Thanksgiving Grouse??

Thanksgiving morning found myself, Rudy and Monty in pursuit of our feathered friends prior to the afternoon’s bonanza of eating, with Greta sitting it out and letting the “boys” do the work. While it was very cold when we started (15 degrees), there was some sun, very little snow on the ground, and no wind, making it actually pretty enjoyable out there, especially once the circulation returned to my fingers (it took an hour for that to happen). I thought there were enough shells in my vest before starting, but this turned out not to be the case!

We started contacting tight sitting grouse almost immediately, the first of which must have flushed no more than ten feet from me - no, I wasn’t quite ready yet, so he still flies today. The second bird however, made the crucial mistake of flying in to my shot pattern, and a few moments later Monty had his second retrieve of a grouse. He seems to be a natural at it, so I’ll keep trying to hold up my end of the bargain on this. We plodded on after a photo opportunity, but the frozen woods were tremendously noisy, resulting in a distantly flushing grouse a few moments later.

As it slowly warmed up yesterday morning, we began hitting areas where the sun had penetrated to soften the woods a bit, but we always headed in to areas where there were large and small conifers. In short, we moved five more grouse in areas just like this, with me frequently letting fly a volley of shot.
Once again, I don’t shoot grouse, I merely shoot in their direction. Needless to say, the shell pouch was getting lighter by the minute! The dogs worked well, and were frequently birdy, but it was probably too cold and still for the great scenting conditions we have when they’re locked up all the time.

By the end of the morning, the unlikely had happened - no more shells. As would be the case, on the walk back to the truck we pushed three more birds, the last of which flew a couple of feet over my head, right down the trail. Oh well, at least we know where they are ...

End of the Line

All good things come to an end, or so the saying goes, and it was the same with my 2010 guiding season. The deer hunters have now taken over the woods for a few weeks here in New Hampshire, and also Vermont, meaning that our grouse chasing pursuits are limited to December, which is always risky up here. Some years we’re blessed with only a few inches of snow cover, while in other years full scale winter has hit us with lots of snow on the ground. In other words, you never know what it will be like. Making this even more difficult to handle was that we had some of the best weather of the entire autumn for these last few days, with high sun and temps in the 50s - perfect weather for grouse and hunters alike.

Harry and Peter Friel joined me for two days in Vermont to close my season, victims of mine last year as well. Last season we were able to hunt with Peter’s GSP Shane, but Shane tore a knee ligament a couple of months ago, so he was out of commission this year.
This led Peter to call me a couple months back, somewhat panicked at the prospect of a dogless grouse season, the worst of bird hunting scenarios. We were able to agree on some dates and it couldn’t have worked out better. While the mornings started off in the 20s, it didn’t take too long for it to warm up, especially in the sunny areas that were getting the sun from the east. The grouse were soaking up this warmth, taking advantage of the first sunny days that we’ve had in a while. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for us to start pushing birds, and Pete connected on a fine shot on a fleeing cock bird. This bird was one of the prettiest I’ve seen all year, a definite trophy and king of his parcel of the forest.

We also had a couple of interesting observances in the woods that first day. The first was by me - a beech tree with clear claw marks made by a hungry bear maybe a year or two before. It’s something I don’t often see out in the woods, so I took a picture - look at the trunk on the left for those claw marks. The second was us hearing three separate drumming grouse in this morning cover, and we were able to get close to a couple of them. While drumming is typically a sound of the spring mating season, I have occasionally heard it while hunting in the fall as well. To hear three different birds in the act was really special that morning, and maybe it indicated where each male grouse would have his little “kingdom” for next year’s mating action. As with most things involving grouse, I can only speculate!

That morning we would move a dozen grouse, but, as usual, there were far fewer chances for Harry and Peter than that. The afternoon saw another eight grouse flush, but only one presented a “decent chance” for Peter, that is if you count sinking down in a bog while trying to cross a blowdown as a”decent chance”. I was right behind him when he took it, and take it from me, it was a nice shot that he made on that bird. It went down and it took us a while to locate it, with Monty making his first of what I hope becomes
many retrieves. It was great, and a nice start for only an 8 month old pup.

