feature By: WM. H. Claflin, Jr. | January, 20
For the past thirty years I have been an ardent partridge gunner, concentrating my activities in the States of New Hampshire and New York.
My New Hampshire activities in the first years of the 1920’s were spent in the country south of Mt. Monadnock – a pretty good partridge country in those days; but we soon began to drift further north and found this new country with its many deserted farms more to our liking. It was also in the early twenties that I began to hunt the country along the fringes of the Adirondacks, west of Plattsburg. It was an ideal gunning country, plenty of birds and almost no other gunners. It seemed to me in the middle twenties that the partridges of New York State were tamer than their rel-atives in New Hampshire. In 1938 I moved my New York State activities to the vicinity of Sherburne, which is some forty miles south of Utica. It is a country of rolling hills, dairy farms, and comparatively small covers. There are no large forested areas near Sherburne such as characterize the Plattsburg and New Hampshire territory.
The first entry in my partridge records is under date of October 31, 1931. On that day Charles Coolidge, Raymond Emerson, Franklin Palmer, and I were at dinner in the Valley Hotel at Hillsboro, New Hampshire, talking over the day’s hunt. Our discussion centered upon some of the rather unusual places we had found partridges. The idea of keeping some sort of a record was thrown into the conversation and we all agreed that a record giving the number of birds moved each day, telling where they were found, together with interesting observations about conditions in general and the covers in particular should make interesting reading in the years to come, and also might help us in our current activities.
Such a record I have kept ever since, and now after twenty years it covers 329.45 hunting days, during which 5,909 partridges were moved – an average of 17.94 per day.
In recording the number of birds moved I have always been careful not to count the same bird twice – therefore, the count is on the conservative side. We have always counted birds heard as well as seen. I say “we” because if my companion in a cover sees or hears a bird that I miss, that particular bird counts for the record. In respect to the number of days hunted, I have always tried to make due allowance for less than full days. If, for example, we started home at noon, that day appears in the record as a half day so that over the years the number of partridges moved per day is as accurate as possible and is a comparative figure from year to year.
I have hunted through the years without a dog and it is now time to disclose that I am the anonymous author of
“In which the author sets forth his reasons why he prefers to hunt that noble bird
without the use of a dog, together with some hints to those who
might like to take up that fascinating sport.”
Being the author of “Partridge Rambles,” which was privately printed in 1937, I have no hesitation in using such parts of it as may seem of interest.
A word or two about “still” hunting and why I prefer to hunt partridges without a dog. First of all I wish to say that for years I have owned pointers in Cuba and have taken great delight in watching them work, so I am not one of those non-dog partridge hunters who has never hunted with a dog. I have shot hundreds of shells at quail over a point and I will admit I have killed partridges over a point and liked it. But when I travel through a partridge cover I prefer not to have a dog along. I guess the simple answer is I am more interested in partridges and the country they live in than I am in pointers or setters. I like to wander
Once a bird flushes we generally follow it until it ends in the back of our coat or quits the country. Sometimes after a partridge has been flushed a couple of times and strikes a place to its liking, it will let you get reasonably close. We continually whistle while traveling through a cover but there is always the tendency to speed up to gain a vantage point from which to shoot at a driven bird. If the cover is thick and you fail to whistle continually, you are apt not only to get a good shot, but to get shot as well. Some number eights scattered through my anatomy constantly remind me that “still” hunting can be dangerous, and I frankly admit traveling through the covers the way we do, continually trying for driven shots, is more dangerous than hunting with a dog.
Before leaving the subject of the danger in partridge hunting, I wish to say that I avoid entering a cover with more than two companions, and I repeat I want to know them well. I just shudder to think of the days in the early twenties when sometimes there would be five and even six of us trying to keep lined out as we plowed through the country. And what a barrage went off when we jumped a bird! I have also quit guiding novices. To the uninitiated the explosion of a partridge taking off may be so startling that he either doesn’t shoot at all, or shoots in any old direction, forgetting for the moment that his best friend may be in line. There is no denying the fact that three good gunners sneaking through the covers is a dangerous combination so far as the partridges are concerned. However, the longer I hunt, the more I prefer one companion; and I must admit I enjoy more and more slipping through the covers alone or with my wife, who does not shoot, but who, through years of experience, knows the covers well and is an expert at driving the birds my way.
As the years roll by I find I take more pleasure in wandering through familiar covers than in searching out new ground. Part of this urge to travel familiar covers is due to having kept an account of these places for years and a natural desire to add to their records. In spite of my fondness for tramping familiar ground, we still devote time to cover hunting once the leaves are off the trees. I admit it takes strength of character to pass up hot spots that hold birds and go exploring in search of another deserted farm with its lilac fringed cellar hole, tumbled down barn, old orchards, and over-grown pastures. If we find such a place and there is a stand of pines nearby, as a rule there will be partridges. By continually searching for new covers through the years I have built up quite a valuable set of geodetic maps – valuable to a partridge gunner but to no one else. In addition to showing the exact location of many covers, these maps indicate at a glance the many unimproved roads we have explored. To know a big section of country well, not only is it necessary to drive many hundreds of miles but, of more importance, it is necessary to walk many hundreds of miles. The walking is really what counts in developing a string of covers. The more intimate knowledge one has of a big stretch of country, the more partridges ride home in the back of your car.
