There come days in every bird hunter’s life where the memories come flooding in. Maybe it’s the end of a great season, or at the inevitable end of a season too filled full of bad weather days, good weather days wasted on deer hunting (or worse yet raking leaves). Today it occurs to me that I have had many such days in the last couple of years with not so much as a whimper of a post. It’s time to break the cycle. I have many stories to share but instead of recounting some the last couple of year’s adventures, I’ll start with the beginning of this season in favor of saving some of the highlight reel to be recounted on a cold dark day later in the year.
The bright eyed pup has turned into a fine bird dog. In subsequent posts I’ve documented training expeditions, first hunts, first points, first successes and failures. I’ve bragged possibly a little too much at times, but all of it has been an attempt to chronicle my first experiences and those of Gus the English Setter leading up to what would hopefully be a productive and happy adulthood for the little feller. I feel like the time has come to declare the pup, a pup no more. At 4 years old Gus is really showing his chops as a veteran. He isn’t flawless, and his training does not rise to the level of a master hunter or even a novice trial dog for that matter, but he has become the bird dog I dreamed I would some day have 5 short years ago. He is faults are no doubt more my faults than his, but he is a biddable hunting companion with drive to spare and a nose to match. If there are birds he will find them. He will learn the specifics that the situation and quarry demand and will hunt until he can’t hunt any more. I’m proud of the little feller.
This year seemed to take infinitely longer than past years for the season to open. Part of that is that in fact the season DID start later than normal by almost 2 weeks this year. As luck would have it a rare work road trip and the first week of the grouse and woodcock season happened to line up perfectly. We decided to take a day long jaunt to one of our favorite spots en route to our work destination. It turned out not to be a mistake. We left pre-dawn and as light was breaking we pulled into a spot long dreamed about and not so often hunted. I killed the first grouse over my pup in this spot, and it is one of the few places we have never been skunked. In the worst years, we’ve always managed to get some flushes here. It’s one of the few spots in our home state where proper management practices have been followed on public land and some logging in addition to clearcutting have been allowed.
Although I’ve never even seen one there, I was hopeful this year would turn up some woodcock. Last season I managed to find quite a few in unlikely locations around Virginia, and I had always had in my mind to take an earlier trip to this particular spot. To put it simply the place just smells like woodcock to me…thick bottomland with plentiful meadows cut out and varied cover going from evergreen to hardwood to bramble thickets back to swampy bottoms….all of the stuff you like for grouse and even more so for woodcock. Brian (my hunting partner and boss) had only seen one woodcock flush last year and had never seen one close up. As we suited up and turned the dog loose it was fast becoming a perfect day to be in the woods. The sun was coming up and beginning to warm up the air and the leaf covered ground was wet from a rain the day before. Perfect scenting conditions for the dog. We weren’t long in when we both commented on how the cover looked even better than the last time we were here.