Day Two saw more great weather for us, and while we had a slower morning than the day before, Harry and Peter each had challenging opportunities at the beginning that unfortunately were not “connections”. As New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate Robert Frost wrote, “the worst shot in grouse hunting is the one not taken”. Ok, he didn’t write that, but he probably thought of it. Lead in the air means a possibility of bagging a grouse, while no lead in the air means no chance. We would only move six grouse in the morning, but a hearty sun drenched lunch recharged us for the afternoon. While Harry sat out that afternoon (at 79 years young, Harry has earned the right to take an afternoon off from chasing grouse), Peter followed me on an extended excursion into the cover. Rudy was at his best, contacting a dozen birds (a group of four, and a group of five!) in a little over two hours of hunting and making a great point on a pair of roadside grouse that were preparing for a little grit. Unfortunately for them they both decided to fly right down the middle of the road. Have I mentioned that Peter’s a pretty good shot? Yup, two birds in the game pouch ...

For the two days we moved around 38 grouse - not bad for the final excursions of the season. Thanks again everybody for coming out with me and enjoying the outdoors for a while. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to doing it again. I’ll keep updating this when I can - there will be a few more moments of fun before the season closes.

The Nose Knows!

The Vermont part of our guiding season began with a bang last Saturday morning, as returning client Paul O’Neill and I moved grouse after grouse in one of our favorite covers. The pace was astonishing, and Rudy was in top form as he had great points on several birds, and made great tracks on several others that would not sit for his points.
Paul’s effort connected with one of those fleeing grouse, providing Paul with his first grouse bagged in Vermont (Paul’s taken birds in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine to my knowledge). We ended up moving around 16 grouse, 1 woodcock and 1 moose (fleeing Rudy and myself) that morning, making for a very memorable day already. Unfortunately, this would be the highlight of our three days together.

Perhaps the funniest moment I’ve ever seen occured that first morning. Rudy was in top form, covering both sides of the road we were on with great energy and intensity, so when I sent him in to cover near a cluster of spruce trees, he leaped eagerly toward the cover. Well, that is until he missed his mark and landed face first in the remnants of a small mud bog next to the spruce trees.
He seemed momentarily motionless while his head was stuck in the mud - Olympic judges would have give it a “10” (the French judge may have given it a “6”). He emerged like the swamp thing, and it took him a while to collect himself.

The afternoon of that first day saw a cold front come in, bringing snow and wind, and by the end of that afternoon, the snow was sticking in the high country. The weather also affected the birds - they hunkered down and though we were hunting some good looking spruce cover, we weren’t locating the numbers of birds as in the morning. Greta still turned in a great point that afternoon, but it only yielded a tough shot for Paul - no dice. Though tired and worn down, we were pretty happy with 17 grouse and 1 woodcock moved on Day One.

It snowed all night and Day Two saw three inches of crunchy snow on the ground and a very fresh breeze in our faces. Monty got the work in the morning and did pretty well, even flash pointing a grouse in a thicket of spruce, but scenting conditions were tough overall for the little guy. We moved 6 grouse and 1 woodcock that morning, but there were really no good shots for Paul. You know how it is - either you’re fighting through the maple and poplar saplings looking for a likely avenue for escaping birds, or you’re wading through a thick spruce and fir forest, getting snow dumped down your neck - it’s not easy getting a good shot. I love grouse hunting! The afternoon session saw thicker spruce cover, and we moved 7 grouse that afternoon. Rudy had great points on three of the grouse, but the thick cover prevented good shots for Paul. Unfortunately,
“Tom’s Grouse Hunting Death March” took it’s first victim of the season, as Paul’s knee started acting up, and, as luck would have it, the last two grouse of the day flushed alongside the trail on our way out, with me holding Paul’s empty gun. That right there says it all.

Day Three actually turned out to be Day Four (we took a day off to help Paul’s ailing knee), and the weather had improved some. No snow, no rain, but still cold and the birds were not very cooperative. In the morning cover, we pushed only one grouse where I had seen nine a month before. Very strange, but that’s how hunting is sometimes. We got a scare when Rudy started sneezing repeatedly with blood coming from his nose. On closer examination, he had part of a branch lodged in his nostril, so the doggie first aid kit that I carry sprang in to action. Tweezers cured the problem and within moments the bleeding stopped - it must have worked because Rudy turned in a beautiful point to end our day a few hours later. He plays through the pain ... Six grouse were kicked around in the afternoon with both Rudy and Monty running, but Day Three turned out to be my first single digit day of the season - only 7 grouse flushed in six hours of hunting - ouch! Thankfully, Paul’s knee held up all day, so we had a great time out there. Remember, a slow day in the woods is still better than almost anything else.

