse the last few years. The cut covered probably two hundred acres, but hid behind a stand of softwood trees so it wasn’t readably visible from the logging road. The location is back in about fourteen miles from the nearest asphalt in some mighty rugged terrain.
     A skid trail turned snowmobile road led the dogs and I up into the cutting. It seemed to run on forever up the slope, finally stopping up high at mature hardwoods.  The view back across the valley was worth the trek.
     The cutting probably was two years old with relatively easy walking. When the loggers cut it, they took away all of the tree tops, leaving the ground fairly clean. Wet spots were covered with grass and moose tracks. Sprouts shot up from the stumps, but most weren’t shoulder height. Wild raspberries were everywhere.
     We hunted along the top of the cutting and then down the west side.  It didn’t look too encouraging, with no softwoods to offer shelter for the birds, but ahead and about halfway down the slope I could see softwood trees left behind by the logging operation.
     As we approached them I noticed a small knoll covered with softwoods. I love knolls, because grouse love knolls. What better place to sit and collect morning sunshine and survey the surroundings. No matter which way danger approached, the grouse had a downhill escape route that leaves them out of sight on the far side of the mound.
     About then I wished my friends hadn’t all left for those flat lands to the south. Approaching the hump the dogs got birdy and their bells were ringing, and then I could hear the birds accelerating off the far side. There were at least four. If only someone could have been standing on the far side, it would have been like one of those European driven hunts.
     On the other side of the little hill the cutting opened up, with scattered softwood clumps left behind by the loggers. Stopping for a moment, I tried to guess where I would go if I were a grouse, and picked an open alley that led downhill into a softwood swamp.
    Going into the spruce and fir thicket, Chara, my oldest German wirehair, locked up on point, almost completely hidden by bushy little fir trees not quite waist high. A bird busted out wild and I shot, missing, and as I opened the gun to reload, a second bird followed the first.
     I encouraged the dogs on and Colby, my youngest wirehair, pointed one sitting up in a leaning yellow birch about twelve feet off the ground.  It flew as I approached and I missed again. Those birds coming out of trees are always devilishly hard to hit.
    The woods got thicker, with blown down fir trees and clusters of young ones. The going got real tough. All three dogs were birdy, dashing about, pushing under the stuff I was climbing over, each trying to be the first to find the birds.
     I couldn’t locate Georgia, the young German shorthair, but then spotted her frozen about eight feet in front of Colby, who was honoring. Both of them were almost buried in the green fir boughs. Before I could get within twenty yards of the dogs the grouse rumbled upward and a reflex made me fire. It was a prayer shot, but then I thought a bird’s wing fluttered, possibly the dead bird caught up in a fir branch. Then a dog’s tail wagged and I guessed that was what I’d seen.
     And then Colby came pushing through the brush with the bird in her mouth. What a great sight.
    We hunted down the hill, moving three more grouse, but killing none. Coming out of the swamp into the more open clearcut, Chara pointed and a woodcock flew up, twisting among the branches of two fir trees, and quickly escaped.
    We’ll go back there again next year, me and my friends. I wish all my prospecting trips turned out that successful.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sunshine


