feature By: Joseph Sands, text and photos | September, 20
For a few days of such fine things, my friend Dave Fronczak and I traveled to Minnesota. We hunted north to south through a variety of habitats and landscapes. Each day presented something new and challenging and something wonderful to see.
On the twenty-second of October, Cass County beams fall colors. Woodcock are everywhere, and Dave’s Labrador Jesse seems to find them all. We push through cover just off a county road and work our way east into a tangle of young aspens that she works methodically, quartering until she locates a scent and zeroes in on the bird. She rarely gets too far ahead of us, though a couple of times I have seen her give in to her senses and rush toward an area where there are several birds sitting in the leaves.
I can’t say I blame her. It is a sensory overload that only dogs understand. The scent of birds infuses their souls the way our dreams command our unconscious psyches. I believe dogs relive smells the way we recollect images from our lives: a first love, a place unique in memory, the transition from night to dawn. A 7-year-old golden retriever spinning dizzying circles upon entering a patch of cover where she found rooster pheasants the prior year is clearly aware of some portion of her past. Last year, in good quail country for the first time in several years, my 10-year-old English pointer lay down and cried at the distant scent of a covey – he was home.
The cover in Cass County is thrilling – thick cages of sapling aspens with leaf-littered floors, mixed stands of conifers and hardwoods and all of this saturated in orange and brown and yellow. There are a lot of people who don’t feel the same way about a maze of small trees, tangles of briars and the constant slaps of witch hazel to their necks, but I find it wonderful. There is almost nowhere else I would rather walk. During our march, two ruffed grouse slip away in front of us with no shots taken, but there are six woodcock in the bag and a good dinner on the way.
I am disinclined to believe rural Minnesotans when they say it is a “bad year” for grouse. My guess is a few want to guard their best covers, and others have not ventured very far into the habitat. We move a lot of grouse over the course of three days in northern and central Minnesota, despite rumors that the birds weren’t around. Suffice it to say that the talk at the coffee shop isn’t always accurate or even true. It is best to venture in and discover for yourself whether or not your expectations were realistic.
The next morning we hunt in Sherburne County, farther south. Our first stop is not very productive for woodcock, but I kill an adult female ruffed grouse. The bird flushed on the edge of a forested wetland with just enough of an opening in the cover to make a good shot. Jesse’s retrieve was calm and casual, a soft delivery to hand. This bird is significant because it is my first Minnesota ruffed grouse, and she is the only one we bag in five flushes. Ruffed grouse are the king of game birds, at least today. Every step spent pursuing them is an investment in the sheer pleasure of seeing one fly through the last days of fall and walking in the evening sun.
Dave is a blue-collar hunter like me, upgrading his attire from a blaze orange hat to a Cubs cap between hunts as we move from cover to cover in a Subaru wagon with Jesse in the back seat. Our conversation tends to focus on fall baseball but occasionally drifts across other topics: dogs, the status of home projects delayed by the autumn and a debate over how to prepare the day’s birds for the table.
Our second location is bathed in red shades of burr oaks, and there are grouse in a strip of mature oaks with a scrubby layer below. They do not flush fairly, flying in between Dave and me and Jesse Dog, which offers no real opportunity to shoot. Seeing grouse in oaks shocks my system a bit, as this cover is different than what I am used to in my home covers on the West Coast. Honestly, it’s hard to quantify. There are just elements of the habitat that look and feel different, which makes them instantly unfamiliar and intriguing at the same time.
Our walk takes us from oaks to aspens, and before I know it, I have a limit of woodcock in my vest. Dave locates and hits his third bird soon after in another aspen stand. Jesse brings the bird back, and the hunt is over. We walk a mile or so along a sandy road back to the car.
Really, the goal of all this is to obtain food. Woodcock are my favorite game bird to eat; the only other species that compares to them on the table is snipe. They are best cooked simply, which suits us fine after a long day of hiking.
We begin the dinner by sautéing hearts, livers and gizzards in butter and a bit of wine, while the grouse and four of the woodcock roast over a hardwood fire. Jesse eats a gizzard in two bites before falling asleep by the fire. She has earned her treat. We don’t overcook the birds. A green salad, roasted potatoes and a couple of Dave’s home-brewed black IPAs complete the meal. The day is over, and I fall into a dreamless sleep.
On our final two days in Minnesota, we stay closer to the Twin Cities.
Woodcock hunts should never be rushed or started hungry, so we take our time, eating a diner breakfast and waiting for the morning commuter traffic to thin.
The first day we hunt with Jesse and Violet, an English springer spaniel that belongs to a mutual friend of ours. Violet hunts close, working in small circles through the cover. Her excitement grows as she approaches a bird and holds tight at the flush. Both Jesse and Violet are older dogs, but neither desires much of a rest as we work through several covers putting up birds near bogs and fens. My shooting becomes dismal as the rain approaches, but I manage to kill two woodcock.
Dave kills his limit. Violet tracks and retrieves the last bird about 30 yards away from our mark. In the thick, wet cover, she is relentless. We return to the Subaru in the rain.
Overnight the weather clears, and the last day we hunt west of the “Cities,” as the locals refer to them. Bottomland forests along the Minnesota River do not exhibit the level of grandeur as the upstate aspens – they have the “rough around the edges” character of an industrial area – an old downtown, a brick warehouse. But woodcock don’t choose habitat based on aesthetics, and there are a lot of birds tucked in these covers.
We find them along a meander where the grass isn’t overgrown, and after making one good shot, I lose my focus and miss four straight. When you can do no wrong, suddenly you can do nothing right.
My shooting returns, and I kill two more birds in a patch of forest with a horsetail understory where it seems like there are woodcock everywhere. A few minutes later, Dave gets his last bird, and we both agree it is almost a shame because we wanted to see how many birds the cover held.
The willows and poplars hold this secret as we take an open path back to the car, Jesse walking at heel, the river at our backs and the end of the day approaching.