Early on in December, it looked like our season was coming to a speedy conclusion as the snow began to pile up and the temperatures dropped. Grouse hunting in a little bit of snow (four inches or under) is still fun in the opinion of most grouse hunters, but when it becomes a drudgery of trudging through deep snow, even grouse hunting can lose its luster. Time to hang up the shotgun and let the dog enjoy some couch time …
We were dangerously close to the latter a few weeks ago, but then warm weather and pouring rain on Christmas Eve and Christmas day changed all of that. With the chaos of the holidays nearly past, it was time to get the dogs out one more time before the season concluded, so we managed to get in to some Vermont covers that I hadn't seen since early October. Even lacking the brilliant colors of autumn grouse hunting, the woods are still startlingly beautiful at this time of the season - very quiet with the occasional thunder from a flushing grouse.
Not much snow in most places, but lots of ice, so we had to be careful navigating through the cover. Monty hunted hard in his time out there, finding five grouse, but pointing only one of them - it was breezy on Monday, and chilly (around 20 degrees), so I'll cut him some slack. He made a nice retrieve on the one grouse that fell to my gun, making another memory to store away in the memory bank until next year. Bode gave it his all in the afternoon, but came up with the goose egg - that's how winter time grouse hunting can be (actually, that's how it is most of the time) - all or nothing.
Last Monday, December 1, was our first outing, and Monty did a great job in his nearly three hours of hunting. His patterning was excellent and methodic, and he picked right up where he left off in pointing six of the eight grouse that we encountered that day. The conditions were perfect - not much snow, with temperatures in the upper 30's and a steady breeze, so we had everything in our favor.
It became apparent after the first few birds that he pointed that these grouse had become content during the deer season, holding very well for Monty's points. A couple of them held so well that I had decent chances for shots on them, but you know how that story goes … yup, there will be seed birds for next year's crop. Six of the eight grouse were in pairs, but there were a couple of singles in there as well.
This morning brought much different conditions - it snowed a few more inches yesterday, and was 11 degrees when we got out there this morning. Don't forget the steady wind out of the north, and you may get the picture that skis may have been a better choice today instead. I did my best Jerry Allen imitation today and ran all three dogs to get them some work before the season ends.
Rudy, Monty and Bode all did their thing to the best of their ability in the tough conditions, but we only moved a couple of birds, hunkered down in tangled spruce blow downs, avoiding the winter weather the best they could. No shots, but that was fine with me - it was great anyway to be out there in the crisp air, watching the dogs work with the stillness of inevitable winter approaching. Too bad if this is the end of the season, and while it wasn't the best we've had (probably not even a good one!), I'd rather be out in the woods in the fall chasing grouse than doing almost anything else …
Sunday was spent roaming the grouse country of the North East Kingdom of Vermont with returning clients of mine, and while we had not previously had much success, we've had a good time nonetheless. Monty was first out of the truck and did very well, pointing a couple of different grouse as well as a late leaving woodcock. Unfortunately, none of them ended up in the back of our game vests, but Todd, Dave and Zander all took shots as the birds escaped. That's how it goes sometimes in grouse hunting: the dog can do it's job, we can position ourselves in what appears to be the ideal shooting lanes, but the bird still needs to make a mistake sometimes for us to get a "good" chance at them.
In the afternoon that day, we worked some good spruce cover - think thick, but not too thick, with some good lanes for shooting, and we started moving birds. First Rudy had a good roadside point on an escaping grouse, and then Bode and Monty moved a couple of stragglers. Every now and then though, walking through the woods without the aid of a dog can work as well, and that is what happened for Todd, as a bird went up out of a stand of spruce in front of him. He made a nice shot, and had his first grouse ever in hand. We would move a few more for a total of 10 grouse and 1 woodcock that day.
New Hampshire was next on Monday and Tuesday with returning clients Matt and Jon, and we had a brutal morning on Monday trudging through several inches of snow in Pittsburg. We didn't move a single bird that morning, the first time that has happened in this season of low grouse numbers. We did have a couple of promising points from Monty that morning, but apparently the birds had gotten away before we could get to him - one of which had clear grouse tracks in the area where Monty was pointing.
We ended up moving to lower elevation covers and food covers in the afternoon, and ended up moving around 8 grouse in the afternoon, but none of them offered any realistic shots for Matt and Jon. This morning brought brilliant sunshine, rare for a day in November. Rudy got the call first and had a great trailside point early on, and this grouse made a big mistake in flying out over the trail in front of Jon. He connected with a nice shot, and there would be a few more good chances for the guys this morning, but no others made it in to the vest.