     The morning started out cold, the first one with sparkling white frost in a long time. In the valleys, thick fog might have hid most of the landscape, but the freezing mist that collected on the trees created a fairyland of white shapes.
The sun was finally hitting the ground.
     Up in the mountains though, the sun tried to creep over the treetops, but hadn’t quite succeeded yet. The gravel logging road we followed gradually went up the hill, and at an old yard a giant yellow birch had fallen across, blocking further access except for those traveling on foot. From there on golden grasses laced with frost covered the road and our steps fell silently, the only sound being the ringing of the dogs' bells.
     Where a small stream crossed, Chara, the older German wirehaired pointer, insisted on poking through a patch of alders. Wet ground made following her difficult, so I waited in the road. The younger wirehair, Colby, dashed about the woods on the upper side of the road, where maples, birch, and scattered fir grew on drier land. Neither of their bells ever slowed or stopped.
     Up the road a bit, sunlight slipped in through a hole in the forest and lit a small area of ground on the low side. Chara stopped and pointed hard at the rubble that had been pushed up ages ago when the road was shaped. Colby froze when she saw her, standing almost a hundred feet up the road.
     I hurried in and the bird burst into the air to escape down the hill, disappearing into the spruce and firs. We followed into the softwood trees and the bird re-flushed far ahead and almost out of sight. Nosing around further in, Chara did point another grouse, but it flushed far out of range as I approached.
Colby with an early morning grouse.
     The damp ground squished with every step and sucked at our feet, so we fought our way back up to the road and continued up the slope. In another sunny stretch on the upper side Colby started to do the I-got-bird-scent-dance and soon locked up, looking very intense. Two birds flew on my approach and only one of them flew away, the other offering a foolishly easy shot for a ruffed grouse. Colby loves to bring a bird to hand.
     Eventually the road brought us to another old logging yard, much like a small field on the side of the hill. Up on a high banking, where the sun warmed the ground, Chara pointed, her white coat looking bright in the sunlight.
     When I climbed up onto the banking a big snowshoe hare dashed off, and I scolded Chara. Usually she ignores those oversized rabbits. And then a grouse exploded into the air about six feet behind me and to my left, flying along the side of the yard and offering an easy shot…if only I had been ready.
      Fortunately, Chara forgives me my transgressions easily and we hunted on. The dogs were searching for birds, and I was looking for more of those spots where the sun warmed the ground.

     

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Living at the Edge


     The forecast for today was unsettled weather; a major storm, hurricane Sandy, was coming ashore miles to our south. So we took off early with three dogs, trying to get some bird hunting in before the weather went to hell.
     We put all three dogs on the ground at once, thinking that maybe they wouldn’t get a chance to run later. The logging road that we walked hadn’t been used in a while and a gate blocked access.  On the right side mixed softwood and maple, about thirty years old, grew, while on the lower left side predominately softwood grew with mixed age hardwoods.
     Abruptly the woods on the right changed to mixed age hardwoods with scattered softwood trees. We pushed in and worked the dogs parallel with the road. Where the softwood grew thicker along the side of the road, we headed away and around through the woods, following the edge of the hardwoods.

     Chara, the older German wirehair pointer, pointed first, and it took a few minutes to locate her and the silenced bell. A grouse burst upward out of a fir tree, taking off only a couple of feet above Chara’s head.  I shot, but to no avail, only blowing a small fir tree in two about eight feet over the ground.
     Pushing through the spruce and farther up the slope, another grouse thundered out of the top of a tall leggy spruce. A moment later, a second one followed, but on my shot feathers flew and the bird dropped like a stone. The dogs found it and the younger wirehair, Colby, brought it to hand.
     Up the hill Chara’s bell again went silent. We hurried ahead, through soggy ground and blown down softwood trees, to find her, but as I approached a bird exploded upward and went between Don Pouliot and I. After it was safely behind us, I fired and missed, then Don shot, then I again, but the bird never slowed.
     That’s when I learned that Don shot at a second grouse and knocked it down…in all the commotion I never knew that a second bird had flown.
     With two birds in the bag and after only a short hunt, we were feeling pretty giddy. We hunted back toward the road and then followed the edge of the softwoods on the far side of a side road. Almost immediately Georgia’s bell fell silent and we started to search for her. Don found her first and walked in, flushing a grouse across the road that offered no shot. Georgia never moved, and as Don walked past a second grouse flew up into a tree, and then flew again to meet a load of number seven and a half shot from my gun.  
     Three birds in the bag on an early morning hunt is a great way to start the day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Great Grouse!


