feature By: Burton Spiller | August, 17
It was early October, and for a week Bill and I had been hunting woodcock. Not because we preferred it to grouse hunting, but because in our section of the country the first two weeks of open season seldom furnish good sport on the larger birds. The weather is usually far too warm for the more strenuous exercise that hunting them entails, while the birds, in the last stages of moulting, prefer to remain in the big swamps where hunting them is anything but a pleasure.
Because of these reasons we prefer to hunt the longbills for the first few weeks. Their haunts are restricted in area, and a hunter can look over a half dozen favored covers in a day and still be able to climb into the car when night comes. Then, too, the less wary birds furnish excellent practice for dogs made over anxious by ten months of inactivity, and steadies them for the more serious business of grouse hunting.
Thus it was that Bill and I made our way down the sloping hillside and into the alders which form the beginning of the Beecher cover. It is excellent woodcock country. The ground is soft and springy, and although it rarely exceeds a hundred yards in width it is nearly a mile long, encircling two sides of the small pond. Native birds breed there, and flighters often drop in during the fall migration, but there are no evergreens near it, or any heavy cover. Consequently one never finds grouse there – or no one ever did until the Memorable Day.
We had taken four woodcock that morning. Three from the Millbrook cover and one from an unnamed and inconsequential alder patch beside the road, and we needed four more to fill our limit. We had not hunted the Beecher cover as yet, but we were confident that we could collect the remainder of our quota there, for it was not unusual for the place to harbor at least a dozen birds.
“One of the things I particularly like about this cover,” Bill said, as he dropped a shell containing three-fourths of an ounce of No.9’s into the breech of his 20-gauge, closed the action and fed two more into the magazine, “is the fact that you always know what to expect. When you’re all set for a woodcock and a pa’tridge goes hellity-clatterin’ out, it does something to your nerves that – Oh-oh! Bud’s nailed one already.”
I looked ahead through the leafy screen, and there, forty feet away and stretched out in a solid point, was his young black-and-white pointer. He was an independent youngster, paying no attention to what my setter was doing, and already convinced that he could find birds of his own and hold them without help from anybody. He had the fire and enthusiasm of youth, and the picture was heart warming.
“No other bird is quite so good as woodcock to work a young dog on,” Bill said, as we went unguardedly in. “They lie so close that–”
WHIR-R-R-R! The air trembled as at least a half dozen ruffed grouse exploded like bursting shrapnel and went rocketing up through the pliant branches that swayed and tossed with the wind of their passing. They were gone instantly, while we stood spellbound, our guns clutched in rigid hands.
“Thunder and lightning!” Bill said at last. “First time I ever saw a pa’tridge in the place, but we shouldn’t have been caught asleep at the switch. …Well, let’s get after them.”
The young pointer, as though the pervading odor of so many grouse was an anesthetic, still held statue-like, but Bill’s chirrup broke the spell and he went around and around like a young cyclone. “Nothin’ like pa’tridge scent to put pep into ’em,” Bill said. “Where’s Bob?”
“The last I saw of him he was working down toward the pond,” I answered. I’ll look him up.”
I found him frozen in a solid paint in the last fringe of cover close by the shore of the pond. His plume-like tail was held high aloft, his eyes were bulging, his nostrils widely expanded as he inhaled the rich warm scent.
As I stepped in front of him a woodcock vaulted sharply upward as though propelled by a giant spring, but my shot charge caught it as it cleared the tops of the alders. A tiny puff of feathers floated from it as it collapsed and plummeted down.
I was agreeably surprised to notice, even while I was marking down the spot where the bird had fallen, that the youngster was remaining steady of his own accord. Then it dawned on me that he was still pointing.
“Another one, eh?” I asked. “All right. I’ll see what can be done about it.” Tossing away the empty shell I slid another one in its place and went confidently in. Twenty feet, thirty feet – but no woodcock. The pup surely had a choke-bore nose, if he was still pointing. I turned to look back at him, and from directly over my head there came a tremendous clatter as a grouse left the top of an alder and zoomed away.
Had it chosen any other course it would have been safe, for the foliage would have effectually screened it, but it made the mistake of cutting out over the edge of the pond. Through the scattered fringe of brush I saw it for the necessary instant. It crumpled as I touched the trigger and struck the water with a mighty splash.
This was going to be interesting. I could make the youngster retrieve almost anything he could lift during yard training but, unlike most setters, he had a positive dislike for water. He had his share of brains, though, and proved it by going at once after the woodcock. My guess was that he had been pointing the woodcock when the grouse scaled down and alighted in the alder before him, and had continued pointing one bird by scent and the other by sight.
He dropped the woodcock in my hand and looked up at me as though to say, “Well, how about the other one?”
“He’s out there in the pond,” I told him.
I led him out to the shore and, holding him erect with one arm under his forelegs, pointed the bird out to him. He wet a forepaw gingerly and, holding it aloft, whined eagerly, then ran down the shore to gaze at the bird from another angle.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” I asked him.
“Leave him for turtle food? The wind is blowing him farther out each minute.”
He seemed to realize this, for he came hurriedly back and waded out a few steps. He didn’t like it and I could not blame him. In addition to being slightly moist the water had been chilled by the October nights until it was only slightly above freezing temperature. But whether it was cold or wet, the pup didn’t like the idea of leaving the bird in it. He waded out another step or two, hesitated, then bunched his muscles and leaped far out. He shook his head when he came up, then raised it high as he searched for the bird. Locating it at last, he swam strongly out, seized it and bore it proudly back to me.
“Nice work,” I said, as I stooped to pat him. He responded by drenching me thoroughly with a shower of spray as he shook himself, then laid the bird in my hand. He was not for sale but, just the same, his price went up another hundred dollars.
