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


     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


     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.