     The season started with a bang, lots of them. A good grouse population the year before combined with a mild dry spring created a year of abundant grouse. Yesterday, figuring conservatively, three of us hunting moved thirty-eight grouse during five hours of hunting. That easily is the best day of my life. Thirty bird days are almost unheard of.
     The day before we moved over twenty woodcock, so this may well be the season we talk about for the rest of our lives.
Colby with a grouse
     Last night, three tired hunters celebrated with over woodcock and grouse for dinner, while four tired dogs slept silently.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pheasants


     Yesterday pheasant season opened in our home state.  The local Fish and Game, oh, excuse me, now it’s the more politically correct Fish and Wildlife Department, released pheasants three days before. The birds are dumb and most poor fliers, but it’s an excuse to walk the woods with a gun and let the dogs have some fun.
     We hunted one of the prettiest places on the island, with old pastures breaking up the oak woods, and ancient stonewalls zigzagging across the fields. Every year the birds are released in almost exactly the same spot and seldom do they wander far in the few days before the season opens, so to make an event of the day I lead the dogs in a circuitous route to the release location.
     But early on, in the first field after the trail comes out of the trees, the older German wirehair, Chara, gets birdy. I coaxed the younger wire in the same direction, but she showed little interest. In the muted early morning light the somber fall colors appeared shades of rust.
     And then the dogs point! I wandered in and the pheasant took off like a helicopter, laboring for altitude. At the crack of the shot it fell and the dogs were on it. Colby, the younger dog, pranced to me with it in her mouth. Chara already searched for another.
     Colby bumped a second pheasant up on a knoll that flew quite well, soaring over a cluster of young trees and into a second field filled with knee-high sumac. Marking where it landed, we trekked over there but never found it.
     Timeworn cart paths, edged with lichen-covered stonewalls, took us past old stone foundations and through a short section of woods to second set of pastures. We hunted up the fields and then looped around another old tote road that crossed a tiny stream and to head back toward where we came.
     Both dogs got birdy next to a thicket of briars, but Chara abandoned the scent and went on. Colby didn't give up though, and cautiously poked into the briars. A few feet in she locked up like a statue. Peering into the tangle, I could see the pheasant hunkered down only a few feet beyond her nose.
     Now that presented a quandary. The wall of bull briars was higher than my head and almost impossible to see into, let alone walk into. I circled to the left, but things didn’t get better. Around to the right, things improved a might, so I pushed in. I had to give high marks to the McAllister waxed-cotton coat for protecting my upper body. Chara, by that time, circled back and snaked into the briars too, honoring Colby’s point only a foot or two behind her.
     Thorns clawed at my face, dislodged my glasses, and attacked my legs, and why I didn’t wear my brush pants I will never know. If I had tripped, I never would have hit the ground, the tangle would have held me aloft.
     When I looked again, the two dogs had relocated, and the pheasant sat only about eighteen inches from two sets of jaws, its eyes were wide open as I’m sure it knew it was in a pickle by then. At that point I knew the dogs would catch the bird if it tried to fly, because flight in the tangle would have been impossible.
     So I shouted, “Fetch”, which eliminated the middle man, meaning me with the gun. Chara  snapped up the bird and gave it a shake, then dropped it. Colby carried it back to me. I think Chara didn’t want to walk any further in those briars than she had too. She’s a smart girl.
     That gave us our two bird limit, so I untangled my body from the prickly vines and headed home. Later I would find that my legs looked like I’d lost a fight with a bobcat.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Opening Grouse Camp