I stowed it away and was heading back into the cover when I heard the report of Bill’s gun, and almost instantly thereafter a lone grouse planed down above the tops of the alders to my left, tipped sharply upward to check its speed, then dropped into the cover at a distance of not more than fifty yards.
The young setter saw it, too, and was off like a flash toward the spot, while I picked my way more carefully along the boggy shore. Parting the bushes a few moments later, I saw the dog, not pointing stanchly, but creeping on cat-like feet slowly and cautiously ahead. If there had been a corner into which we could have driven it, or even an opening which it must cross, the bird would have paused when it reached the last bit of shelter, but there was nothing to check it. The situation called for only one course of action, so holding the gun ready I hurried up to the dog, passed him and went boldly and quickly in.
“Ah!” I caught a flash of brown as the bird left the ground, but instead of coming up it zigzagged away as only a ruffed grouse can do, low down among the crisscrossed trunks, dodging to right and left, yet making incredible speed through the impossible tangle.
I missed that one by a yard, and before I could pull the trigger again the bird was gone from sight.
“Anyway, you did your part,” I said to the dog. “And don’t look at me like that. I’m no Annie Oakley.”
“Whoo-hoo!” That was Bill calling from the other side of the run. “Whoo-hoo. Did you get that one?”
“So did I,” he said. “There were four in that bunch. Three of them went ahead of me. Work over this way.”
Sending Bob on, I worked toward the sound of Bill’s voice.
Presently the pup began to make game. Then still farther to the left I saw Bill’s pointer angling toward him, walking stiff legged as he homed in on strong grouse scent. Somewhere between them the birds were lying.
Looking back a half minute later I saw that the setter had stopped, while beyond him at a distance of not more than forty feet I could see the pointer’s tail standing rigidly upright beyond a clump of fern.
“They’re nailed,” Bill said. “Watch out! I’ll come in and put them up.”
It was a perfect setup. With the dogs at two of its corners, and Bill and I at the others, we formed a perfect square, and somewhere within the magic area we enclosed at least one grouse lay.
There is something disconcerting about the unexpected rise of a ruffed grouse. The noise creates the impression of tremendous speed, and it has a tendency to hurry the swing of even the most experienced old timer, but when one stands with gun ready, waiting for a bird to rise, the illusion vanishes to a large extent. I proved it a moment later.
Bill, with gun ready, was making his way carefully along when all at once I saw the setter’s head tip sharply upward and simultaneously two grouse thundered up through the leafy cover. Before it was ten feet off the ground I had my gun trained on the one nearest me, but I knew that Bill was almost directly in line, and so I waited for what seemed to be ages for the bird to move out of line.
Then I heard the crash of the twenty, followed by the sound of snapping branches as a stricken bird plunged through them. My bird had now gained enough altitude to make shooting at it safe, and I was just swinging on it when the thought occurred to me that there was a chance for Bill to make one of the doubles that happen all too seldom of late.
I was right. Still swinging on the bird, in the event that Bill missed, I saw feathers fly from it almost before I was aware that he had fired. “Nice shooting,” I complimented him, as the dogs gathered the birds in. He grinned and then looked at me in sudden suspicion. “Why didn’t you shoot?” he demanded. “That last bird must have broken right for you.”
“No,” I lied, for Bill doesn’t like to have anything handed to him on a silver platter. “No. She was too low. I couldn’t see her.”
When he had pocketed the pair we moved ahead again. Bud, the pointer, working altogether too fast to handle jittery grouse, bumped a single, but redeemed himself a minute or two later by nailing another one at the upper edge of the cover. Once more we divided our forces and approached its hiding place from two sides, but the bird was quick to spot the one weakness in our plan. It ran to the very edge of the cover, then took off across the open ground, so low down that we failed to get a glimpse of it.
I do not know how a flock of grouse, suddenly scattered, can lose themselves so thoroughly in a cover where there are no large trees in which they can hide, but I know they can do it consistently. It was so in this case. Originally there must have been at least ten birds in the cover. From them we had taken only three, but an hour’s combing of the area produced only two more. The first one slid cleanly away, but the other one, because Bud came crowding in too close to the steadily pointing Bob, elected to fly back directly over my head. I miss that kind of shot all too frequently, but luck was with me that time and I gathered it in.
“We’d better leave them,” Bill suggested sometime later.
“They’re scattered all over Robin Hood’s barn. Let’s go and get our other woodcock. That’ll balance our budget on them, and maybe we’ll find a pa’tridge or two while we’re doing it.”
We went back through the run. We were half an hour in locating our woodcock. The dogs found it on the edge of the cover on firm, dry ground, and Bill smacked it down as it corkscrewed out across the open. “That’s that,” he said, “and I haven’t any fault to find with the day. We earned our woodcock, and the good Lord threw in four pa’tridge as a sort of bonus. Let’s go home.”
We were halfway back through the cover when Bud, racing gloriously through the soft mud, slid to a stiff-legged stop, turned and crept a few steps toward the alder fringe and froze in a rigid point.
There was no guesswork about that point. He knew – and we knew – that he was locked up on a close lying bird. We went in carefully with guns ready.
With a staccato thunder of wings a grouse hammered up through the hindering branches until there was naught behind it but the cobalt blue of the western sky. From the corner of my eye I saw Bill swinging on it. Good old Bill! Swinging fast and accurately as he had been doing for almost half a century. Watching closely, I saw the feathers ripple along the bird’s back as the shot crashed home.
I thought, as I watched Bill stow the bird in his bulging game pocket that this had been a day to remember. The gods had arranged to have grouse where we least expected them. We had taken our toll from them but we had left as many more for seed. Perhaps next fall when we came back–
That’s another nice thing about grouse hunting. There are so many places to which we are someday going back.
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