The first major mast crop that you take notice of in August when you're out in the woods are choke cherries, and their garnet clusters seem to be everywhere out there this year. They are a favorite of many birds and animals, with black bears perhaps favoring them the most, and I'm sure that our grouse also get in on the action as well. They are an "early" food and are usually entirely gone from the scene when we're out there grouse hunting in October and November.
Wild apple trees remain the quintissential fall food for grouse, and they really become a staple wherever they are present following some hard frosts that drop the fruit to the ground. In a short time, they become mushy and easily digestible for the birds and are a guaranteed spot to check on for grouse. There are a few old apple orchards that have gotten in to our rotation of coverts over the years, and while they seem to usually have birds in them, that does not mean that they are always areas of hunter success. I have noticed many times that the birds that frequent the orchards are very skittish (even for grouse), as if they know that they are undertaking something of a commando mission to take the chance of feeding there. We usually hunt these spots as silently as possible (no bells, no beepers, no talking) to try to take the birds by surprise, but that still rarely works.
The best day in one of these old apple orchards came probably five or six years ago following the first sticking snowfall of the year (it was in mid-October and we had received 4"-5"). We bumbled in to 18 grouse that afternoon (yes, just the afternoon, in one covert), and it was undoubtedly because we were intercepting birds that had come in to feed with the cold weather. My clients harvested none. Old apple orchards also tend to be good areas for woodcock here and there - the soil composition is perfect for worm production, so timberdoodles can be sought in under the shade of an old apple tree too.
Another important food source are high bush cranberries, which linger perhaps the longest of all the food sources. They last well in to winter, and sometimes right through it. A couple of these natural food patches are on our roster of coverts as well, and they can be pretty dependable, particularly early in the morning or just before dark. The proof of how important high bush cranberries are to wildlife came a few years ago when I was driving through downtown Canaan, Vermont. There, in the middle of town, not fifty feet from someone's house, was a mature wild turkey in a high bush cranberry bush, hammering it for all it was worth. They must be good.
The last natural food source that's big with our ruffed grouse up here is the Mountain Ash (Sorbus Americana) - it also lasts well in to winter and is there for the grouse when other food sources have dried up. Some years, it seems like they're everywhere, and other years the crop doesn't seem too good and I'm not sure why. This year looks to be a fantastic one for production, as their bright red berry clusters are prevalent wherever I drive - can't miss them, and hopefully our grouse don't miss them either!
Naturally, our visiting tourists thought this was the worst weather possible for the start of the Labor Day weekend, but for those of us that run dogs and hunt grouse and woodcock, it was nearly perfect weather. No bugs, no sweating endlessly through a tangle of summer cover (don't worry, the woods are still plenty thick, but somehow didn't seem to be as bad when you're going through them at these temps), and great scenting conditions for the dogs.
We're officially in the homestretch now - less than a month left, and we have continued our scouting and training sessions several times a week in preparation for what is to come. Progress continues for all of the dogs, and each one has different objectives prior to the opener.
Monty doesn't need much bird work from what I have seen, but he could use more conditioning to get ready for the toils of grouse and woodcock hunting day in and day out. He's the "#1 dog", and showed it yesterday morning - sticking points on all four of the woodcock we discovered in the hour he was out there. Unfortunately, we didn't run in to any grouse in that spot to truly test him …
At 10 months old, we're trying to get Rosie in to as many birds as possible to reinforce the good work she has begun in pointing birds in the last two weeks. She had a good session yesterday - in just over an hour, she contacted three grouse and three woodcock, and did a good job pointing the majority of them (two of the grouse and two of the woodcock were on points), and she was very cooperative in hunting that covert. She also has plenty of energy as well and doesn't seem to waste it out there - she should be able to handle some of our larger, three and four hour hunts that my clients have to endure …
Bode is hunting very well - close and under control, and he needs almost no handling it seems. Still, when a dog hunts that close, the route through the cover that the handler takes is of the utmost importance, and we only contacted one woodcock (pointed) and one grouse (not pointed) in his hour of running yesterday. This cover is a reliable spot for double digit numbers of birds normally, so I'm not sure if it was my handling skills, Bode's bird finding skills, or the birds themselves that were to blame for our subpar session. It is a huge cover, and we only went through a snippet of it … so maybe they were there but we just didn't find them. Bode seems to have enjoyed his offseason too, so out of all the dogs, he's the one that requires more physical conditioning prior to the season.