     The day is getting close. I’ve sharpened my bird knife so many times that I’m worrying about how much metal I’ve taken away. Last night I counted dog bells, put one on a new collar, and cleaned my gun again. The night before, I printed out the list of things to bring that lives inside my computer, checked it against the one that lives in my smart phone, and cleaned my gun. The day before that I worked the dogs out in the fields behind the house, downloaded another map into the GPS, and cleaned the gun. Pretty soon there won’t be any bluing left on those barrels.
     The dogs know what is coming. They don’t let me get far from their sight and right now two are sleeping under my desk. About every hour I check to see if something or other is on the list, so it won’t get forgotten. Most often it is there already, sometimes in two or more places. I resist the urge to start packing.
     I’ll leave early from work, a week from Friday, and get to Grouse Camp late, probably after ten, maybe closer to eleven. The heat will be on, thanks to a neighbor. In the dark I’ll haul everything in while the dogs dance about. They will know we are there for a while and what it’s all about, and I can just imagine their exuberance. Probably I’ll poor a scotch and talk to my girls (all my dogs are girls) after things are in, and hopefully unwind enough to sleep.
     Morning will come soon enough and the dogs won’t let me sleep late. While the coffee is on I’ll make the grocery list and then suck down the caffeine. Then it will be off to the grocery store to provision the place before the gang arrives. Maybe I’ll find time for a quick hunt above the house after the groceries are put away, or maybe not. It won’t matter; there will be plenty of time.
     And then the two friends will arrive, most likely around noontime, with a young Brittany spaniel in tow. Probably it will be lunch and then out into the woods. I already know where we’ll head, to an old favorite. We might hunt all four dogs, just to let them blow off steam, or maybe not if mine have hunted hard earlier. We’ll find some grouse and maybe a woodcock or two. If we’re lucky we’ll bring a few home with us.
     There’s a favorite alder patch nearby that will be a great place to take that young Brittany, and maybe we’ll make it later that day, or if not the next. There will be a few missed shots and, hopefully, a couple of birds in the bag. I can count on many laughs, lots of excitement, and very happy dogs.
     Grouse Camp will have started another year.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Pup Named Skeet


     Skeet, the five month old Brittany spaniel, was back late yesterday for his second visit. Of course his owner Tim was in tow. I planted a couple of pigeons in launchers in a neighboring big field and then we let Skeet go. He was off and hunting in a flash.
     It didn't take him long to find the first one, which he barreled right in on. We picked him and to place him back a few feet, then steadied him. On the bird’s release he took off like a bullet and we praised him as he dashed about the field, looking up and following the pigeon.
     After he settled down for a bit we led him toward the second pigeon and when he got a nose full of scent he pointed, then moved in a step and pointed again. We backed him up a bit and steadied him, then launched the bird. Skeet took off chasing the bird and wearing the biggest grin I've ever seen on a dog. Enthusiasm is building!

Friday, October 5, 2012

A New Pup


     A friend stopped by with his young Brittany pup yesterday. The dog is five months old and full of energy, as all pups should be. Skeet is the dog’s name. He comes when called, is well mannered, curious, and appears fearless, all the right makings for a great bird dog.
     We took the pup out to the fields behind the house and I planted a couple of pigeons in launchers, hiding them among the weeds.
     Skeet was having a ball, exploring everything and running about, clueless to the meaning of a bird dog’s life. Finally he found one of the launchers, and while I steadied the dog, my friend launched the bird. Now that really got the dog’s attention. He bounded about following the flying bird. I think I could hear him saying, “Wow that was neat, wow that was neat, wow that was neat.”
     When Skeet finally settled down we guided him over toward the second launcher. After he found it the dog’s owner steadied the dog while I launched the bird. Little Skeet dashed about the field again following the second bird. What fun!
     Skeet was off and about again, enthusiastically exploring as only a puppy can, when one of the pigeons flew back overhead. He spotted it and immediately took off chasing it again. There’s nothing wrong with that dog’s eyesight!
     Skeet is going to be a champ.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A New Season Starts