Unfortunately, it looks like the vast majority of the woodcock have passed through our area, but there may still be a few stragglers out there. We're down to the nitty gritty now with grouse only, and the ones that are here are true survivors - they seem to be smart and have no problem putting a tree between us and them - just like usual. The rifle season for deer starts tomorrow in New Hampshire and on Saturday in Vermont, so the grouse hunting will be sporadic and "week day only" for me and my pack.
First out of the truck was Bode, and he made the most of his time out there, pointing two separate grouse and tracking and flushing another, as well as busting a couple of woodcock (for some reason, Bode has a better nose for grouse than woodcock - go figure!). He did make a nice point dead on a woodcock that Craig shot, which we probably wouldn't have found otherwise. Once again, he had good range and responded well to commands and is progressing nicely in his journey to becoming a grouse dog.
Rudy took the next turn and only had one bird contact for the day - fortunately, it was a beautiful point on three grouse that ended up eluding Art and Craig, but it was great to see nonetheless. He worked hard in his time and patterned well in hunting some beautiful evergreen cover out of the wind that wasn't as productive as we all thought it should have been.
Monty was the anchorman for the day, and after an uneventful period of searching, we started to get in to some grouse. He had two points on separate grouse, with the second bird having made a big mistake by hanging around the area where we were searching. It went up, and Art made a nice wing shot on the grouse - wing shot because it was only winged - it ran off downhill ahead of us, but Monty found it inside of a tree root and was quick to pull it out for us. Another case where a good bird dog is worth his weight in gold in finding cripples.
We worked for the birds today - 11 grouse and 4 woodcock moved in our time out there, but we saw some excellent work from each of the dogs. I was fortunate to witness grouse points by each of my dogs in the northern New Hampshire woods today - pretty special if you ask me!
Monty had a great morning session, moving 24 birds in his time in the field. While the majority (16) were woodcock (with many solid points), he also had some nice points on grouse as well. Within a short amount of time, Art and Craig Stucchi had taken three woodcock over staunch points by Monty, but then the birds started heading for the hills unexpectedly, and the shooting became much tougher.
Bode took the field for the afternoon session and had a couple of quick points on woodcock, a really impressive point on a grouse that ended up getting away unscathed, and also a beautiful find and retrieve of a grouse that Craig had hit moments before. While Bode is still a work in progress, he is a close hunting companion in the grouse woods, and they will rue the day when he finally puts it all together - yes, he has the makings of a good one ...
Today could not have been more different - mid 30s with occasional snow flurries and a bit of north wind too. Rudy got the call for the morning cover, a small area that had a flight of woodcock in it last year at this time, and it became very apparent that the birds were here again ... or had been. Lots of fresh chalk was all over this cover, but no timberdoodles to be found. That's how woodcock hunting this late in the season goes: here today, gone tomorrow.
Our persistance paid off however, as we started moving some grouse - Rudy had a point on one, and Monty probably pointed around eight grouse today, and Art and Craig took two of them. We ended the day moving 15 grouse and 1 woodcock - not bad, but a far cry from yesterday's efforts. It was noticeably colder today, and snowing steadily as we left the uplands today - the woodcock may be more concentrated in the lowlands after this weather, and hopefully the flights aren't over yet. The grouse, thankfully, seem to be settling in to normal habits (edges, roadsides, thick cover) with this colder weather and maybe we'll have a couple more good weeks of hunting to come.
By the way, the NH muzzleloading deer season began today, so make sure you put orange vests on your dogs if you're getting out there, and don't forget some for yourself either - no bird is worth getting shot over.
My client Dan Patenaude and I started off in typically good grouse cover - an area regenerating from a cut from perhaps 10 - 15 years ago. It had everything you could want - loads of wrist sized maple, beech, and yellow birch, along with a smattering of evergreens for protection. It had everything, except for what is most important ... GROUSE! Why, I have no idea, except that perhaps the birds had been pushed hard in this area and had decided to pitch their tents somewhere else.
While the grouse were hard to come by, the woodcock were fully participating in the hunting events, and Monty had quite a morning. Along with Monty, we also ran Dan's four year old GSP Millie to shadow him. Millie did a great job of working the grouse woods, and was nearly flawless in honoring Monty's many woodcock points, and by the end of their time in the woods together, they had encountered a couple of grouse and around 9 woodcock.
