A Christmas Tale

This is a long one, but well worth reading if you own a hunting dog.

Monty and I took a final trip to the woods in search of our feathered friends last Thursday in northern Vermont, with Rudy and Greta sitting this one out. We still didn’t have much in the way of snow on the ground, and the temps were nice - 30s and sunny when we left the truck - which meant almost ideal conditions for late season grouse hunting. The action was pretty hot to start off - 13 grouse harassed in only 1.5 hours of hunting (
that’s a pretty good average!), with two birds making it in to the hunting vest for the journey back. Monty did a very good job, and even made a great retrieve to hand on the last grouse attempting its escape through thick softwoods.

It was precisely at this point that things went bad ... horribly bad. Shortly after his grouse retrieve, Monty went off in search of more prey (
at least two of the grouse from the last group of six that we flushed had flown in the direction that he went) and in a short time he had established another point. I moved in the direction of his beeper collar through the thick firs, eventually emerging only to have him bark, break point and rip off through the woods in pursuit. What was he pursuing? I’ll never know for sure, but I suspect it could have been a deer or moose that he was chasing. In any event, he quickly was out of my range and ignoring my commands to break off his chase. In a short time, he was gone, and it was incredible how quickly this all happened.

A lost dog in September or October is one thing, but a lost dog in late December is another thing entirely, especially in the north woods. The amount of coyote sign that I had seen while hunting that day had also been alarming, so the prospect of not finding Monty before dark that day was not acceptable for me. However, as the sun set that day, it became more likely that Monty might be spending a night alone in the woods for the first time in his short life.

A couple of times in the fading daylight and growing darkness I came close to finding him - the beeper collar was sounding off, so I knew that I was within a quarter mile of Monty (that’s the beeper collar’s range), but he was never
real close, and he certainly was not close enough to be seen. The major physical barrier preventing me from getting closer to him that night was a swiftly flowing stream dividing the cedar / fir swamp that we were in, and I decided against crossing it in the dark without a flashlight. By the backlit screen of my GPS I made it out of the woods and back to my truck by 6:30 PM that night, leaving Monty behind. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.

Returning two hours later with a few friends and family members, we decided to go back near the area I was hunting in on ATV. While this helped save a lot of time, it still didn’t help us locate Monty - we never heard his beeper collar sound off, and after two hours we decided to head in for the night and try again early on Friday morning. Needless to say, this is when a lot of morbid thoughts enter your mind - packs of coyotes, bobcats, a failed attempt at a stream crossing, or even a misstep in to a trapper’s set up all seemed like likely endings for Monty. Then the inevitable realization that you may have hunted with your best buddy for perhaps the last time crept in to my thoughts too. That night was certainly tough on Monty, and just as bad for all of the rest of us too.

On the bright side, the over night temperature never dropped below thirty, which is pretty rare up here at this time of year, but it did snow 3” - 4” of heavy wet snow, covering any tracks from the day before. I brought Rudy with me early Friday morning, hoping that he would pick up Monty’s scent, but instead he provided me company in the woods, and pointed a few more grouse as well. With the daylight I was able to trek back in to where I had last heard the beeper collar, and finally cross over the stream. Others in the search party rode ATVs down the nearby logging roads, or got the word out of Monty’s disappearance in the town of Norton, VT. We even had the U.S. Border Patrol keeping an eye out for him in their travels - the whole effort was impressive.

The swampy maze continued on the far side of the stream to my dismay - in two and a half hours of trudging through it, I never heard the beeper collar or cut a single track; canine, deer, moose or otherwise. It was pretty quiet and lonely out there to say the least, and was getting depressingly monotonous (
think about the thickest cover you can imagine, with blowdowns and slash sprinkled throughout, with a few inches of snow on top of that and you’ll get the picture). Countless whistle blasts and calls were met with silence, and once again my thoughts were turning to the dark side. With my batteries running low in my GPS again (I had already changed them out once that morning), I decided to head back toward the stream and back to the truck to make alternate plans with everyone again.