     
    It has been raining almost since we arrived here on Friday. On the way up we drove in rain most of the way and the rain caught up soon after our arrival. Since then it has rained almost constantly, a light soaking rain, sometimes more of a mist, but relentless. It is Monday as I write this, the first day of the bird season.
    After watching the rain for three hours, I started late, leaving the house about nine, driving to the dump first and then up a bumpy road into old farm country on a hill, to walk down the snowmobile trail that has been a favorite. At first I felt cold and wished I’d worn gloves and cursed the weather royally.
    Just beyond the dip in the tail, where the old mountain ash stands off to the left, Chara pointed into a softwood thicket on the right side, Colby honored like a champ. The trees were about the diameter of my wrist and barely far enough apart to pass between. I scurried up there just in time to see old Mister Grouse fleeing down the hill on foot. My attempt to head him off proved useless and the dogs never found the bird again.
    Further down the road the two dogs pointed a grouse on the left side of the road, again in a softwood thicket. At least that chunk of forest I could enter standing erect, and the bird did offer a glimpse of a shot, but my first barrel went over and my second one shattered the branches beneath where he had been. If another hunter had been in the tote road that bird might have been dead, for that was his chosen escape route.
    Down the road near the big field, where there are alders on the sides, the dogs became birdy.  Chara locked up on a point, but I couldn’t produce a bird. Finally I coaxed them on, only to have the bird flush behind me. I threw some lead after it, mostly to entertain the dogs.
    We hunted off toward a stand of limby spruce where I’d found birds in lousy weather before, but when we got there they had been cut and only an opening in the forest existed where it used to be a stand of fat field grown spruce. It must have been an annoying chore to limb those threes! The branches were so low to the ground a man would have had to do some limbing just to get near the trunk to cut them down.
    I led the dogs to the northeast corner of the field to hunt an area that had been a favorite, but the last time I’d hunted it I thought it was going past its prime. Loggers had been in there within the past year and punched some holes in the forest, which is the best thing for the grouse and I was glad to see it. We found two in there, one of which my girls pointed, but the bird flushed through a thicket that offered no shot. About then I was sweating profusely and wishing I’d worn less clothes, and, in spite of the rain, I had my shirt unbuttoned to my navel.
    We hunted back down the slope into a softwood cutting. It looked like great grouse cover there and almost immediately Chara went into overdrive tracing scent. The area had been cut long enough ago that the young trees are tight together in clusters about ten feet tall, with maple and birch poking up in between. I would push through one softwood thicket as Chara went under another and around and around we went, until finally she stopped on  point. It took more than a minute to find her and then I had to plan an approach. I circled the fir thicket she hid in, but nothing came out. I waded in and a woodcock went straight up through the branches and out of sight. Stuck inside that tight cluster of trees there was never any point in even trying to mount the gun.
    By that time we were running late, why I ever promised to be back for lunch I do not know, so I herded the dogs back to the trail. Just beyond that dip again, Chara got birdy as all hell on the right hand side, but off to the left I heard a partridge take off for the a different zip code. Apparently the bird was taking no chances.
    We were three minutes late getting back for lunch.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Grouse Camp


     We were lucky and spent the whole month of August up at our place in grouse country. We did a lot of hiking and found some new bird cover. You can never spend too much time in the woods.
     Now we’re back home and the days are getting noticeably shorter and the air has a little nip to it. Fall is knocking on our door.
Pointing a woodcock
     So I sit and look at the calendar, trying to figure out how to get the most hunting out of the pitifully short seasons we have. The biggest priority is days up grouse country. I’m trying to block out two weeks, but not sure if the bank account can stand it.
     I’d like to catch a little of the early duck season here at home, but that’s a low priority. Some years it is spectacular and other years…well forget about it.
     I’ll be up north for opening day, I know that, and within the next few days I’ll have to decide when I’ll go again, probably late October and maybe into November.
     This working for a living just gets in the way of fun!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bear?


     We were about twelve miles in the woods, two from where we parked the truck, trying to find our way to a particular lake using old logging roads and snowmobile trails. The three dogs were with us, Chara, the oldest German wirehaired pointer not far ahead, Colby, our youngster GWP maybe a hundred yards ahead, and Bella, our crazy Vizsla somewhere between the two. The dogs knew we weren’t hunting but hiking, so mostly they stayed on the trail and only made short forays into the trees.
     After walking almost an hour over a ridge on hot sunny logging roads, we had dropped down into a valley, following a narrow trail through thick hardwoods with a lot of dense understory. Near a stream, Chara trotted off to the left and stopped twenty feet from the path, so I stopped too, thinking grouse.
     Bella noticed Chara stopped, and her usual routine is to bolt toward Chara but then to circle around to pin the bird between the two of them. But instead she stopped almost beside Chara, with the two of them staring into the woods, not in what I would call a bird dog’s point, but with heads held high as if trying to see.
     And then about thirty feet beyond the dogs the bushes shook and something large moved. My first thought was “deer”, because that is what it would have been back home. But I didn’t see a deer and the critter only moved a few feet, what I did catch a glimpse of was something dark, and then I lost sight of it among the leaves. Whatever it was, it had stopped only fifty feet from our dogs.
     Both Sally and I could hear something like an infant moaning not far away. The two dogs never moved. Colby came trotting back and I stopped her with a “whoa”. 
Calling the dogs to come with us, we hurried on our way. 
     My best guess is a bear with a young one. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Hot Weather and Dogs


