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.