Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Early Wet Snow


Snow on high bush
cranberries.
      Gray skies dribbled wet snow, which mixed with the soggy ground. The weeds that still stood readily soaked clothes. The dogs didn’t mind any of it. They were happy to hunt and loved the conditions.
      It was the last stretch before we turned the woods over to the rifle hunters and their search for deer. The morning temperatures had been down around or below freezing and the days were noticeably shorter than a few weeks ago. The hills bordering our valley looked soft, almost like supple gray fur.
      The grouse had scattered, the family groups broken up by hunters, human or otherwise. Woodcock were still around and a lucky hunter could find flight birds in numbers, or none. Soon they would all be gone. Depending on the year, grouse might be around apple trees or mountain ash or high bush cranberries. This year every fruit bearing tree produced massive crops, so the birds were scattered.
      With the season winding down we decided to spend the morning in a favorite old covert. The cover has changed from alders to poplar to mature poplar, but it was still a favorite covert that always has birds. A few ancient apple trees hid in the mix, always hinting of grouse..
The ground was soggy everywhere..
      The ground was soaked and almost immediately a woodcock fled ahead of one of the dogs. Down the hill we hunted and then turned northward when the ground turned to bog. On small hummocks covered with young maples each of the dogs pointed a woodcock. When Maggie points Colby always honors, I wish the opposite were also true. Some easy shots were miffed, but during the next hour two connected.
Colby pointing a woodcock hiding in a nasty thicket.
      Working our way back by a couple of old  apple trees another woodcock was found, but no grouse. Often they are there, but not that day. Near the truck bird scent aroused Colby’s interest, but after some serious tail wagging she abandoned it. Maggie trotted over and snapped onto point. On second thought, Colby decided to honor.
      It was a thicket impossible walk into. Kicking against the side, the woodcock almost smacked me in the face on the way by, then wove its way downhill through the trees.          
      Two shots never touched a feather.
      With clothes soaked it was time to leave. The dogs slept on the drive home while I sipped coffee.
      The bird season is just too short.





Saturday, November 16, 2019

Two Inches of Snow

The cover looks so different with the leaves
gone and snow on the ground.

     Temperatures dip into the teens at night. Snow cloaks the ground and distant hills can be seen between the gray trunks of bare trees. Winter is sneaking into the woods and the world is changing.
    Our favorite coverts on the hillsides are empty. Woodcock are nowhere to be found. Most of the old apple trees have shed their apples, but a few trees still cling to their fruit. In the cuttings high bush cranberries glow red and can be spotted from a distance. Mountain ash that were so easy to spot a month ago seemed to have disappeared.
Sometimes the birds are hard
to find.
     Bucks have rubbed the bark off of small trees. Deer and moose tracks crisscross the snow. Turned up leaves and soil mark scrapes where testosterone charged males attempt to attract the opposite sex. It is a different world than a month ago.
     Down in the stream bottoms, where softwood trees edge the cuttings, grouse will be found. Often the dogs will point with confused looks, uncertain of where the grouse are, only to have the grouse launch from a tree, sometimes from unbelievably high. Occasionally birds will be pointed on the ground, but most of the birds have seen a hunter or two and will try to sneak away. The savvy dog will learn to deal with the runners, cautiously pinning them rather than flushing the wary birds.

Maggie pointing a ruffed grouse.





Tuesday, November 5, 2019

That First Kiss


     Have you ever noticed how often you are driving past a place and think “that looks like great grouse cover”, and when you hunt it there are birds galore. You come back as second and third time to that same spot and it doesn’t measure up.
     About three weeks ago I stopped on a logging road out in the middle of nowhere to look at a map and figure out where I was. The woods on the uphill side of the road looked like it had possibilities, so I wadded in. The dogs picked up scent immediately and within five minutes there were two points and a third grouse flew out of a tree.
A young alder stand.
     There’s a place I have been driving by for years, an old clear cut filled with young pin cherries. That is not my favorite grouse cover. Passing by it a couple of weeks ago I noticed the pin cherries had been crowded out by poplars and alders. I pulled over and got out my gun.
     In an area of about two acres I moved eight woodcock and one grouse. A few days later I took a friend there and we couldn’t find a bird.
A sure sign of woodcock.
     Last year I hunted the regrowth in what used to be a gravel pit. Alders and poplar held a lot of promise and we found birds. Every trip since then had been a disappointment.
     Of course there are covers we find that produce over and over again, but there seems to be a high percentage that produce only on the first visit, only to disappoint later on. Or maybe we just remember it that way, the first is always best.
     Kind of like that first kiss.