NH Finale

Yesterday was my last day of guiding in NH, as the muzzleloader deer season is set to open on Saturday, so we really wanted to go out with a bang. A “pep talk” was given to Greta, Rudy and Monty, and they decided to give it their all on our final day out in the granite state. Unfortunately, the weather was too nice - mid 60s and sunny, almost too warm for the dogs and us hunters, so it turned out to be a tougher day than usual. This was the first of three straight unseasonably warm days for our area. Along for the ride this time was our friend Brian Boudreau, who hadn’t upland bird hunted in some time, but was fired up for a big day.
Still, we had good dog work from all three shorthairs, but Brian’s best chance was probably twenty minutes in to our hunt when an escaping grouse flushed across the trail in front of him, only to fly on unscathed. The highlight of the hunt was a great woodcock point by Rudy, but the bird eluded us when he finally did flush, presenting no chance for a shot. The same thing happened a few hours later when Greta staunchly pointed another woodcock, only for it to flush, you guessed it, the wrong way. Monty also put in some good work near the end of our day, but Brian didn’t have any chances on the four grouse that we moved in the cover. It was a tough way to end our NH season, but we had a good time anyway, and got plenty of exercise in.

The Vermont leg of our guiding season opens for the next two weeks, which will be good - it’s always great exploring some new areas and getting reacquainted with our old covers as well. Rifle season in Vermont doesn’t open for another two weeks, so we’ll have the woods to ourselves for a little while. The weather should be turning colder too - all the better to hunt grouse in!

A Different Perspective

Sometimes it’s good to find new ways to approach our pursuits. Occasionally it gives us a different perspective that we can then bring with us the next time we’re out in the woods chasing grouse. There can never be enough methods to try to catch Mr. Partridge napping, so I learned yet another lesson in hunting over flushers for a few days last weekend.

Krystal Coombs and her springers Phoenix and Levi were my unfortunate victims for the first two days, and with those days being the NH Youth Deer Hunting weekend, we were forced to change some of our hunting spots on the fly. Phoenix and Levi were great hunters, with plenty of energy and lots of drive for chasing grouse and woodcock. They are out of Jo Ann Moody’s kennel in Maine, renowned for their skill in hunting the often skittish birds found over there. Krystal and Jo Ann have done lots of work with their dogs, emphasizing calm, quiet partnerships in the woods (close working, no bells, beepers, whistles, and little human voice noise), while letting the dogs do what they do best. These dogs didn’t just search for birds - they scoured the woods in their search for prey. While we had a bit of a slow first day, the second morning brought twenty bird contacts (15 grouse, 5 woodcock), and while many of them gave good opportunities, none were bagged - Krystal is a practitioner of the “L.D.R.” - Long Distance Release. All in all, we moved 38 birds in the two days, most of which were flushed by Levi and Phoenix. Levi’s picture sums up the two days: tired, but content.

On the third day, Tom and Cam Lee returned for a day of grouse and woodcock chasing with their field springer spaniel Winnie. We had two great days together last year as young Cam turned in the highlight of my season in shooting his first grouse ever on the wing (he actually took two!). It took a little longer this time to get the action started, but being an experienced upland hunter from Nova Scotia, Tom made a good shot to bag the first grouse of the morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t see many birds in the first cover, but Winnie hunted hard with good pattern and enthusiasm.

We then got into some woodcock and grouse in the next cover, which would turn out to be the most productive of the day, and Tom took another grouse and woodcock, and Cam made a great shot on a fleeing timberdoodle. While Rudy had a couple of points, the woodcock were quite edgy, and not in the mood to sit for points. Total, the guys took three grouse and two woodcock for the day, with Cam bagging a partridge near the end of our hunt together. Not bad, for only contacting fourteen birds for the day (7 grouse, 7 woodcock).