    We are lucky to spend our time in Northern New England in an area where drinking water for the dogs is rarely a concern. Streams are almost everywhere and finding dry footing is a much more common problem. Overheated dogs can die a miserable death, and the weather really doesn’t have to be that hot for it to happen. Staying out of the hottest parts of the day and ample drinking water are their best defense.
    Yesterday the temperatures were only in the upper seventies in the shade, but the sun was very hot. During the morning we hiked up a small mountain north of our place, and the unusually dry weather had dried up all the wet places. In a normal summer, the trail looked like it would be impossible to do without waterproof boots, but instead we tread on hard damp mud.
    The dogs were a concern, particularly after they pointed a partridge and went into hunting overdrive. Tongues were hanging. We calmed them down, but you know how that goes. In one wet spot a moose had walked through and fortunately the footprints had all filled with water. If it hadn’t have been for that spot, which we passed both going and coming, there wouldn’t have been any water for the dogs, except near where our truck was parked.
    The next time we hike where we are not certain of water, we’ll carry them some. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

July Rabbits


Pointing rabbits early last spring

     My dogs are German wirehaired pointers, and we also have a Vizsla in the house, and in Europe they are all breed to hunt furred as well as feathered game. In North America, the hunting of furred game is usually discouraged, and that is what I have done.
     But come July, when hunting is a distant memory in the dog’s mind, and the year’s new crop has bunnies everywhere around our home, I let them have some fun with the rabbits.
     On our morning and afternoon walks they always find one to point, sometimes a whole bunch to point. I walk in and then shout “okay”, which causes the dogs to dash after the rabbit. The dogs have learned to hunt as a team, with one usually trying to come around to cut off any escape route. They seem to have great fun and it causes me to laugh. Only a couple of times have they actually caught the rabbits.
     If they start to point when I’m in a hurry to be going, I shout “leave it”, and they do, but appear to do so with great reluctance. In bird season they would have to be dragged by a bulldozer to get them off a bird they are pointing. They know when it’s serious business.
     Dogs sure are fun. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Grouse Camp is Open


    Last Friday Sally and I made the trek up to our North Country camp to open the place for the summer. Back in March, we opened the place up for a weekend, but it was too early then to leave the water on.  Now the place is ready for use.
Bear damage to camp
    Since our last visit, a bear in a sour mood decided to take a swipe at our place, removing a couple of saucer sized chunks out of the siding on back of the place and then biting a hunk out of the corner boards.  He was a tall sucker, because the bite on the corner is well over the top of my head.
    Right off the dogs bumped a family of grouse at the edge of the back yard.  The young were about the size of adults and flew easily up into the trees. For a few minutes it seemed there were grouse everywhere, which is a very good thing!
    My daughter, Tami, was visiting with her boyfriend, Chris, so we did some hiking to get ourselves in shape, as well as the dogs.  The dogs have been around long enough to know hiking from hunting, so they mostly pay attention to us rather than search for birds, but they still found a few grouse along the trails.
At the falls
    One day we did a two mile hike to falls in the nearby river, where we ate lunch on the granite ledges, soaked up some sun, and I bothered a few fish. The terrain was rugged enough, both coming and going, to wear us all down a bit, including the dogs, who I’m sure went three times as far as the rest of us. Did I mention they found a few grouse along the way?
    Below our camp, on the last day of our stay, I fished the stream that forms the west boundary of our property.  A dry spring made for low water, and the winter runoff had moved the streams course, eliminating one of my favorite fishing spots, but creating a long run under a grassy bank.
    The brook trout were suckers for a green wooly bugger fished along that run and in the pockets behind some submerged logs, and one even fell for one of my red tag coachman dries. Two of the largest trout came home for breakfast.
    So after trout and eggs the next morning, we packed things up, I put Thompson’s Water-seal on the deck, and then we left. On the way, we stopped a few miles to the south to visit for a short while with a longtime bird hunter, whose days in the woods are unfortunately all behind him now. One of the first things he asked was if we had seen any young birds.   