A ruffed grouse hiding in a tree. He is safe from me.





Thursday, October 31, 2019

Let’s Hope This Catches On…


Every avid grouse hunter knows that early successional forests are great for wildlife. It appears a young forest is also good at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere too. Let’s hope this is the next environmental craze…





Young poplars in a clear cut.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ice On The Puddles

Morning fog usually means
nice weather.

     There is ice on the puddles now, at least first thing in the morning. At sunrise fog fills the valleys and the moisture freezes on the leafless branches of the trees. Golden or brown weeds and dead grasses have started to tilt or fall down. The fluffy seeds on the goldenrod look like cotton.
     Grouse hunters wait patiently for this time of the year. Temperatures are cool enough the dogs don’t overheat. Woodcock are still around to offer bonus birds. And, best of all, the leaves are pretty much gone from the trees. Green leaves may still cling to an occasional apple tree or the crown of a poplar may glow golden, but it is much easier to see in the woods.
High bush cranberries.
Young poplars.
     Gaudy red fruit hangs from both high bush cranberry and mountain ash this year. Apple tree branches weep under the load of their fruit. Now that the frost has softened the apples the wildlife love them. Find food and maybe you’ll find grouse, but this year there is so much to choose from the grouse could be almost anywhere.
     So we try to get out often. The dogs have firmed up their muscles and shed a pound or two. The hunters have too.



Maggie with a hard earned grouse.






Thursday, October 17, 2019

Early Season


 
     It always starts with much anticipation, maybe even more so than Christmas. The leaves are still on and a few trees are still quite green. Temperatures might be up into the mid-sixties or higher, much too hot for the dogs and the hunters too, but off into the woods we will go.
     With luck, family broods of ruffed grouse will be found. Some of those young birds might even be dumb enough to fly into a load of number eight shot that is tearing through the air. A naive young bird will sit in a tree, not knowing how lucky he is that we choose not to shoot birds off limbs. We often taste a wild apple and probably toss it away as too bitter.
     The foliage usually is spectacular, from reds to yellows to oranges and green. We get hot and tired too soon. Up in our country the dogs can usually find a brook to stretch out in. A woodcock might tweeter away or a grouse thunders away. We’ll seek a shady spot up on a hill where a breeze might find us.
     Sometimes a bird comes home with us and sometimes none do, but it’s always a hell of a good time.



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Birds Be About



      It’s that marvelous time of the year. Grouse season opened a little over a week ago and we’ve been out almost every day. The dogs pointed like champs and a few birds have fallen to the gun. We are working on consistency.
      Apple trees, hawthorn, high bush cranberries, and mountain ash are all so loaded with fruit that their branches sag. Choke cherries are almost black by now. Birches and maples are loaded with seeds. Every creature of the forest is gorging on the smorgasbord. Any hunter trying to use bait to lure in game is suffering an uphill battle.
      We have found the ruffed grouse up high in the hills and down at the edges of the farmland in the valleys. Woodcock are wherever the ground is damp and not crowded with weeds. Our daily averages are slightly above the long term normal.
      Our old girl Colby doesn’t cover a lot of ground, but she never bumps a bird. Maggie, at three and a half years of age, still lets her enthusiasm get ahead of her wisdom and occasionally bumps a bird, but she finds a half dozen birds to her older sibling’s one. Watching them develop is at least half of the fun. 
     It is the most wonderful time of the year.

     







Sunday, September 22, 2019

Late September

Fall colors are happening.



      We wait all year for October. Time slows almost to a standstill as the end of September grows closer. On cool days we run the dogs, hoping to get them and ourselves into shape. The woods is still a jungle of leaves. Birds are bumped, some are pointed, and most disappear before anyone could ever shoot them.
      This week was a good one. Grouse were found on a couple of morning walks and the leaves are starting to put on quite a colorful display. As the week ended the weather turned a bit warm, but we managed to get out while it was still cool. 
      The dog's bells and orange collars were dug out a couple of weeks ago. The waxed cotton clothes may get a re-wax, depending on their wear. Hunting knives are located and touched up on a stone. Boots will be treated with waterproofing. Clean shotguns are cleaned again and lovingly oiled. Preparation can be half the fun.
      Hunting journals jog memories of long forgotten coverts. Topographical maps and aerial images are studied. Friends call who haven’t called in a year. Nobody is more popular in October than someone who owns a home in grouse country.
      It is only eight days until the season opens.
Young of the year sitting in a tree.