First Snow

The arrival of the first snow of the season throws another curveball at us grouse hunters, as if we didn’t have the odds stacked against us already. One opinion on this occurence is that the grouse and woodcock will hold tighter after the first snow of the season, as the young birds especially have never experienced such a phenomenon before. In other words, they’re quite shocked by what has happened, and don’t really know what to do about it. Well, we put that theory to the test on the last hunt with Chris and Chip Ramel a couple of days ago.

Being hardened grouse hunters, Chris and Chip were undaunted by the 30 degree temperature, with gusts of 20 MPH that day, so we headed in to one of my favorite woodcock covers, in the hopes that the lousy weather had delayed our timberdoodles from their annual migration. Our hopes were confirmed, as we immediately started contacting woodcock, with Chris’s setter Dotty and Rudy doing the honors of pointing bird after bird.
While Chris and Chip didn’t exactly put on a clinic for prospective wingshooters, they did manage to bag three woodcock in the morning. Dotty and Rudy both put on pointing exhibitions however, as they each had great woodcock points on several of the 15 - 20 we saw that morning.

We then decided to look for grouse in the afternoon, as we hadn’t seen a single one in the morning, so we headed to what I would describe as “feeding covers” of wild apples and highbush cranberries, where the grouse eat themselves silly nearly every afternoon. It couldn’t have worked out better. Monty did a great job finding lots of grouse, and actually pointing six of them. His best moment by far was his point of a group of four grouse that were seeking refuge from the weather. They managed to give Chris and Chip the slip however - perhaps we’ll meet them again some other day. We ended up moving a dozen apple picking grouse in this cover alone, which was quite amazing. At our final “feeding cover” we moved another six grouse, with Monty also doing the honors with another nice point on a departing grouse. Once again, this turned out to be one of those “great days” that we’ll remember for a long time. We’ve had a couple of days like this so far this year, and hopefully they’re not over yet!

More For Us

I hope that some of you own stock in ammunition companies, because this group discharged their firearms a lot in our three days of hunting together.

Frequent visitors to northern NH each autumn, Chris Ramel and his son Mark, and Chris’s brother Chip, have been coming up our way for years, so they are quite used to our form of grouse hunting and have built up a good portfolio of their own covers. Still, we managed to hunt some new areas that Chris had yet to see, which seemed to add to their growing memory bank of hunts and haunts. Chris comes all the way out from Denver with his gordon setter Watson and orange belton setter Dotty, so you know he’s a very dedicated hunter of bonasa umbellus, while Mark ventures north from Brooklyn, NY each year when he can. Chip has a relatively short drive from Vermont.

Still, there was something, no, someone missing from this year’s excursions. Chris’s good friend Frank could not make the trip this year because of some nagging health issues, so we doggedly continued onward in our pursuits without him. Now, while Frank’s absence was felt by everyone, and generally agreed upon by the group as a “negative”, there were some decidedly positive byproducts of Frank not being here. Firstly, there were more opportunities for everyone else to take shots at birds that Frank undoubtedly would have attempted to blast (he is known as somewhat of a “G.H.” - Game Hog). Secondly, Chris and Chip were especially appreciative that they could be the “road” or “trail” hunter for our covers (Frank usually had this role, as the rest of us would bust brush for birds to flush in front of him). Finally, while I really enjoy Frank’s cameraderie as a first class gentleman, he also had the penchant for depleting my scotch supply at the end of each day’s hunt. Didn’t have to worry about that this year ...

The hunting went ahead (without Frank), with some good results. While we’ve seen good numbers of grouse, it is the number of woodcock that is really amazing. Perhaps it’s solely from our great spring and summer that we had for the brood rearing of the chicks, but it could also be that the efforts of fish and wildlife agencies all over the east at improving habitat for woodcock before it’s too late are also paying dividends. Whatever it is, we’ve been seeing as many, if not more, woodcock than grouse to this point in the season.

This explains why Chris limited out on woodcock on our first day together, and Mark also made good on two chances on grouse that day. The second day saw beautiful conditions (sunny, 50’s), but a few less bird contacts (10 grouse, 8 woodcock), and even fewer birds brought to justice (1 woodcock). Much like our bombers over Europe in WWII, the grouse and woodcock endured tremendous flak from the Ramels, with most flying quite safely to be pushed another day. Oh well, that’s another aspect of grouse hunting that happens, and it’s another reason that we keep coming back: redemption.