It was at this point that things took a good turn. I tried getting back across the stream at a different point than my first crossing, and I ended up falling in briefly. Scrambling out of the water, I continued up the bank to locate my first crossing point, continuing to blow my whistle for Monty. One of my whistle blasts was greeted with a human shout, which was followed by another, and I headed in the direction of the noise. In a few minutes I blew my whistle again and was within fifty yards of my friend Chris, who had come in on ATV behind my tracks and then followed my tracks through the swamp on foot.

Chris said my name and then I heard a clearly audible beep. There was Monty, no worse for the wear, happily greeting his hunting buddy Rudy and running around as if nothing too momentous had happened. Chris was about an hour behind me in the woods, on my exact trail, when Monty came running up behind him following a shout for him. Monty was tentative at first, but then quickly decided Chris’s company was worth having out in that wilderness, and stayed with him back toward the stream. We finally came within hearing distance of each other, and that’s when the reunion took place to my great relief. Less than an hour later, we were back at the trucks, anxious to get the word out that Monty had found us.

By the way, Chris is an experienced deer hunter, and agreed that the terrain that we were looking for Monty in was some of the worst he’s encountered in the north country. It was truly a miracle, maybe even a Christmas miracle, that we were able to get Monty back that day - the temp dropped to around 0 degrees that night. Also, Monty’s beeper collar surprisingly stayed on for 22 hours straight without draining the batteries down, which was also fortunate. His Christmas gift will be a little late arriving this year, but I’m sure he’ll enjoy his new
Garmin Astro GPS unit when we’re out in the woods from now on ...

Old Dogs & Old Tricks


Eventhough Greta’s getting up there in age (9 1/2 years) and doesn’t move around the way she once used to, she still has a pretty good nose for grouse. In only an hour’s worth of time, she pointed a pair (one of which fortunately posed for the picture with Greta), and we moved another bird that flushed away to breed for next season. The form? Not aesthetically pleasing for some hunters - she moves pretty slow, and almost seems to creep in to her points, but she still is amazing to watch. How are the boys doing? Rudy and Monty spent the day in the woods of northern NH with me yesterday and performed very well. In around five hours we moved 18 grouse, most of which were pointed and two that eventually made it in to the game pouch. There almost is no snow here now (very unusual for this time of year), and the woods are quiet with deer hunting season being over. It was like having a 300 square mile game preserve yesterday, and it seemed like we were the only ones out there. How long will this last? The Snow god will likely make an appearance for good soon, so we enjoy these last days of the season as long as we get them. By the way, on the way out of the woods in the late afternoon, we saw eight more grouse budding in the trees just before dark. They weren’t too concerned with us passing by either, as if knowing that we were done for the day.


One of the "Good" years ...

Every grouse season seems pretty good to me, but there’s some that have burned their images in to my memory permanently. Unfortunately, most of those memories came from twenty or more years ago, when I used to hunt with my brother Chuck and his GSF (German Shorthaired Flusher) Sadie - those were some great days, where we’d move 40 or 50 birds in a day and hit very few of them, but the action was hot. The “good old days” as old timers wistfully refer to them were probably pretty good, though I often wonder if that is also a byproduct of a decaying memory. This season has had its share of great days, and some of them would have rivaled our best days from years ago. I think there’s been at least four days this season of 30 - 35 birds contacted in a day (between grouse and woodcock), with our best day seeing grouse exclusively being 28, all in Vermont. Last week, I had a four hour hunt in VT where we moved 17 grouse, and yesterday I was out for three hours and saw 11 more in NH. That’s pretty good, no matter what eon you’re from. As usual, the deer hunters continue to remind me of how many birds they’re seeing in their pursuits each day. Needless to say, there’s still lots of birds out there. I hope we have a strong winter with lots of fluffy snow (great for snow roosting birds), and a nice dry spring and early summer - we could just be in for a better season next year if those things happen!

We Shoot In the Direction of Grouse ...

As some of you know that have hunted with me lately, grouse hunting is not always an easy affair, and therein lies the challenge and the reward. We walk a lot of miles and put in a lot of work just trying to catch a glimpse of a grouse, nevermind get a shot at one. When the reward of a grouse in hand finally does happen, it makes all of those miles and hours worth it.