In the afternoon, Millie worked with Rudy in a couple of roadside covers, and while we flushed a grouse wild in the first cover, Millie did a great job of pointing a woodcock of her own in the second cover, with Rudy honoring this time. It was great to see, and Dan looked pretty proud of his girl. Unfortunately, this was the last of our action for the day, and brought our total to 3 grouse and 10 woodcock for the day.
Bode got his shot for a morning hunt in Vermont with me this morning, and he did an admirable job in his time out there. After moving one grouse out of some roadside evergreens that he had sniffed out and tracked, he then had an exciting point on a pair of grouse on the edge of a cut. Unfortunately, when I gave him the "WHOA" command, he must have thought that I said "GO" instead. After five seconds of holding his point, he broke and flushed the birds, and they're probably still flying now.
Oh well, the education of this bird dog continues ...
My victim, one again, was Paul O'Neill for three days and we hunted hard in our time together, hitting many different areas in our quest to find birds. We ended up settling on covers that featured desirable food sources, with apple trees and high bush cranberries as the common denominators, in the belief that the grouse would be feeding heavily prior to the bad weather rolling in. It took us a while to figure this out though, so our first two days were on the slow side - 6 grouse and 2 woodcock moved on Tuesday, and 5 grouse and 11 woodcock moved on Wednesday. There was good work from each of the dogs, particularly on the woodcock, but those are some of the lowest numbers that we've had in a while.
Today was different, however. We ended up in more of the "food covers" this morning, and found 12 grouse and 2 woodcock in around two hours to start this morning. It all culminated in a group of six grouse that Monty tracked then flushed (he was a little wild today!), with several of them flying over the trail in front of Paul and I. Paul saluted them with two of his "6's", and the grouse were free to fly again on another day.
We ended up moving 14 grouse and 5 woodcock for the day, better than we had been doing previously, and not bad considering we left the woods early once the Nor'Easter really came in. It was probably a good day if you were duck hunting, but not so much for grouse hunting.
Yesterday morning, Chris's setter Dottie got another shot as the uplands were hit with soaking rains, and she had quite a morning. Not only did she point and hold at least five woodcock, but she also had points on two grouse as well, and nearly all of them were hunkered down in heavy softwoods, escaping from the weather. While the grouse escaped by employing their usual methods (i.e. you pick one side of the evergreens to go in on and they pick the other side to get out), some of the woodcock held well and provided opportunities for Chris and Frank. They connected on three of them, but the others got away to continue their journey south (expect heavy action on woodcock this week with the weather that is coming).
Dottie showed real style in pointing, then relocating on her birds, eventually pinning down their location for the hunters - all traits that any true grouse and woodcock dog aspires to. Betsy then got her shot at the next cover, and though she showed tremendous energy and drive, she only contacted a pair of grouse in her time in the woods. The birds in this cover had been recently pursued, as we found at least a dozen empty shot hulls along the road that we walked in on. While we found evidence of only one grouse that was actually taken, the remainder of the birds were probably just farther off in the woods, taking a momentary break in their daily routines. As grouse hunters, we are far more successful in disturbing the routines of grouse than actually taking them - years of hunting them has proven this fact to me.
The final cover of the day brought Rudy out of the truck for an hour. This cover, filled with wild apple trees and high bush cranberries required a dog of his particular talents - close working, under control, requiring very little in the way of verbal communication. He is my "stealth hunter" of all of the dogs - no bell needed, thank you. I have found that birds in covers like this near the end of the day are going in to feed quickly and get out to resume their night time pattern. For this reason, these birds seem to be even more wary than others we might meet at other times of the day.
Immediately upon entering the section loaded with apple trees, Rudy moved an escaping grouse that flew the right way for him - no visuals, and no shots for Frank and Chris. We eventually made our way to a couple more apple trees and high bush cranberries in the upper part of the cover, slowly walking in on a mossy forest floor - perfect for a quiet approach. I've seen birds almost every time I've come here over the years, and it happened again. First, a grouse took off high out of a cranberry bush - no chance for Frank. Then Rudy looped to our right and drove a low flying grouse out of a thick spruce and straight at Frank's head. Quick reflexes brought the grouse's flight to an end, less than five feet from Frank, and it was an amazingly accurate head shot with the 28 gauge.
Who knew that a grouse flying at your head could be more dangerous than startling a slumbering bull moose deep in the woods?
Last weekend was cool and crisp which is always welcome, as my client and I disturbed 22 grouse and 2 woodcock with the help of Bode, Monty and Rudy on Saturday. Bode was first out of the truck that day, and while he had a few points on grouse, he also had his share of mistakes as well - he's still learning, after all. He did make a nice find on a downed woodcock as well as an excellent track and retrieve of a wounded grouse, and helped find over half of our birds for the day in the morning. Rudy would move five more grouse in the afternoon, and Monty chipped in with an excellent point on one of the two grouse that he located.