By the way, is there anything better than a bird dog retrieving a grouse, especially when the dog in question is a gordon setter? Nope, I didn’t think so either.

Before the Storm ...

It’s pretty blustery outside tonight as I write this. Our nor’easter blew in last night and intensified this morning, leading to a big rainout of a day for our bird hunters. We did have some great autumn days this week however, and I was fortunate to spend a couple of those days hunting with Mike Scarks and Lou Wood, both veteran bird hunters, but new to the woods of Pittsburg. Lou brought along his two year old setter Tessa, and we also hunted with Greta and Rudy, with Monty mopping up on our last afternoon.

We had some good work from the dogs, and Tessa got plenty of work in over the two days. Tessa in particular excelled on many woodcock, and Rudy and Greta had some good work on the grouse. Monty tried hard but was unable to find any birds in his time in the woods. Mike and Lou were both good shots, as they harvested a total of six grouse and five woodcock over our two days together - pretty good, considering that we moved close to forty birds in two days.

The weather is supposed to slowly get better this week, with temps staying on the cold side - perfect weather for more flights of woodcock!

What Is "Great" Grouse Cover?

That is the question that most runs through my mind, no matter what time of year. Having a feeling for where grouse might be helps us form a plan that might turn an ordinary day of upland hunting in to one of those memory-making “great” days. However, if you hunt grouse, you know that the query above is not easily answered because grouse are, well, grouse! They can be unpredictable most times and you’ll often find them in areas that may have seemed unlikely.

Over the years, I’ve changed some of the areas that I look for grouse and now tend to focus on certain characteristics of the cover in question. Firstly, areas of regenerating trees where logging has taken place, especially in cuts 5 - 15 years old, are spots that are of interest to me. Young poplar, maple, birch and beech that are anywhere from 10 to 20 feet high provide not only thick ground structure but overhead canopy protection from raptors as well. Look for trees that are “thick as your wrist” and you may be in the right kind of regenerating cover. Almost every one of these areas I’ve seen at least a couple of grouse, and sometimes there’s a lot more than that. Hunt the edges and make a few middle passes if the cover looks thick enough. Hunt the “islands” of cover in and around the cuts which provide protection for the birds. Preseason scouting occasionally works to find these areas, but I utilize Google Earth often to find the cuts and age them through historical data.

As the season changes and the weather grows colder and snowier, I usually change my focus to areas with thicker cover, especially with spruce and fir trees. While these areas can be located through scouting as well (often while hunting a cut area, I’ll see softwoods that could be grouse cover when the weather deteriorates), I like to find smaller brook bottoms where grouse can safely hang out and get water well in to winter. Almost every brook has cover like this, as a buffer is required from logging activity - you guessed it, that buffer usually is spruce, fir, or other thick cover that grouse like (alders, for instance).

Check these areas out when you’re hunting next time and maybe you’ll be surprised. As we all know however, great grouse cover is wherever you find grouse!

Flight Plan: Woodcock Are In

Greetings from the north country, where the grouse and woodcock play. It seems like a pretty good start so far to this year’s hunt. Grouse numbers appear to be the same, and maybe even a bit better than last year. It also looks like our resident woodcock fared very well this spring and summer, but the early flights have begun up here as well, so things are really cooking.

I had Art and Craig Stucchi with me the last few days, and while we had quite a few bird contacts our first day (13 grouse, 9 woodcock), we endured a tough day two (9 grouse flushed) in very windy conditions. This made for some jumpy grouse that didn’t want to play “the game”.

Our third day out saw near perfect conditions - high 50’s, sunny and light winds - and the birds were very cooperative. The conditions greatly helped the dog work - Greta (at left) was nothing short of amazing, pointing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 - 25 woodcock and making excellent points on two of the three grouse that she encountered (one was in a tree!).

Rudy (at right) followed suit in the afternoon, with a couple of woodcock points, but he really excelled at finding and pinning several grouse that offered good chances for Art and Craig. They concluded their day with 1 grouse and 3 woodcock bagged for each of them, with nearly all of the birds being pointed by Rudy and Greta. We moved around 14 grouse and 25 woodcock on this amazing day.