The best summation of shooting at grouse was provided to me by a friend of mine, from a magazine article he had read:

“Everyone who has hunted ruffed grouse and doesn’t lie knows that hitting one on the wing with a shotgun is by pure accident.” - Layne Simpson

It may not be quite as difficult as that, but when you miss that
“going straight down the trail, away from you” shot, it certainly seems that hard.

While we had some of the best grouse hunting weather of the season this past weekend (sunny, 40s and 50s), the grouse were hard to come by, and the shooting chances were few. There were chances for sure though, as both Rudy and Monty hunted hard in Vermont, and we moved around 15 for the day on Saturday, and 5 more on Sunday morning. My clients were all new to grouse hunting, so they began their understanding of this crazy sport the hard way: several misses that seemingly were in the bag.

Their first grouse hunting trip is in the books, so we’ll see how they do on next year’s excursion ...

Winter's Here ... For Now

Hunting grouse in northern Vermont
Good thing Paul only comes up once a year ... because I would need to find a lot more coverts to take people to if he was up here any longer. His shooting was “on” this weekend, to say the least, as he harvested 6 grouse and 2 woodcock out of the 52 birds we moved in two and one half days of hunting together.
Ruffed grouse bagged in northern Vermont
He hit them coming in and going away, and the grouse are very happy that he’s gone home, at least for another year. One of his most amazing shots came yesterday when a grouse got up quickly out of a cluster of small evergreens beside the trail. Paul swung quickly on the bird and pulled the trigger, only for us to see the snow laden branches of two larger softwoods explode ahead of us. Rudy charged ahead in to the cover to nail down the grouse that almost got away.

Grouse Hunting Lesson #763: Always shoot at a grouse if you have a chance, even with trees seemingly in the way.

The nor’easter this weekend only left us with 2”-3” of snow in most places, so getting around the woods takes more effort, but is definitely still worth it. While we only put up 7 birds and 2 bull moose over the course of Sunday afternoon as the storm wound down, we moved 16 grouse and 1 woodcock yesterday.
Ruffed grouse tracks in northern Vermont
The birds were moving more today, especially as the sun started warming the woods, and we found grouse tracks (but never found the birds that made them) on several occasions.

Ruffed grouse hunting in northern Vermont
Once again, in addition to all of the singles that we encountered, we also ran in to several groups as well - a group of three and two groups of four grouse together. While the work from the dogs was good, it was still difficult for them to key in on the bird scent for most of the day, so the snow must have had some effect. The prediction for the weather is a gradual warm up this week, so hopefully most of this snow goes away, at least for another week. After that, the deer hunters can have it for tracking their own quarry ...

Before Winter Comes ...

Lots of great hunting the last two days. Sunny and cold both days, but good for moving birds around, and also good scenting for dogs and walking for us. It’s been a lot of fun, and we wish all of our days were like this. We have 3” - 5” of the white stuff coming in tonight and tomorrow morning, so we’ll see how that affects the birds and our pursuit of them.

Male ruffed grouse taken in Pittsburg, NH
My last morning in New Hampshire yielded nine grouse and one woodcock in about four hours out there. Rudy made some great points on some birds, and we also bumped a few as well. The largest group of grouse was a cluster of four birds together - unfortunately, Rudy could only point the two that were on the ground - there were two more that took off high out of the trees above us. John Kendall made a nice shot on a fleeing grouse that Rudy had pointed - it turned out to be a beautiful male grouse - one of the best of the year and a real trophy of the uplands.

Paul O'Neill with a fine northern Vermont ruffed grouse
This morning was the first of three in a row in Vermont, now that the NH muzzleloader deer season has started. Along for the ride this time was client and friend Paul O’Neill, who revels in hunting grouse with his lightweight British 12 gauge side by side. Paul’s done this kind of thing with me before, but both of us were surprised at the amount of grouse we saw today. We moved 21 grouse with Monty in the morning, with the largest group being a covey of six, one of which fell to Paul’s marksmanship. It was a tremendous shot on a grouse nearly out of range, and a great way to begin our day. While Monty bumped his share of grouse, he also made four or five nice points on birds, and he definitely worked more deliberately as the morning went on. By the end of it, Paul had three grouse to his credit, which is the most any of my hunters have gotten in a day.

