feature By: Ron Barger | November, 19
“You boys go ahead, and make as much noise as you want,” chortled Dr. Hank Clemmons. “We’re gonna’ have ourselves a good ol’ Alabama Shake ’n Bake.”
He slammed the door to his SUV as the five of us huddled up in the early December woods of northern Wisconsin. Clemmons, “Bird Dogs — Health Matters” columnist for The Upland Almanac, was about to show us his special technique for winter grouse hunting. Clemmons hails from the great state of Alabama where his mixed pedigree includes a degree in English from the University of Alabama and a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Auburn University.
He said the day’s conditions were perfect for a Shake ’n Bake. A dusting of fresh snow had fallen the night before. Added to the four inches already on the ground, it made for optimal tracking and easy walking through the woods. There was little wind on this overcast winter day.
Dave Patton and his German shorthaired pointer Gretchen, Mike Studer and his year-old shorthair Peachy, Leon Bertschy and his English setter Lily and me and my 4-year-old yellow Lab Beau stood ready for coaching and instructions. Clemmons was in the lead with his Drahthaar Bell.
He explained that the two-track we stood on ran about a half mile around the conifer-peaked uplands that rose to a summit above us. At our feet an old logging skidder trail led to the top of the hill and over, splitting in half the entire section we were hunting.
“The five of us with all our dogs are going to walk around the full circle of this two-track, making a bunch of racket and end up right back here where we stand now,” Clemmons said smiling. “Y’all keep your dogs close or on leash and out of the woods as we walk this circle. Then we are going to form a line and walk up this hill to where we hopefully pushed all those grouse towards the middle of those pines up on top.”
The lively, gregarious, 20-minute walk on the snow-covered trail seemed more like a walk back to the truck after a long day’s hunt rather than an early morning stalk. For someone trained at an early age to close the door to the truck door quietly in the predawn darkness of a Midwestern pheasant hunt, all this noise echoing across the winter woods seemed incongruent — but fun. The conversation was lively with everyone relaxing, telling jokes and hollering at dogs to keep them close. I kept young Beau at heel on a short leash.
Clemmons pointed out and made sure we were aware of all the grouse tracks that crossed our current path. He explained that we could later push these same birds as we bisected the cover. Soon we came full circle to the skidder track where we had started.
“OK, guys, that was the ‘shaking’ part of our Shake ’n Bake,” huffed the doctor. “Now let’s see what’s up there on top!”
He captained the four of us up the hill in a line about 50 yards wide, two hunters on either side of the skidder trail. In the middle of the group, he and Bell walked the trail. About 30 yards in, we began to see grouse tracks crisscrossing before us. Bell was the first to lock up on point.
In the next chaotic 45 minutes of hunting, shooting and missing long shots, we had four points, five flushes over point and one wild flush from my Lab. One grouse killed by the doctor made this a very successful opening to a short winter day. Most of the shots were flanking to our right or left and downhill, with most birds that we saw coming out from under the heaviest conifer cover on top of the hill and on the downhill side. After the actual Shake ’n Bake was over, we split up and walked the trail in two groups, going different directions hunting up the grouse that we had pushed out of that cover and those that we had noted crossing out of the cover on our first walk around.
By the end of the day, we employed the Shake ’n Bake and post-hunt follow-up two more times on two separate sections with a nice lunch with hot coffee in between. With more flushes than many of us had ever experienced on other tough winter hunts, we now had a better understanding of Hank’s cold weather strategy to concentrate and stalk grouse.
We all retreated from the dropping temperature of dusk and retired to Clemmons’s cabin tucked away in a hollow in the remote north woods. Warmed by the fire of the roaring woodstove and the glass of bourbon in his hand, Clemmons shared more details about the Alabama Shake ’n Bake and his theory of why it works.
“Let’s face it, winter hunting is tough,” he said, “especially with snow on the ground. This technique is dependent on the terrain and how the cover lays out. The birds spend a lot of time searching for food under the snow near heavy cover — conifers, spruce and firs mostly. They’ll do anything they can to keep from flying because predators such as hawks can see them, so they run everywhere instead.
“They frequently travel short distances and group together underneath conifers. So if there is a way to alarm them and get them to group together and run to a central location, you can go back through the center and get the birds that gathered. I also think that they are more likely to flush when you come back around and right through the cover because they just moved once.
“The perfect topography is a two-track road that encircles a hill with pine trees on top like we hunted today,” he said. “But this technique will work in a big bowl just as well. The bowl or big swale just has to have a nice cover in the bottom such as pines or a swamp with some heavy cover or spruce down in the middle.”
Clemmons said that the most effective size group for this style of hunting is four to six people.
“Two or three guys just isn’t enough because grouse will simply run away from y’all or sneak out between the gaps,” he advised. “They will do anything they can to not flush. You need at least four, preferably five guys like we had today, so you can get around the birds easier and force the flush. In the winter these are usually long shots so you have to have enough guys to cover most of the ground.”
Clemmons shared his step-by-step recipe for the Alabama Shake ’n Bake.
“First, identify where you want to drive the birds to and how you want to do it,” he said, pointing to the map on his iPad displayed on the nearby table. “Whatever the topography, you have to have road to travel all the way around the area making a ruckus but never interfering with the birds̓ path to the area you are trying to drive them up to or into. By circling them, you can corral them slowly from all sides, up or down into the high conifer or heavy covered area in the center. Once that ‘shake’ is complete, the group spreads out to cover most of the middle area and walk the birds into the ‘bake.’”
As an alternative, he mentioned another, often successful strategy is to split the group of five or six into two teams and circle the cover in opposite directions, meeting up where they started at the one planned access point.
“It takes less time, but it is not as fun because you miss out on half the conversation and lies your buddies are telling on one long walk around in one group. But you can do it either way.”
Like most late season grouse hunters, Clemmons’s choice of ammo changes for longer shots in open cover. He shoots a 28-gauge Merkel. “I still use 6s in one barrel sometimes because it’s a further shot, but 7 ½ is usually as big as I go. A lot of guys go 6s because it’s such a distance, and they have to shoot through conifers to get fleeing birds.
“I use improved cylinder, and I shoot spreader loads because I have a German gun and it shoots tight patterns,” he said. “I like Polywad brand. They are custom made for a 28-gauge but are priced better than many 28-gauge shells. I buy them online. ”
Clemmons said for hunting up singles after the Shake ’n Bake is over, it’s important to remember the birds are on full alarm and on the run.
“We figured out this past year that we had a better chance towards pushing these birds tracking in the snow if one guy follows the tracks, and the other guy goes on ahead of him in the general direction with the dog,” he said. “Granted, we never saw that bird fly, but we got a lot closer to the flush than when we just followed the tracks. Usually the hunter is looking at the tracks and trying to follow them, and the dog is going way ahead and puts the bird up out there.
“Winter birds rarely sit, so you have to force the flush on the run. When the dog gets birdy and starts moving in on a bird, you have to get in there fast because they aren’t going to wait on you. In the wintertime, they will take off 60 yards in front of the dog if you don’t start moving in fast. This forces the flush earlier.”
Clemmons starts employing his Alabama Shake ’n Bake in December.
“In upper Wisconsin we don’t get a good snow cover until around December fifth,” he said. “You have to at least wait until all the leaves are gone. During the early snows in late October, the snow doesn’t last, and there is still a lot of greenery and ground cover. It doesn’t work until into December when there is a good amount of snow that covers the ground and sticks. Food sources change and are more oriented towards thermal cover. The season ends in January, so you just have about a month” to shake it and then bake it for grouse.