On Friday, we spent two hours in one of our autumn haunts, hitting all of the thicker spruce cover in the hopes of catching up to some grouse. It took a while, but Rosie established point off the edge of the logging road we were working and Monty whoaed to a stop at the edge of a bunch of blowdowns. The grouse rocketed out of the patch of cover before I could get there unfortunately. A little later on, Monty's beeper started going off in another patch of small spruces, and this time Rosie whoaed to a stop. Instead of focusing on the bird, I decided to first take a picture of Monty's staunch point for posterity (you never know, that could be our last point of the season!). Just as I was taking the picture, the grouse flushed out and it would have offered a good chance. At least I didn't have the opportunity to miss that one.
Total, we were in the woods for about 5 hours those two afternoons, moving 7 grouse in our travels, and certainly working hard for the birds we contacted. There was about 3-4" of snow on the ground then, but we have gotten a few more inches of snow in the last few days.
Oh, and we're supposed to get 5-8" more tomorrow. Looks like snowshoes might be the only way to get after them now, and while it's still fun to be bird hunting, showshoes add another challenge to a sport that is difficult enough already. The NH and Vermont grouse seasons go until 12/31.
In other words, it is officially winter grouse hunting now, which is quite different from the hunting we do in early and then in late October. I have read that there are usually three different periods to the three-month grouse hunting season, and this depends upon the transformation of the cover due to changing weather. The "first season" is the early season, where the leaves are still on the trees, and the grouse are still enjoying the plethora of cover (vertical) and food sources that are available. They can be found anywhere and everywhere in the first couple weeks of October, making some of the flushes that we get particularly surprising.
The "second season" usually begins as the leaves start dropping in earnest, and the vertical overhead cover and some food sources start drying up. Grouse are usually found in the thicker areas in the last couple weeks of October and the beginning of November, and evergreen stands become more important to grouse as well. As the vertical cover recedes, the horizontal cover is desired by the birds - thick stands of spruce, and blowdowns become favorite spots for grouse to hole up during bad weather. When the weather's good though, the grouse are often out and about looking for greens (fern tips, raspberry leaves, etc.), if they're still available.
The "third season", or winter grouse hunting season, starts earlier up here than most places in New England, and you never know when it might rear its ugly head. Sometimes it's not until halfway through December, but most years, it is about the mid-point of November, as it is this year. Now the grouse are exclusively in the stands of spruce and evergreens, as all of the greens are either dead or buried under a blanket of snow, and their primary food source is buds and catkins from birch and poplar. Hunting at this time of year can be feast or famine - they aren't where they were even a month ago, so if you can identify the thickest spruce cover in the areas you like to hunt in October, it is likely to be holding grouse right now. Don't expect there to be grouse in each thick, dark area though - you can walk for quite a time and see very little … and then come in to a veritable bonanza of birds.
While winter grouse hunting is not my favorite - the snow is hard to get through once you get to 4"-6" of snow depth, and the points and great dog work that you came to expect in October and early November is much harder to come by in the winter woods - it can still be fruitful occasionally. One of my best days was five years or so ago when I went out with Monty and walked a huge area - we put up at least 20 grouse that early December day, and two of them became my dinner guests as well. There was only an inch or two on the ground that day from what I can remember, but there was 3" or so on the ground today in Vermont. In an hour and a half, Bode and I moved 5 grouse, three of which were together in a stand of large spruces. Bode did have a point on a grouse that eventually flushed quite a way out from us and he also tracked another that I ended up spotting on the ground. When it finally flushed, it flew low and I took an ill timed shot. It flew in to a neighboring spruce tree, and after withstanding my picture taking and branch throwing activities, I had finally decided to let it go - it looked to be a female and perhaps some tame genes will be a good thing for the grouse gene pool up here.
Rosie got the call today, in my effort to put her on as many birds as possible and get some good work from her in the process. Things started off slowly, but Rosie was eventually getting in to the birds, and not pointing a majority of them, but then … her beeper started going off as she was intently and staunchly pointing in to a stand of small spruce beside the trail. The grouse exploded, and I nearly didn't get my safety off in time, but I did and it fell to the forest floor with Rosie in pursuit. Rosie's first grouse (she's had four woodcock taken by clients this season) and it was great. She looked justifiably proud, but I'm not sure that the momentous event had much of an effect on her - she just wanted to find more.
Well, we found more - 17 grouse to be exact in 4.5 hours of hunting, which is a good number considering this year's bird numbers. Another fell to my gun on a wild flush, and Rosie seemed to be excited about that, but not enough to retrieve it (Rome wasn't built in a day, after all). While she probably pointed three birds today, she also had plenty of bumps, but I think she's on her way to becoming a bird dog, and hopefully she will be a grouse dog someday - in my opinion, the highest achievement for any gun dog.
It helped that it was a walk in only area that probably doesn't get a lot of attention from hunters, particularly as far off the road as we were, plus the cold temperature seemed to hunker the birds in the dense firs beside the road and trails. We had several pairs that we got in to, but the rermainder were singles. We are hoping to get out there a couple more days this week before the deer hunting season starts in Vermont, and hopefully Rosie can get a little more bird exposure.