Conditions began to change on Monday as some warmer weather moved in to our area. The birds were a little hard to come by that day, but Bode did a nice job in locating some grouse and provided a couple of shooting opportunities. We also had a bit of a scare when we bumped a young bull moose, apparently lounging after some amorous activities the night before. He steered clear of us, which is good - a moose on the run is a bad thing during the rut, and we would have been in trouble had he turned our way.
Daytime temperatures have continued to soar the last two days - pushing 70 degrees each day, so we brought extra water for ourselves and the dogs, and limited the hunts to 1.5 hours per dog. Naturally, the best scenting has been early on in the day, and then has gotten progressively tougher as the days go on. We still succeeded in moving 6 grouse and 8 woodcock yesterday, with three of the woodcock falling to Chris and Frank's 28 gauges. Chris's setter Dottie did a nice job on those woodcock yesterday morning, and Monty had a great point on a pair of grouse that Frank saluted with a load of 8's as they got out of Dodge.
Rudy was first out of the truck this morning, and he took advantage of the early morning conditions in pointing a group of four grouse near a road edge. Several of them made the mistake of flying out towards the road, one of which paid the ultimate price. The others made it away, apparently no worse for the wear. Dottie then got another chance and she moved a total of four grouse, two of which she had pointed staunchly in a thick spruce stand. The birds were definitely interested in keeping cool the last couple of days, so we looked for thick edge cover where the sun's rays had difficulty penetrating and that seemed to work for us. Monty then gave it his all in the final covert, but managed to only move two more grouse, neither of which were pointed. Scenting had gotten so difficult by then that he couldn't be faulted for bumbling in to them.
We'll have a fair amount of rain the next two days, and then the cool down will begin. Looks like we'll have excellent conditions for hunting starting Sunday right through next week, so hopefully we'll get back to normal numbers of birds. For those wondering about woodcock flights moving through our area, there may be a few birds coming down from up north as of right now, but we should have more migratory action coming next week and the week after, depending on the weather in Canada. It just hasn't been cold enough yet!
We've been through good days and bad, and after a lot of walking yesterday, with little to show for it, they were quick to remind me of our slog through a northern Vermont bog last year in the same cover we started in this morning. Determined to keep all of us out of this area, Monty was first out of the box today. He performed very well, as we moved 9 woodcock and 1 grouse for our morning session in windy conditions.
While the grouse and most of the woodcock were pointed by Monty, there were several woodcock that he bumped as well, perhaps a product of the swirling winds that he had to deal with. Randy made a nice shot on one of the woodcock and Leighton took the grouse, as Monty pinned it between us and him, but there were several birds that flew away with warning shots only from the guys.
After lunch, Bode got his turn, and he did well in his time out there, pointing one grouse and tracking and getting a little too close to a couple of others that didn't like his proximity. Once again, his pattern and range were close and thorough and he responded well to my commands - he's coming along very well now, and appears to be on his way to becoming a grouse dog. In his three hours out there, he helped move a dozen grouse and two more woodcock, for a grand total of 13 grouse and 11 woodcock on the day.
Our operations move to New Hampshire tomorrow, so hopefully our good luck streak continues on some granite state grouse and woodcock.
We have been seeing birds, just not as many as I had hoped. There may be several reasons for this however:
Weather. It was too darn hot the first three days of the season - grouse don't move much when they don't need to keep their engines running. Colder weather gets birds on the move in their search for sustenance.
Too early for broods to have broken up? While the first few days we saw mostly singles, today we observed two different broods that had not yet broken up, indicating that you might walk a long ways and then suddenly get in to a group of birds. Once the birds separate from their family groups, we can expect more consistent action as the birds will be more evenly distributed in the cover.
Wind. It was very windy last weekend, which always ends up making the birds very skittish and much tougher on us and the dogs. We observed several false points each day, which can only be attributed to running grouse.
As for the dog work, it's been pretty good, considering the conditions that we've been having. Rudy and Monty have both been solid, pointing their share of grouse, and Bode has even gotten a good start, flash pointing and then retrieving two grouse that fell to my 28 gauge today (Lucky shots? You're darned right!). He has plenty more work to go, but maybe the lightbulb is more of a strobe light these days.
This week will be spent mostly in Vermont hunting some of our favorite coverts, so hopefully there will be a report later this week. Keep walking, you're bound to get in to some birds at some point!