A mere 10 minutes into our trek, the sound of beating wings signaled the escaping of a grouse. Neither of us got a look, and the dog looked back at me as if to say “look man it wasn’t me, I’m as far from him as you are!” We pushed on for the better part of an hour with no points and no more wild flushes until we came to a meadow edge. Last year Brian took a grouse in this exact spot in the setup of a lifetime. All of the meadows have small islands scattered throughout thick with choke cherries and young evergreen. As we came into a meadow last year Gus slammed on point right before two grouse blew out of the edge of one of these islands. It was the flush you’ve seen in your dreams and never had…the birds slowly sailed through the air towards the safety of the pines but took the most open route imaginable. I was out of position for the shot but for Brian…I mean he had time to look at the bird (yes actually seeing the whole bird for multiple seconds) think about how much of a lead to take, squeeze off a shot, see the bird fall and then actually swing on the second one for a clean miss too. It was magical. Both of us stepped to the clearing with cautious anticipation. This time nothing came up. We laughed a little at our childish simplicity. To even think that something like that could happen again…I mean really! As we came back to reality, I realized that I wasn’t hearing the dog’s bell anymore. I listened carefully to make sure he wasn’t just out of range but nothing. I whistled and heard a quick “ding” and then another stop. This was a good sign. I found him right in a greenbriar tangle 20 yards in front of me. I moved Brian to the clearing for an open shot and took off into the messy thick cover to flush a grouse. Gus was unflinching. I had to check to make sure he was even still there as he stood in the middle of a brush pile like a statue. This is one of the times when I really am glad I ended up with a white colored dog rather than the blue belton I was initially so fond of. As I approached the dog on hands and knees I noticed a small opening just ahead. It looked like a likely spot to be able to swing my gun if a bird came up. This time it worked perfectly. The bird erupted under my feet and flew straight away over a chest high myrtle bush and into the clearing. I fired once and filled the air with not just the welcome smell of gunpowder but a puff of feathers. I never heard Brian shoot…”good sign” I said to myself. Gus, used to the normal miss that follows a good point and then a boom from my shotgun was already 50 yds across the meadow looking for where the grouse likely would have put down unharmed after being shot at (he knows me and my shooting too well)…but this time it was different. In fact it wasn’t a grouse at all. It was the first woodcock I’d connected with in quite a few years. I called him back and he made a quick retrieve to hand. I called Brian over and we carefully inspected the specimen. Beautifully colored buff chest, camoflauge back barely visible in the piles of fallen leaves on the ground, the big eyes and protruding long beak. Really a beautiful bird.
We continued our push and managed to bump several grouse before the next solid point. Gus was ahead of me looking at a brushpile surrounding a downed tree. If I was a grouse…there’s no doubt this is where I’d be. There were waist high white pines mixed in with immature hardwood trees and a meadow on both sides of this little brushy strip of woods. Really nice cover. As I approached possibly a little too pumped from our recent woodcock encounter I was reminded why grouse are the “king of the gamebirds”. The grouse did what grouse do and flushed at the least expected time to make an escape. He did however fly straight away and I got a great shot lined up. As I came past his beak and slapped the trigger I was greeted with the sound every hunter hears in their nightmares…”CLICK” I was so stunned I couldn’t even rack another shell into my favorite little pump 20ga. I just shook my head. One of the best shots in years and I hadn’t checked for a live shell in the chamber since my last exchange. Oh well…that’s grouse hunting.
As we continued we had one more point and flush with no shot. We came to the meadow and looked straight to the little island in the center. These spots seem to be productive lately! As the dog put on his game face and approached the seam between meadow and thick brush cover he slammed on point. Right about that time a fat grouse stepped out right in front of him seemingly unsure what to do about the predicament. I raised my gun as a very surprised Gus took one step forward not exactly sure of what to do himself. The grouse disappeared into the brush again and in an instant I heard beating wings. Just as I saw wingtips clear the top of a small evergreen I fired. My pattern showed its shape around the leaves still clinging to the bush behind and indicated a good shot. The dog took two more steps and locked on point again. Brian was further to the left affording him a good view of the back side of the island and the woods behind. “I think I got him nothing came out did it?” I yelled. “Yeah a grouse came out and is up in a tree over here. I can see him.” Brian answered. “Huh I was sure I hit him and the dog’s still on point. Mark that bird there might be another one here. ” As I moved in I spotted another woodcock running ahead of me. When he stopped I alerted Brian to get ready for a flush and moved in. The bird never flushed in fact the little bird ran ahead of me, I noticed he was wingclipped and sent the dog in for the retreive. This one was a beauty. Apparently the grouse and woodcock had flushed in the same instant and thinking it was only one and seeing the flush exactly where I expected the grouse to rise I hit the woodcock not the grouse. Probably not the greatest target ID (lesson…clearly ID your target no excuses). Not the normal situation you run into. We followed up by flushing the grouse again without a shot. The day ended with two woodcock in the bag, one very tired dog and some worn out legs.
I should also mention that my old standby “grouse boots” finally succumbed to the rigors of the grouse woods and I hunted the large part of the day with no sole on my right boot and my spare sock doubled into a makeshift moccasin. RIP old friends…You have served me well. A sad day to be sure!