Saturday turned out to be the opposite … and a very frustrating day of grouse hunting. That morning was dominated by quite a few pointed and closely flushing woodcock (nine to be exact) from the efforts of Bode and Rosie, but strangely enough not a single grouse flush in an area that traditionally has held a good amount of birds. The afternoon session, where we were looking for grouse (my client had limited on woodcock in the morning), yielded only three flushes and none of them offered any opportunity for a shot. The areas that we were in had been the scene of quite a few good days on grouse in the past, so it was surprising to take the bagel. The weather conditions had changed that day - from rainy on Friday to cool and sunny on Saturday - but there was still enough of a breeze for good scenting conditions for the dogs, or so we thought. Just in the wrong spots that day, which turned out to be our worst on grouse sightings this season.
Sunday's breezy weather (ahead of the storm front that came in on Sunday night) made it even more challenging for the dogs to successfully scent and lock down the birds. It was swirling and gusty yesterday to put it mildly, so we had several times when Monty and my client's two Brittanies, Kiya and Pink, seemed to look unsure of where the birds were when stopping on a point. We did have a few staunch points that were rewarded with close flushing chances on grouse (one of which flew right over Monty and the other flew a few feet over my head - thanks Brian for not pulling the trigger), but there were also several times when one of the dogs would lock on point and nothing would be there at all - a grouse that had already gotten out of town we figured. We also had several occasions when the dogs didn't seem to scent the birds at all, pushing them in to flight, rocketing away from us.
While we moved thirteen grouse on Sunday (one taken by Brian), we only moved three woodcock, none of which provided good opportunities for shots. We noticed quite a few areas with chalk from a day or two before in them, but no timberdoodles to be found - perhaps headed to points south we assumed. The season on woodcock ends in New Hampshire and Vermont in a little over a week on November 14, and there still seems to be a few of them around - more than most years at this time.
The great question, "Is New Hampshire or Vermont better for grouse hunting?", may have to go unanswered for another season. It appears that I didn't compile a large enough sample size from Vermont to know for sure, and I cannot, in good conscience, reach a definitive conclusion on this topic without doing so. Research will have to continue, and I am hoping that it will in December …
Yesterday was bittersweet - the end of another grouse guiding season for me, my tenth in total, and each year presents its challenges. Most of them are physical as you might imagine, but there is certainly a mental side to hunting our wily grouse these days. The goal is to stay a step ahead of them, and there's been a few times when it has felt that way, but for the most part I'm several steps behind, trying to cram the successes and failures of our days of grouse hunting in to a memory bank that is overfull already. As usual, my clients were an interesting and entertaining mix of folks with a common obsession ("affliction" as one of our veteran grouse hunters at the lodge has put it) and unusually optimistic outlook on bagging a couple grouse or woodcock on our hunts together. Much like grouse coverts, there are clients that have been with me from the start and some that have joined me along the way - I appreciate them all and eagerly anticipate dragging them over hill and dale in search of the King of Gamebirds once again next year …
The abundance of moisture has also helped the scenting conditions for the dogs, adding to the enjoyment of our grouse and woodcock hunts. I never get tired of watching good dogs work, whether they be my own or those of my clients, so we've had a good stretch of hunting over the past two weeks now.
We hunted in Vermont today, and Monty got the call on an abbreviated rainy day hunt. We were supposed to do a full day, but it really turned in to a long half day hunt, and Monty did not disappoint. My victims on this day have hunted with me in the past - Todd, Dave and Tom have all been dragged over hill and dale in search of grouse and woodcock, and usually it has been Monty responsible for the dragging.
Over the years, they have not only adjusted their approach to grouse hunting ("when you hear the beeper, get to the dog, quickly!"), but they have also witnessed the maturing of a true grouse dog. Monty, now 8-years old, hunts much more deliberately than he used to - he has mastered the "economy of motion", and doesn't seem to waste his energy locating where I am, something that I have noticed in the younger dogs. I trust him when he goes out, whether it be near or far, and am confident in his ability to find and hold grouse and woodcock.
Monty was at his best today in some pretty wet conditions, getting bird scent and often slowing in to his points. We would contact 19 grouse and 1 woodcock in our four hours of hunting today, and he was responsible for pointing quite a few of them. Some of the birds we just couldn't get to in time, and a few others we heard flushing over fifty yards away. There were even a couple of others where Todd, Dave and Tom were in position for good chances, but the shots were missed. The boys managed to bag four grouse, two of which were directly on his points - the other two were taken with his assistance and three of them were retrieved by Monty.
We had a good day and the guys had one like this coming - we've taken a couple of birds over the years, but we've had our share of goose eggs too, so it was good to have some success and for the guys to witness a true grouse dog in action. Two more days of guiding for us and then our season is at an end - it seems like these are our best conditions of the year, but we'll be taking some time off and give the woods to the deer hunters for a couple of weeks.