Still, it was Rudy’s task to try to “tag Paul out” if he could. Alas, it was not to be, though he made a nice point on a cluster of four grouse in the afternoon - as so often happens, a tree got in the way and Paul couldn’t squeeze a shot off in time. We would move a total of seven grouse in the afternoon, for a grand total of
28 grouse over the course of the day. Quite a way to start our three days together.

Hopefully the snow doesn’t affect us too much - more reports to come!

Educating Monty

German shorthaired pointer with ruffed grouse and woodcock
Things are still cooking up here on the hunting front. Monty took me out for a few hours in VT yesterday afternoon, and we managed to harass a dozen grouse and two woodcock as well. While most of the grouse were singles, we did put up a couple of pairs and a group of three together.

It was great hunting to be exact - the action was consistent and exciting for all three hours. While Monty bumped his share of grouse, he pointed both woodcock and a pair of grouse at the end of our time out -
he's learning ...

Revenge of the 28's, Or Was It?

Veteran grouse hunters
It was my pleasure to go out again this year for a few days with brothers Chris and Chip Ramel and their hunting companion Frank Debord. Chris and Frank travel here all the way from Denver, with Chip making the short drive up I-91 from central Vermont. What distinguishes this group from all others is that they are dedicated connoisseurs of the 28 gauge, and after hunting with them now for a few years, I can attest to this gun’s ability.

Grouse and woodcock hunting at Tall Timber, Pittsburg, NH
There are days when these beautiful little shotguns are wielded with deadly accuracy, and there are others where the grouse and woodcock have more than a puncher’s chance of getting away to fly another day. All this really means is that they’re just like most other shotguns, in that you have your “good” and your “not so good” days with them, the only difference being that your shoulder isn’t aching from lugging a 28 around all day.

We moved, saw, heard and generally upset the daily routine of many grouse and woodcock in our days out together. In the end, they bagged two grouse and six woodcock for our three hunts - not bad, and the dog work from Dottie, Chris’s setter and Watson, Chris’s gordon setter went along well with the efforts of Rudy and Monty.
There were a fair number of pointed birds that escaped the shot patterns of Chris, Chip and Frank, but we had a lot of fun trying. They’re coming back for more punishment from me next year, so something must have gone right!

We now have very little foliage left, so now you’ll probably hit the trunks and branches of trees, instead of the leaves when you get that grouse shot off. Woodcock are still on the move through the area, so we should have good action for the next couple of weeks on timberdoodles. Watch the weather and keep checking the moon phases to determine when the best days might be.

The weather also became more seasonal this week - temps in the 40s and 50s most days, and while the rain hasn’t entirely stopped, it has moderated greatly from what it was. It definitely feels like grouse hunting season now!

Springing In To Action!

I will preface this next post with the fact that I am a dedicated “pointing dog grouse hunter”, simply meaning that I am most comfortable with the pace and tendencies that pointing dogs display while in the woods. A point is still a mystery to me and probably always will be - the anticipation of which is almost as good as the resulting flush for me. Watching a dog that’s good at it has to be one of life’s great pleasures ... but I digress.

This past weekend, I hunted with two dedicated flushing dog enthusiasts from Maine - Krystal Coombs and legendary Maine guide and breeder Jo-Ann Moody - whose springers scoured my grouse coverts for two days. Krystal’s 3 year old Levi (at left) and Jo-Ann’s 7 month old pup Pepper brought me back in to the world of hunting grouse and woodcock with a flushing state of mind, which is quite different from where I usually reside.

Pepper retrieves one of Krystal's partridge
In short, we had a great time and moved a lot of birds over our two mornings of hunting Levi and Pepper. The cover the first day was a little more open and we saw, glimpsed, or heard around 24 grouse and woodcock, quite a few of which presented nice shooting opportunities. Jo-Ann made a nice shot on a woodcock (which Pepper retrieved), and Krystal bagged a couple of grouse as well. Quite a few shells were expended on that first morning, as the dogs were working close and hunting hard. Both Krystal and Jo-Ann have a relaxing (quiet), yet precise way of handling their dogs in the grouse woods, which helps us get closer to the birds.

