Sunday, November 24, 2013


My old girl Chara
The other dogs stayed back at the house, where they could recover from a long day afield. The last hour of the afternoon I had saved for just Chara, my old German wirehair in her thirteenth bird season. It was just going to be the two of us. We parked down near the metal gate where the road has the dog-leg in it. As I opened the truck door a grouse thundered away unseen, and I took that as a good omen.
Chara slipped her head into the belled collar as I offered it, and then I dug my gun out of the back.  With her leading the way we walked down past the tilting gate.
Ahead of us the grassed in logging road sloped into an empty valley. The hills on the far side had been logged hard, and their tops appeared ragged, like a decrepit picket fence. The next paved road in that direction is over twenty miles away in the neighboring state. It’s big country, but we planned to hunt only the cream of it.
Ancient apples.
A few apple trees on the left bore an abundance of fruit, so we poked around, hoping to find a late day grouse, but found nothing. In her old age, Chara walked rather than ran, her nose sifting the air and sorting scents that I would never imagine. It was easy to keep up with her senior pace, a pleasant treat after three days of hunting behind big running youngsters.
The forest turned to poplar, maple, and birch, all the diameter of a grapefruit and as tall as a four story building. A few years earlier it was dynamite woodcock and grouse country, but those days were gone. Chara searched hard, but we found nothing.
Where an intersecting logging road cut us off, we crossed the grassy road into alders to start back up the hill. Beyond chin-high raspberries, Chara’s bell went silent.
Chara pointing the woodcock.
Carefully I waded through the thorns, and then ducked or stepped over alders until I found her statue-like and facing my direction. Approaching and wondering…. Where?
The woodcock leapt skyward, then spiraled behind a young fir. I swung and fired over the top of the tree as I expected the bird to appear, but evidently she was a local and knew her way out the backdoor. 
We tried to find that woodcock again, but never did. After walking past a recently cut area, we strolled into a long abandoned field. Almost immediately Chara pointed toward a squat apple tree growing among low bush blueberries. As I approached a grouse rocketed out of the back, flying close to the ground and not offering a shot.
Chara on point among wild apples.
As if pulled by a string attached to her nose, Chara followed that grouse’s scent to where it disappeared into a thicket of alder and wild apples. While Chara worked her way through the tangle I followed on the outside, hoping to get a shot. But the bird bolted low across the field and then rose up into the tree line far beyond.
We continued to hunt up the hill, bouncing between apple trees, alder patches, and clusters of firs. Nearing the crest, Chara locked up rigid under a particularly large apple tree that grew against three or four old fir trees. Before I got there the partridge exploded out of the back and followed his cousin into the trees beyond the field.
By that time we were almost back to the truck and the sun had slipped behind the hill. That late day chill had settled in so it was time to call it a day. I said, “Chara, come, let’s go back to the truck.”
 That’s when I realized that during the entire hunt I had never said a word to my favorite girl, only whistled softly through my teeth to turn her when needed. And I never had to walk faster than a leisurely pace.
It was the most civilized ruffed grouse hunt that I have ever had, and I didn’t even have to clean birds afterward.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Georgia, the story continues…

Room to run in the big woods.
At a little over two and a half years of age, it was Georgia’s third foray up to the big north woods with me. Her owners, both non-hunters, loved that their shorthair got the chance to experience “what she was bred for”.
Her first year she just tagged along, playing as much as hunting and learning what life is all about. Ruffed grouse baffled her, but occasionally a woodcock would hold for a point. The second season it all started to come together, and during the second week of that trip she pointed her first ruffed grouse. There were more points that week, as it all started to come together, but also periods of over-exuberance (read: unruly flushing of grouse, most far enough away that they could be heard but not seen).  And then this fall, after a couple of rather rowdy days burning off steam, she settled down and hunted like a champ, pointing over a dozen grouse, politely honoring on still more than that, and doing both on countless woodcock.
Georgia with a bird pinned.
In her puppy days, Georgia had been taught the basic manners that all dogs should be taught, but since then has had almost no training in hunting. Before taking her north for the second season, we did a little work on planted pigeons and stalked a few pheasants that the state of Massachusetts had nicely provided, but I doubt there was five hours of training all together.
Before heading north this year I took her out into the fields behind the house to find pigeons that I’d planted, and she solidly pointed every single one of them. Georgia did it with such regularity that it was almost boring to work with her. Again, we only trained a few of hours, total.
Three tired dogs.
Her breeders, Hedgehog Hill Shorthairs in Belmont, Vermont, did a spectacular job of breeding for temperament balanced with hunting skills. Georgia was so well mannered this year that I’ve told people it was as if she knew she was a guest and wouldn’t be invited back again if she misbehaved. It was a pleasure to have her in the house as well as on the hunt.
We won’t get north again this season, so now it’s the waiting, but it’s only three hundred and twenty days until it’s October again! I think Georgia has the days marked on a calendar in her kennel.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Great Idea

