Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Grouse, Golden Bird of the Forrest

Lately, I've been reading myself to sleep with tales from one of my favorite anthologies: "Huntings Best Short Stories".  Authors like Ernest Hemingway and Guy De Maupassant have entries in the collection, but some of my very favorite stories are written by obscure authors who managed to capture the essence and joy of hunting. The stories themselves emit heart stirring spirit, causing one to yearn for a frosty November morning, a shotgun, and a good hunting dog with whom to enjoy the adventure. One particular story I read the other night was an absolute gem.  Called, "The Road to Tinkhamtown", the story is about a man recalling a hunting trek with his dog "Shadow" as they discover an old, overgrown farm that turns out to be prime grouse cover.  It is clear that the man is dying of old age as the story is told, but in his end, he is happy.  He hears the Shadow's bell and leaves the world to hunt grouse for eternity.

While my hunt last Saturday lacks the echanting drama of "The Road to Tinkhamtown", a cherished memory was made that I know I'll recall for some time close to forever.  After some mid-morning pheasant hunting, I returned home to enjoy lunch with my wife and son.  Mid-afternoon I embarked on a journey to one of my favorite hunting haunts that I had not visited since opening day of grouse season last month.  The opener was a soaker.  Roughly 6 inches of wet snow fell two days prior, and a drenching rain pelted my father and I as we hunted dogless.  Why no dog? Simply because rabbit wasn't open yet, and I wasn't about to torture my pup by not allowing her to chase her favorite game.  Arriving somewhere near 2 p.m. Daisy and I set off into a tangle of briars and overgrown fields.  She pursued a few rabbits, which I never saw.  Rabbits are very clever, and it can be especially difficult to gather a glimpse when hunting alone with the dog.  I will be sharper later in the season, and of course, snow on the ground is a great benefit to a rabbit hunter.  

I purposely worked her along a hillside edge in hopes of flushing a grouse.  She worked the forested area to my right and I trodded down the clear cut carefully watching the dog work.  It was clear she was picking up something, but I could not discern exactly which quarry she was on at the time.  My mind wandered, "Squirrel?  Rabbit?"  As the ground began to level and the stream bed appeared in front of us, her tail whipped into a frenzy and that hearty, magical game bird, the mighty ruffed grouse, flushed, wings whirring. Somehow, I managed to stay composed, swung the shotgun to my left, and squeezed off a shot and the bird twisted through the trees.  Immediately, I knew I had hit it.  It tumbled to the right, and my heart began to gallop.  There is no sweeter sound in all of bird hunting than the flapping of grouse wings once the bird hits the forest floor.  Off we ran to find the game.  Many times I have doubted my dog, and I am glad Daisy forgives me every time.  She knew exactly where the bird had fallen.  But, in my arrogant human nature, I thought I knew.  After about 10 minutes of searching, I allowed Daisy to lead the way, no longer concerned that she might pick up a rabbit and leave me behind desperately searching for a grouse I knew I had hit hard. Sure enough, the bird lie camouflaged in the grass just off the trail.  I would have never found it without the dog.  But, what a feeling it was!  Both dog and I rejoiced at our good fortune, and once again, I realized how important all the wing-shooting practice hours in July and August had been.

There is nothing as sweet tasting as a grouse.  A bird that is not stocked or corn fed, grouse eat berries, bark, bugs, and other food  found in the forest.  They are a hearty, smart bird, and to bag one is an honor.  The grouse was the fourth of my  hunting career.  I hope to bag many more in the years to come. Some of the best hunts end with a recipe, and so, I googled grouse recipes and settled upon an old favorite my beautiful wife used when she cooked up the grouse I shot the winter before—a late January evening grouse I had surprised as Daisy ran a rabbit.  I missed the rabbit, but bagged the grouse—probably one of my best shots ever.

As we close upon Thanksgiving weekend, I can't help but hope that the weather cooperates for a Friday or Saturday hunt.  I've been fortunate enough to score a pheasant on the last day of the fall season for the past two years. I am not sure if it will work out this year, but hope is a good thing.  Deer season is coming, and I am already excited.  For the next few nights, I'll drift off to sleep by reading "The Harlows' Christmas Dinner": a true deer hunt classic written in 1903.  It's impossible to keep a dry eye reading the beautiful story about two young boys who set out to provide a little meat for their mother's Christmas table. 