Monday, June 11, 2012

Opening up Grouse Camp


    Every spring it is the same thing, I make plans to fish as the ice comes out of the lakes and the landlocked salmon come up the streams, chasing the smelt. Or maybe I’ll fish the ponds as the ice fades away and the brookies are on top. And every year it’s the same old thing, I’m too busy with work.
    We live in a tourist destination, Martha’s Vineyard, and when the days get nice down in the cities, the summer homeowners start to remember all the things they wanted to have done before the next vacation season.  So the phone starts to ring, of which I am usually quite glad after waddling through the winter, and I get very busy, too busy.
    But this coming weekend we are finally sneaking away to Grouse Camp to open it up for the summer.  My daughter is visiting with her boyfriend, so there will be a lot of catching up to do, and hiking and puzzles and watching the warblers (there will be tons of them) from the deck.
    And at some point, I’ll sneak down to the trout stream below our place and wade into the water. There will be fish, none of them very big, but all nice brookies, and maybe I’ll bump a woodcock along the banks. It has happened often.
     And I bet I hear grouse drumming more than once.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Between Seasons


Photo by Dennis Swett

     It’s raining up north. I watch the weather forecasts for up there as closely as where we live, maybe more so. At least the young grouse and woodcock of the year should be big enough to generate their own body heat and have honest-to-goodness feathers, rather than just down. Hopefully, almost all of them will survive.
     Often, I find myself looking at USGS Aerial images on my Android phone, and none of them are of where we live, but rather the country I’ll hunt come fall. I’d love to be up there right now trout fishing, so I could listen for the drumming birds, but my work has me trapped down here in the flat lands.  Life could be much worse though, there are two bird dogs sleeping in the den with me, both dreaming with their legs twitching. I wish they could tell me about their dreams later.
     Periodically, I open the gun safe and take out my favorite double, shoulder it a few times, remind myself to go shooting more often, and then put it away. I dig out the list of things to bring hunting, just to double check it, maybe add or subtract something, and then put it away. The new little trout and bird knife that I got for Christmas will get a few strokes on an Arkansas stone. It’s always good to be ready ahead of time.
Drumming grouse,
photo by Dennis Swett
     Daily I walk the dogs. I find it easier to stay in shape than to get in shape. The dogs enjoy it as much as I do, and I love to watch them work the fields and woods. Every once in a while they point a turkey, which always creates a good story and usually a laugh. Maybe once or twice a year they’ll find a woodcock out back, but sadly there are no ruffed grouse here.
     How many days did you say it was until bird season?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

During the off season…


     I find myself daydreaming a lot this time of the year, counting the days until October.  Not too long ago I discovered a great app for my smart phone.  My phone is a Android, but I’m sure it’s available for iPhones too, and there’s probably other apps that do similar things.  It’s called BackCountry Navigator, and it basically turns your phone into a standalone GPS.  No phone coverage is needed, so it works out in the middle of nowhere, which is one of my favorite places to be.
My girls, showing off again.
     USGS type topographical maps are available from MyTopo.com, or, better yet, USGS Color Aerials are available too.  Downloading them on the phone is painless and takes almost no time.  Now, whenever I find myself waiting, whether it’s for an oil change or lunch at the diner, I go to my favorite coverts in the palm of my hand. Or better yet, I search the color aerial photos looking for likely new coverts. Technology, you have to love it.
     It’s not a free app and I don’t remember what I paid, but, being a New England Yankee, you can be sure it wasn’t too much.  Whatever it was, it certainly was worth every penny for all the hours it has entertained 

My older wirehair, when she was just a pup.