Monday, September 2, 2019

Mentoring


     The state of New Hampshire started a mentoring program this year for people who want to learn to bird hunt. I love the sport and worry about the shrinking number of hunters all over the country. With diminishing political clout we will lose our open lands and hunting as we know it.
Choke cherries are everywhere.
     Yesterday I met my mentee for the first time. We chatted a bit and then headed into the woods. He’s about a decade younger than me and has hunted most of his life, but never over bird dogs or for ruffed grouse in New Hampshire. Trying to explain to somebody what makes good grouse or woodcock cover sounds easy, but often it is just a feeling or hunch as you drive by a certain piece of cover. Travelling on a logging road, I pointed out things grouse love to eat and tried to explain the need for shelter in the softwood trees.
     I let my dogs out in a place I had found grouse before, but we didn’t have a lot of time and this time of the year grouse are widely scattered. Berries and seeds are abundant and everywhere in the woods this year, so finding concentrated birds seemed unlikely. I tried to be optimistic.
Maggie on a woodcock.
     The weeds were impenetrable in a small clearcut I had hoped to work around. Instead, we trekked to the north and found moist young forest. I mentioned something about good cover to find woodcock and almost immediately my younger dog went on point. That certainly made me feel good.
     Stepping past the dog, the bird launched straight up over the trees and then flew away. A couple of minutes later my older girl went on point with Maggie backing her. Maggie lost control of her manners and bumped the bird, but it still was nice to find a second bird in the little bit of time we were in the woods.
     I’m looking forward to spending a day in October with my mentee. Let’s hope it’s a day filled with birds.

Do you see him?




What’s For Dinner?



Our wild apple tree is loaded.

     Imagine a different restaurant every hundred feet down the road. One is serving Mexican, the next typical American fare, the next Italian food. Every stop has something different and all the food is good.
     That is what is happening out in the woods this year. It seems every type of plant that produces fruit is having a bumper year. Wild apples are already piling up on the ground. Blueberries linger on the bushes. Mountain ash are turning bright reds. Bright red choke cherries are already attracting the bears.
Wild hawthorn
     And if the fruits don’t create enough choices, some of the birches are loaded with catkins and the mountain maples are draped with strings of seeds.
     If there were an overabundance of restaurants the clientele would be scattered. This fall the game birds and animals will be the same. Hunters baiting bear are going to have a hard time getting the bruin's attention.
     The good news is the wildlife will go into winter well fed and healthy.


Blackberries

Catkins on a birch tree.
Mountain ash berries not quite red yet.
Mountain maple seeds 





Friday, August 30, 2019

Ah Grasshopper…


     In the middle of August the grasshoppers appear, droves of them. When I mow the lawn a wave of the critters flees ahead of me. Some appear as large as humming birds. Even our bird dogs sit and watch the hoppers fly about.
     During a late afternoon break I trekked down to my favorite brook below the house. A couple of hundred yards downstream a field is on the opposite side. Over this bend in the water grasshoppers flit about and occasionally land in the water. It was pretty obvious which fly to tie on, but all my hopper patterns were back at the house.
     The closest imitation in my boxes was a big alder fly I’d tied a couple of weeks before. The body was dubbed a light gray on a number ten hook and the wing was just deer hair tied sort of muddler style. The colors on the real insect went from gray to yellow on the abdomen, but this one would have to do. Bigger would have been better.
     The fly landed with a splat, much like a real hopper falling into the stream. It didn’t drift a foot when it was inhaled. During the next hour I caught and released over three dozen trout all on the same fly.
      A few days later I went back with an imitation tied with a yellow body and the same seen repeated. A week after that I couldn’t catch a trout on any fly I floated.
     That’s fishing, isn’t it?