Daisy's Score Card:

Pheasant: 15
Rabbit: 3
Turkey: 1
Grouse: 1

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Navigating the Labyrinth

Saturday was a day for the memory book. After Dad scored his first rabbit run by Daisy, we moved toward the standing corn fields.  Working our way from the wood line, George and I surprised a pair of fine cock birds.  Unfortunately for my brother, his gun jammed, and as he hurriedly worked to chamber another round, the second rooster rose helicopter fashion.  I never saw the first bird, but I killed the second bird on my second blast.  Upon skinning our harvest later that afternoon, I discovered that I had hit the bird with both shots.  Pheasants never cease to amaze me with their extreme toughness. Not many animals can take a shotgun round and continue flying. At any rate, my first bird of the day proved to be the biggest bird I've bagged all season. Fortunately, the breast was still intact, and it made a wonderful meal a few nights later.

It was an exciting start to our mid-morning plunge into the corn.  The birds used the cover to their advantage all day.  A rooster flushed well out of range and we did not take it. However, ever persistent, Daisy was eventually able to corner the same bird in an opposite field and George took it with a single shot. With two birds and a rabbit, we rambled into the overgrown clear cut that nearly all hunters avoid.  It's thick and treacherous, but full of game. A flock of turkeys, pressured by Daisy's methodical pace, flushed, and George squared up a hen.  His first turkey ever.  It was cause for celebration and a sweet taste of revenge, as we have had the misfortune of running into turkeys out of season.  More often that not, I shed clothing and chase down the dog, sometimes this takes place over the course of a mile or two.  Running a mile full bore through the woods is more like trying to sprint an obstacle course. 

After wading through the bramble, we returned to the far corn fields—in reality, elaborate mazes for the birds, Daisy worked the forest edge and pushed out two running hens.  George and I sprinted after them in a spirited attempt to make them flush.  They did.  Pulling up abruptly as the second hen rocketed over the stalk tips, my Mossberg 12 gauge found its mark cleanly and the hen folded nicely.  It was a shot I could not have made a year ago.  Summer practice paid dividends in the field once again.

By lunchtime we called it a day.  George had to be at work, and Dad and I were looking forward to a little college football. Not that we could have hunted longer, everyone, dog included, was exhausted. It was a banner day for the pup.  She scored a trifecta: rabbit, pheasant, and turkey.  One hit short of the cycle. If we had flushed and bagged grouse, it would have been unforgettable, but Saturday was as good as they come.

Daisy's Bird (Pheasant) Count:  14
Rabbits: 2
Turkey: 1

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running Birds and Foul Weather

The pendulum swung dramatically in the opposite direction this week.  Broke out for an evening hunt last Friday.  Daisy picked up the trail of one bird, which I saw, but it refused to fly.  The bugger ran about 200 yards and disappeared in a lush field of winter wheat.  Returning to the car by nightfall, another hunter and I exchanged disparaging tales in regards to running birds. Awoke Saturday with new hope.  Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate again.  Spencer shot a rabbit, which Daisy ran from the thick patch above the marsh. I was in the gnarly maze with her and saw the rabbit at my feet as it bolted away to the outer fields.  After four hours of hard hunting, Daisy flushed a beautiful rooster, but unfortunately, the bird escaped unharmed.  Two hours later, the skies opened up and added to our damp spirits, but luck struck just before the last bend in the trail, and I spotted a wily cockbird sneaking through the swamp grass.  We immediately cut off its escape route and Daisy was all over its trail.  The bird held surprisingly tight in a thin hedgerow.  Nearly 100 yards later, it tried to run, not fly.  Waiting for what felt like an eternity, I gave up on the bird flying, and knocked it down for good. I can't say I felt particularly wonderful about bagging that bird.  But, after hunting all day, it was nice to have at least one wild chicken for the pot; it was the least I could do.  I didn't make it out again until tonight, a blustery and bitterly cold early November evening.  My brother met Daisy and I by the lake fields.  Daisy picked up a few trails, and we heard a smattering of shots, but nothing broke our way.  The sunset was particulary beautiful.  It looked like a late January sky tonight, not November.  I am wondering if the final stocking will be tomorrow.  I hope it is, because it didn't seem like there were any birds out tonight.  If the fields are filled with new birds Friday, Saturday has real potential.  The best news already is the weather report.  Finally, for the first time all season, I won't have to slog around in snow and rain.  Sunny and mild.  Can't wait for Saturday!

Daisy's Bird Count:  11
Daisy's Rabbit Count: 1 (Keep in mind that we haven't ventured out specifically for rabbits yet.  Her count will increase by January's end.)