Sunday brought new challenges, as I brought them to one of my best (and thickest!) woodcock coverts. The amount of woodcock and splash in this covert got the dogs fired up, so there were birds in the air, but sometimes too far out of the range of the guns. Pepper was really firing on all cylinders, which is great to see from a young dog. Needless to say, both Levi and Pepper (at right) earned their rest at the end of each day.

In the afternoons, we hunted with one of my dogs, just to give Krystal and Jo-Ann a taste of how we do it up here. While things were slower each afternoon, both Rudy (2 grouse and 2 woodcock moved) and Monty (6 grouse moved, with a couple of great points) acquitted themselves well in their time out there. While the weather was cooler, it was also still cloudy, rainy and windy, making for another challenging weekend out there. The good news is that we lost much of our foliage last weekend, so now we have one less excuse for all of those missed birds!

Cooling Off

A pretty good week of bird hunting this week, especially after the temps became more “seasonal”. It was still a bit on the “too warm for grouse hunting side”, but when you see those sad, plaintive eyes of man’s best friend and realize just how short the season is, you end up grabbing your gun and strapping on your boots anyway.

Earlier this week, I was fortunate to hunt with Mike Scarks and Lou Wood, and also, and most importantly, with Lou’s three year old setter Tessa. Tessa did a great job overall on both grouse and woodcock in our hunts together, as we moved somewhere around 12 - 15 birds in our first morning together. She has a great tempo in moving through the grouse woods, and definitely knows what she is doing, and should have many great seasons of grouse hunting ahead of her.

While Lou bagged three grouse and two woodcock and Mike took one woodcock in our time together, Tessa gave them plenty of good chances at other birds. There was plenty of lead in the air in our first day together - so much that Lou ran low on 16 gauge ammo, and had to switch over to his 12 gauge for the afternoon hunt. Mike let it fly quite a few times as well, so I can’t let him off the hook either ... Sorry Mike!

Even cooler weather is on the way for us over the week coming up, but the rain is supposed to continue. There seems to be lots of woodcock around right now, so we’ll see how this weather pattern affects them.

Get the Sun Tan Lotion!

If you see this when you’re looking for grouse, you’re getting hotter, because you’re in the right place. This pile of grouse guano was found on a mossy log on the edge of a regenerating clear cut, but we never did quite catch up with the bird that was responsible for this ...

Last weekend was rough for us grouse hunters with all of the rain, but this past weekend was actually worse - it was way too hot for hunting, for us and the dogs. We still had a couple of good days, but on Sunday, when the temps were at their highest, the birds were pretty hard to find. We hunted some upland coverts that morning, in the hopes that we’d be hitting them before the real heat started, but it quickly became way too warm for all of us. We moved to streamside locales later for the early afternoon, and while it was cooler, the damage had been done - a few bumped birds later, and we were done for the day. Dogs have a tough time scenting birds in warm weather, so Monty and Rudy got passes for their efforts.

Thankfully, we had a great day on Saturday, moving between 30 and 35 birds. No rhyme or reason to it - that’s why it’s hunting! We’ll hope for cooler weather soon, and it should be here by this weekend.

Is A Rainy Day of Grouse Hunting Better Than Working?

In one word: YES. While it may not be comfortable hunting in the rain (especially the pouring rain), it still beats being in the office, dealing with all of those mundane tasks that wear us down slowly, day after day.

After the first four days of the grouse season in NH, we’ve gotten soaked on three of them, but the hunting’s still been pretty good. The birds have been there, at least for my people. Six grouse and six woodcock moved on Saturday morning, and eight grouse and three woodcock contacted on Sunday, both days in NH. We had a respite from the weather on Monday, and after a slow start that morning
(the grouse couldn’t even believe what the sun looked like), we would end up moving nineteen grouse and two woodcock, primarily in the afternoon in Vermont. Even this morning we saw or heard seven grouse, again in VT, in just two hours of looking around for them - not bad, considering the weather.

Where were they? Lots of edge cover with small evergreens, most of which have been near roads and trails, but certainly not always. There’s still lots of foliage on the trees right now, so the shooting’s left a little to be desired, but we’ve had some good work out of the dogs here in the first week. We have a sunny weekend coming, though with higher temps, which isn’t always the best for us hunters and our four legged friends. Bring lots of water for yourself and your dogs this weekend - we’ll all need it.