Thursday, August 8, 2019

Blueberries


     It’s August. The weather is too hot. The humidity is high. All of the trout seem to have disappeared from their favorite haunts. The foliage is so thick in the woods that it swallows up any breeze and makes for steamy hiking. What’s a New Hampshire person to do?
     Blueberrying.
     Blueberrying is best to do during the cooler parts of the day, either morning or late afternoon. Find abandoned fields and you will probably find blueberries. They often grow in small patches sometimes no bigger than a dinner table. In a good year the decent patch will appear mostly blue and you can roll them off the vine a dozen at a time. In leaner times you’ll be picking singles, but hopefully they’ll be lots of big fat singles.
     It takes about six cups to make a pie, and that translates into something like an hour and a half of one person picking. Of course that varies with density of crop and how many the picker eats. Pancakes and muffins use far less. Even a handful improves breakfast cereal immensely. I try not to eat while picking, self-control is an issue.
     This year we’ve picked about a dozen quarts from low bush blueberry vines growing in our own fields. It is something of a record for us. There’s still a few berries ripening, so maybe close to another quart will be picked. By then I’ll really be ready for some cooler weather.
     As I pick I find myself dreaming about throwing flies for landlocked salmon or a big old male brook trout in his fall colors. And then there’s the ruffed grouse season coming on fast, which the dogs are looking forward to even more than I am. Life is grand when you let it be.
     Blueberrying is a great way to pass the time.

Those picking buckets are a lot older than I am.




Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Tying Flies

Red Tag Coachman.

     There are few things you can do indoors that tie you as closely to the outdoors as tying flies. You can be tying flies to imitate the insects that hatched last week or the ones that are prophesied for next week, it doesn’t matter. Fly tying can get you through the cold of winter or a rainy stretch any time of the year. The flies can be for trout, the bonefish down on that flat down in the Florida Keys, or striped bass up in the rip outside of Boston Harbor.
     Right now it is August. Most of the time it is on the warm side for trout fishing. The hot sticky temperatures take the fun out of it and catching to release in heated streams stresses the trout. Small back country creeks, where the water is still cold, provide about the only real trout fishing around. The big river is fickle, depending on the weather.
     Outside it is pouring. A front is moving through to wipe away the hot sticky weather of the last few days. If we get two or three chilly nights in a row and the river will fish well.
     So it’s a prefect night to tie up some hopper patterns. A few of the live ones are huge, almost as big as a grown man’s pinky finger. We’ll hope for a cool stretch and then flop some of those enormous flies in the water. Maybe a few of those giant old brown trout will wake up hungry.
Tomah Jo
     Last winter an urge to tie the old classic wet flies hit me. There’s a whole box full in my vest now. Sometimes I fish them and they seem to catch as many fish as anything else I toss. I love history and those flies are history
     For much of February I tied Clouser minnows, dozens of them. No, dozens of dozens of them. I haven’t fished them much and I’ve given away many. Then I finished out the winter tying my favorite dry fly patterns. You can’t have too many, not the way I catch tree limbs.
     Down in the basement is a Wheatley fly box full of salmon flies, just in case someone invites me along. They are all nearly thirty years old and never have been wet. I can dream, can’t I? There’s boxes of saltwater flies too. Some of those have been fished. Did I ever tell you about the day where I caught six striped bass over thirty inches long? I'm allowed to dream about doing it again, aren't I?
     Maybe that is what tying flies is all about. Dreaming. I think both hunters and fisherman spend a lot of time dreaming.

Dreams.




Monday, July 22, 2019

Upstream A Bit


     Topographical maps show an area of slack water with no contour lines crossing the stream for a very long ways. From the nearest logging road it’s more than a mile in, five times that from the asphalt. It’s grouse and woodcock country, so there’s bound to be alders and woodcock come fall. But it’s the promise of brook trout that draws me in.
     It’s a stream noted for wild brook trout and it weaves through back country, most of the way tumbling down bony grades. But one stretch in the middle is slower, where the water winds through a valley with high undercut banks shouldering the stream. Large brook trout aren’t usually found in the pocket water of tumbling streams. It is more likely they are king of the meandering streams, hiding in the deep holes or under overhanging banks.
     The place needed a closer look.
     With backpack loaded and accompanied by my dogs, following a compass course to the west from my parked truck, I headed into the woods.
     It was easy going, mixed softwoods and hard. Often the ground became soggy enough to warrant detours. Moose tracks turned up the mud. In a gully more than ten feet deep, we encountered a stream too wide to jump. Downstream a couple of hundred yards a half dozen rocks provided stepping stones to cross. Soon we came to alders and the progress slowed. We had to be close to our intended goal.
     So many things in life are like that…you get close to your goal and the progress slows. Finally we broke from the alders onto a bony beach. In front of us water tumbled over rocks after funneling between boulders. Upstream the water appeared a glassy slick lined on either side by alders.
     It appeared to be exactly what we were looking for.