It reminded me of some of the times I went bird hunting with my brother Chuck back in the 80’s - the hay day of upland hunting up here, and I heard several of our weekend guests say the same. Don’t worry, even I know that this is the exception and not the norm ...

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Yup, that’s the kind of weather we’ve had up here the last couple of days, and, guess what, it’s raining right now as I write this. Still, that doesn’t deter the dogs from doing what they do best, and the birds were there after all ... but, not the most comfortable conditions for a stroll in the woods. The other good news is that all of this bad weather has dropped some of the foliage from the trees, so you should expect better shooting opportunites sooner than normal. Of course, this means one less excuse for you to explain your latest miss on a grouse, and you know that will happen!

Nevertheless, Randy and Leighton came along with me for two rain-shortened sessions in Vermont this week. Being veteran grouse hunters, they knew what we were up against due to the weather, but they were determined to find our brown feathered friends in any event. On Day One, we had some great dog work from Randy’s pointer Cocoa - she pointed and relocated beautifully on several grouse, only one of which offered a good shot (Randy is a catch & release bird hunter), with the others flying or running to safety. Randy’s GSP Nugget also worked well before the wind and rain reared it’s ugly head on the first afternoon, and we had a total of nine grouse contacts that first day.

Day Two brought first a light drizzle, then full fledged rain, with us being in the middle of it. Grouse made us forget our discomfort temporarily, as we started hearing and seeing them within ten minutes of leaving the trucks. Rudy did okay, but he was far from his best, as he pointed only three of the nine grouse that we encountered in the morning. Once again, a few grouse offered decent ballistic opportunities, but Randy and Leighton came up empty on those brown rockets. As you would expect, all of the birds were in the thick stuff, with plenty of spruce nearby for cover. By the end of the morning, the worst of both worlds had happened: we were wet and cold!

The Doctor Is In!

The start to the NH grouse season saw the remnants of a formidable tropical storm that belted us for two straight days, with October 1 falling on the second day of the torrent. Nevertheless, we are grouse hunters, and there were grouse to be pursued regardless of the weather conditions, so the answer to the question was simple: yes, we’re going out! I must admit that Dr. Bob Gabreski was a gamer under these conditions, and he was focused until the end of his time with me - fortunately, we took to the woods two mornings in a row only, so that we could recharge for the following day’s hunt.

All three of the dogs got their work in over the two mornings with Bob. Rudy had a very good opening day - several good points and patient work yielded some good chances for Bob. Greta gave a good showing the next morning with points on three distantly flushing grouse, and Monty also had a good hunt with his first grouse point under battle conditions near the end of his hunt on a running, and then flushing-out-of range grouse. Yes, they are running already folks, sorry to say, so we’re going to have to kick it in to a higher gear as the leaves drop and the dogs display “birdiness”.

How did Dr. Bob do? He dropped two grouse (both males) over our two mornings and he is planning his return for the opener next year too. While the action seemed slower on day two after the storm passed, we still encountered approximately 16 grouse and 2 woodcock over our two mornings together. Not bad, and the shooting should get a bit easier as the foliage melts away for another season ...

It's On!

The first signs of how this grouse season could turn out showed some positive results this week. The Vermont grouse season opened last Saturday, and while the scenting conditions weren’t optimal (70 degrees and sunny), Rudy had a few good points, but the birds did not cooperate for us. In fact, it was so warm that we stayed out for only about two hours. While the foliage is looking beautiful (we’re at our peak right now), it is not as beautiful when you’re trudging through it. It’s still quite thick out there!

Yesterday the conditions were a little better (60 degrees), and the work by Greta and Monty was also pretty good - in nearly three hours of hunting, we encountered 9 grouse and saw 3 others along the road as we drove out of the honey hole. Monty did especially well, as he pointed a pair of grouse on the edge of a small clear cut, now getting over run with raspberries. Unfortunately, neither of them offered a good shot - maybe we’ll find them another day.

The weather looks unsettled, but a bit cooler for this weekend and next week’s forecast calls for another warm up. Remember to bring plenty of water out on your excursions for you and your four legged hunting buddy!