I wish it was an original idea on my part, but most of us have seen the gun storage boxes in ads in the backs of the bird hunting magazines. A gentleman that I hunted with a few years ago had one in the back of his SUV and the concept of firearms safely stored yet with easy access was impressive.
I have priced the things and none of them are cheap, so being a thrifty (read: cheap) Yankee I’d thought about building one. Now I have an advantage over most because I’m a cabinet maker by trade with my shop only a hundred feet from our home. Materials left over from jobs accumulate in the attic of the barn and by poking around there certainly would be all that I needed.
So only a couple of days before my annual two week trip up to the grouse woods, I spent an afternoon putting together my gun box.
The outside of the box itself is ¾ inch marine grade mahogany plywood (yes, at almost three hundred bucks a sheet it was left over from a job). The bottom I left long enough to reach the front of the truck’s bed, so the thing wouldn’t slide forward when I avoid a moose or stop suddenly somewhere for a coffee. The drawer itself is ½” prefinished birch plywood, and the face of the drawer is made of butternut. Between the drawer front and the box I put weather stripping to form a gasket and keep out dust. Cheaper materials would certainly provide just as serviceable until, but, being a cabinet maker, the box had to look nice so that it looked like I knew what I was doing.
The drawer slides came from a pull-out pantry and are rated for 500 pounds. That is overkill. The drawer is 47” long, but the slides are only 28” full extension, yet they provide ample access. Long drawer slides are expensive and I didn’t want to purchase them if they weren’t needed.
I put a hasp on each side of the box that can keep the drawer shut when the truck is parked on a slope and also allow padlocking. Inside are four slots, two sized for twelve gauge side by sides, and the other two fit over and unders, pumps, or twenty gauge side by sides. The slots were all lined with terrycloth (an old towel) to protect the guns. Next to them I made three lift out boxes to hold shells, gloves, dog first aid things, and whatever.
During my trip the storage unit made life easier than I ever imagined, and the guns had never been so well protected. The truck’s tailgate when shut just touches the pull on the drawer’s front, securing the box when the tailgate is locked.

Now I wonder why I waited so long to build the thing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Hidden Homestead

I’m certain others know it is there. The apple trees give it away. My dogs and I visited the spot for the first time this year, walking down from the field on the hill above and then following a snowmobile trail into the woods. Where the land flattens out I spotted several apple trees off to the south.
It was classic New England bird country, with poplars as big as my thigh and alders coming up in clusters. Spots of grass told of old fields, and spruce, fir, and maples and birch crowded in from beyond.
We hunted in a circle, following the edge where the apples met the young forest. The dogs bumped a grouse. It looked like woodcock country too, and I looked for splash, but never saw any.
An ancient stone wall.
And then I spotted the wall. It was less than three feet tall and probably slightly wider. Moss almost hid it. Nearby a pile of stones, waist high and about the area of a swimming pool, told of frustration from farming that land. It took some poking around, but I found the stone foundation. They hadn’t dug a cellar, but built over a shallow crawl space. The rock pile was larger.
I set down my gun and sat on a rock, trying to imagine what the settlers had seen that attracted them to that spot. The dogs never stopped hunting, living in the moment as they always do, unaware of the past.
A rock pile left behind by a determined settler.
The hill above faced to the east, and the spot where I had stopped still sloped, but very gently. The land sat high enough that early frosts would settle into the valley below, and the morning sun would warm the land. North winds would break up against the side of the hill, particularly if the homesteader left a few trees to that side. I could see how an optimistic person might fall in love with the spot.
But snow on the ground for five months of the year must have made for tough farming. And the bony wet ground would have made rough work. Cutting away the trees and encouraging grasses must have dried things out a bit, but rain is frequent in that part of New England and the weather can be vicious. I’ve hunted there when it’s rained for most of a week, cold rain. And an early or late frost would have been devastating.
My girls pointing in the thick of it.
I realized the dog’s bells had silenced, so grabbed my gun and took off to find them. In the southeast corner they both stood near a fir tree, pointing toward a decrepit busted-up apple tree. Before I got there the partridge flushed, not offering a shot.
The bells started ringing as the dogs hunted again, living in the moment.