Sunday, July 14, 2019

We Went For a Walk


     Our premise was to find a beaver pond with trout in it. Years had passed since I had found a good one. Pack rods were stowed in our backpacks, along with lunches, trout flies, and basic first aid gear. The dogs would accompany us and their excitement felt contagious. From an old abandoned logging yard filled with a kaleidoscope of wildflowers we headed east.
     The path petered out and we stepped into the shade of hardwood trees. Up in the treetops a grouse flushed. The old skid roads had filled with raspberries and made for miserable walking. Inside the shade of the hardwood trees the air felt cooler. How many people today abandon the trails to make their own way through the forest? Not many I suspect.
     Moose sign was everywhere, droppings and tracks.  Deer tracks, large and small, indicated a healthy herd. A well-worn game trail led down to the first pond we had hoped to find. It looked more like a meadow than a pond, all filled with silt until perfectly flat and then covered with the greenest of grass. After a good mowing it would have made a delightful baseball field.
     Heading to the north through the hardwoods again, we crossed another logger’s skid road and soon entered a stand of softwood trees. Another grouse flew from up high at the sound of our dogs. Clearing the top of a small knoll, we looked down on an expanse of water.
     It couldn’t have looked much prettier, but no recent beaver activity could be found. The water looked brown and warm. Only a trickle of water flowed out of the pond and there didn’t appear to be a brook flowing in.
     Our dogs loved the water and poked along the shore. Maggie swam out to one small island and claimed it for her own. Trout seemed to be absent, so after a short break we trekked onward to the west, passing under beech, maple, and yellow birch trees.
     The third beaver pond we found had water in only one small corner next to the long-gone beaver’s neglected dam. Clumps of very green grass sprouted in the mud, as Mother Nature reclaimed what the beaver had tried to change. It was time to abandon our quest and head home.
     Following the contour of the hill, we continued to the west, knowing we would eventually intersect a logging road that would lead us back to our truck.



Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Mayflies



     The month of June is ruled by mayflies. Sure, there are stoneflies and caddis flies, and on the last trip down to the stream a half dozen damsel flies were holding a congregation. But hatching mayflies get the attention of the fly casters.
     This past week a maddening array of varieties flittered over the water. March Browns were still present with Quill Gordons also in flight. A monstrous Green Drake landed on my hand, it looked to be well over two inches long.
     Little trout rise with abandon. Wiser trout are larger and less likely to take an artificial.
     So we swap flies and swap them some more. Bigger, darker, spentwing or dun? There are so many choices.
     Just like in bird hunting, if it were easy we would get bored.





Thursday, June 20, 2019

Rain


     Rain probably kills more ruffed grouse than any other thing. During the first few days of a newly hatched chick’s life, a soaking rain is a killer. If the temperature is cold things get really bleak.
     It is now late June and looking at my notes, at this time last year people were seeing clutches of grouse. Today it is pouring and the rain will last into the night. It is easy to imagine a hen grouse desperately trying to keep her young chicks dry.
     Mother Nature can be cruel and the grouse have been through this before. The specie will survive with the strongest living on. What this rain does to the grouse population we may not know until the fall.



Gravel Roads


      The dogs sit up, every time, slipping from silent slumber to restless wonder faster than I can straighten out the wheels.
      Under the truck’s tires gravel grumbles and the pace slows. We weave to miss washed out holes in the road and the air smells different. There’s nobody else around and moose tracks travel the same direction we do.
      The dogs absolutely know this road leads to another adventure.
      Up where we live not all town roads are tarred and logging roads are only maintained while logging is active. The dogs know dirt roads lead to out of the way places and that is where fun always awaits. In the summer it might mean trout fishing or just plain hiking, but come fall it means bird hunting, which is their greatest of all joys.
      It could be a mile in the woods or fifteen miles into a wilderness valley they have never visited before. Either way they will be intensely alert until the truck stops.
Around the net corner there may wait...
      Complacent driving often leads to speeds a little too fast. The tires roll sideways on gravel, as if coasting over ball bearings, sort of floating the truck through a turn. Meeting a pickup truck or moose in a corner snaps me back to the present. The youngest dog sometimes steps from the back up onto the center console and I always scold her.
       Like sentries on the back seat, they stare ahead. If the backseat windows are opened halfway, they’ll stick their heads out. Wouldn’t it be grand if they could tell us all the things they smell? Moose, deer, bear?
     Today it is about trout fishing and we turn down a bumpy cart path to park next to a stream that shall  remain nameless. The dogs will sit on the bank and watch with intensity as the fly floats downstream, just as I do. Maybe it isn’t bird hunting, but they still know it is a hunt.
Maggie watching a large mayfly on a leaf.