When it comes to the actual shooting of a bird there is more to it than just pulling the trigger. When still hunting you are not forewarned by the action of a dog that game may be near, therefore continual mental alertness is essential. Failure to be constantly on the alert for the slightest flick gives the partridge a break. You are playing a game where a second often is a long time. To daydream when walking through a cover is fatal. I find when traveling through brush I am constantly changing the position of my gun to avoid getting tangled up if a bird should jump. Likewise I try not to be off balance at any time. Foot work is of importance. Throwing the gun to my shoulder is an automatic reaction. Possibly I am too jumpy, as up comes my gun at the slightest flick. It may be the rustle of a squirrel, robin, or partridge – they all produce the same reaction. Speed in getting your gun to the shoulder is most important. Once the partridge flashes into view, it is a question of co-ordination of eye and muscle. The actual shooting often happens too quickly to allow any orderly mental process. You want to be fast but on the other hand, it is a mistake not to take enough time to line out your bird, unless thick cover makes a snap-shot necessary.
Once a bird goes down the quicker you reach the spot it hits, the better the chance you have of finding it. Often you can tell by the way a bird falls whether you are going to pick up a dead bird or may have trouble finding a wounded one. Upon reaching the spot where we think the bird should be, and no bird is in sight, we throw down a hat to mark the spot and begin a rapid search.
If we have no luck we start all over again, making a slow and careful search. Generally we are successful but I will admit we lose a few more downed birds still hunting than our friends do with a good retriever along. However, sometimes we get a break of luck. Here is what happened on November 4, 1933:
“After lunch a most interesting partridge experience happened. I was following an edge less than fifty yards from where I knocked down a bird last Saturday, but could not find it, when out in the field a bird, after much difficulty, got up. Before I shot I knew I had found my lost bird. One leg was broken and badly swollen, also matted feathers showed where it had also been hit on the back. Some food was in its craw but the bird was quite thin. My guess is that the bird had not flown since last Saturday and undoubtedly would have died soon. This is the first time I have knocked a bird down on Saturday and retrieved it a week later by knocking him down again.”
Most of the authors of books on upland game shooting devote considerable space describing their guns and clothing. I shall be very brief on this subject. In respect to clothing my only peculiarity is that after getting shot I always wear a white cap, with the hope that it will make me more visible. Now as to guns, I have only owned two in my life. My first was a 12-gauge Fox with 30-inch barrels, and both full choke. I bought this duck gun in 1909 and until 1942 it was my only partridge gun. A scatter load in the right barrel helped considerably to connect with close shots. The war put an end to the manufacture of scatter loads and I found with normal shells my scoring ability dropped considerably. Reluctantly I put away my old duck gun and borrowed a 26-inch barrel Parker, 12-gauge, from Charlie Coolidge. After a few days I realized full well that a light 12-gauge, with 26-inch barrels, was a more deadly weapon so far as grouse were concerned than my old Fox. Three years ago I bought my second gun, a light weight, beautifully balanced 12-gauge, 26-inch barrel, Ogden, Smith & Hussite, with one cylinder barrel and the other with a modified choke. Now as I pick up my old Fox it is a mystery to me how I used this heavy, clumsy, old gun for so many years and liked it; and I didn’t do too badly either, which is even more of a mystery.
The older I get the slower I travel through the covers and the more often I stop to look over the country, and what a grand part of the world southern New Hampshire is in the fall of the year. Each year we drift back to familiar look-offs to admire the rolling hills in brilliant fall colors that stretch before us to the horizon. In our younger days we gave the views a glance and were off in no time, eager to reach the next cover. Now it is different. We sit as long as we feel like it, enjoying a view or perhaps just watching brightly colored maple leaves fluttering to the ground. We are no longer stimulated by a hunter’s conscience to be off in search of game.
Besides spending more time of late looking over the scenery, we have also devoted more time to looking over the many small towns that are in our range. The meeting houses of southern New Hampshire offer much of interest. A few go back to the eighteenth century but most of the ones we have inspected were built in the early nineteenth century. The town of Washington is a case in point. The next time you pass through, instead of speeding on to the next cover, take an hour out and wander through the old town buildings. They are decidedly worthwhile looking over.
And then there are the graveyards. How often I have read the rather personal epitaph that was so popular at the turn of the eighteenth century:
“Stranger stop as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me.”
We often lunch near the resting places of the former owners of the abandoned farms we hunt over. Tucked away in an out of the way place, but also known now to many gunners, rests a former rather important inhabitant of New Hampshire together with his four wives. We always devote at least one lunch hour a year to renewing our acquaintances with this interesting group.
Strange as it may seem, with all the time we spend nowadays looking over the scenery, inspecting old buildings and researching in graveyards, we seem to bring back just as many partridges as we did in our more ambitious days. Possibly we are a bit more skilled in finding birds than we used to be.