Three hours, four grouse and eight woodcock, nine of which were on points. A good session, and undoubtedly the cool temperatures helped with that. Steady to wing and shot training continues for all of the dogs, and they did a great job yesterday maintaining their points through the flush and the firing of my .22 starters pistol (the blanks are actually quite loud and are the next best simulation for a shotgun blast). This training will continue through September - the greatest test will be next month when they spot a running grouse, high tailing it out of a point - that will be tough.
The leaves on a few trees are already changing, as you might expect with 35 - 45 degree nights, and it seems as though we'll be in peak foliage in no time. This is how it always begins, as our peak is generally around the tail end of September and beginning of October. One thing that would be great is if we have an early leaf drop this year - perhaps our shooting percentage will go up?
Yup, probably not.
For grouse, it is said that the leaves of a poplar are unusually nutritious, and they must be pretty tasty too, as it seems that grouse really seek out mature poplars for feeding. Stands of young poplar whips also serve as great cover for broods of grouse as well, as hens seek out the thickest cover from avian predators to raise their chicks. I've also had good luck finding woodcock in these areas as well, and I wonder if it could be because of the soil composition. As you all know, if there are no worms in an area, there won't be any woodcock either, so there must be something with stands of poplar in this regard.
Unfortunately in northern New Hampshire and Vermont, we don't have an abundance of poplar stands like they have in the midwest (out there, they're usually called "Aspen"), so it is something like finding buried treasure when you find a stand of them. For me, these places are GPS-worthy, but they often automatically find their way in to my memory bank of grouse coverts. When we're hunting these spots, those poplars will definitely be part of the plan going forward.
In the fall, the leaves of a poplar turn a golden yellow and I've found that they stay on a bit longer than some of the other hard woods, making them easy to pick out from the landscape. God take pity on clients of mine if a stand of golden leaved poplars are spotted from some high ridge across a valley! This exact occurence took place a number of years ago in mid-October. A solid but unspectacular morning with my clients Mike and Lou had me wondering what to do next … when I spotted a clump of sparkling golden coins across a valley on a ridge that didn't seem that far away. Of course, we had to climb down from the ridge we were on and cross the valley, then cross a stream, and up the other side. All turned out well when we entered this little slice of grouse habitat nirvana. It was a bit of work getting there, but we got in to a few grouse and several woodcock as well, and I briefly looked like I knew what I was doing …
While I've never personally hunted in the Midwest for grouse, there are supposedly tremendous concentrations of poplar, and perhaps that is why Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are considered the epicenter of grouse hunting in North America. Here in the east, we have to be content with smaller pockets of poplars, mixed with our maple, birch, beech and assorted soft woods. Together, our combination of tree species makes a nice mosaic of habitat for our birds, and we'll just have to be content with that.
The picture above was taken this morning in Pittsburg, NH - we had the good fortune of finding two grouse and three woodcock nearby. Perhaps that proves my point!
Our training and scouting sessions actually began back in early July, but were derailed following an upper leg muscle pull for myself - a reminder of my advancing age and all that goes with it. I don't "bounce back" the way I used to, so my wife's advice of stretching before getting out there is probably warranted. This led to three more weeks of yard work for the dogs, which isn't entirely a bad thing - a little boring though.
We have managed to get out several times a week the last two weeks, and the results have varied, depending on the day. Some of our tried and true haunts have produced next to nothing, while we have had surprisingly good success in other areas. That's grouse scouting, and it's not that much different from what we usually find during the hunting season.
Still, preseason predictions, while anticipated, can sometimes be counterproductive. It's hard to gauge what we will find in two months from what we are observing right now - since the grouse broods are still together, we can walk a long way without seeing much and then suddenly discover a nice sized group of grouse. We'll just have to temper our expectations until we actually see what's there in another six weeks.
A Few Observations from the Last Year …
- We had an "average" grouse hunting season last year, going by the numbers. Our average numbers of birds (grouse and woodcock) flushed per hour was 3.16 - not as many as some years, but more than other seasons that we've had.
- We had a long, snowy (180" in Pittsburg) winter this year, and that amount of snow may have actually helped the grouse survive it better. The bitter cold that we usually endure really didn't manifest itself last winter, so maybe our grouse weren't exposed to predators when feeding as much as they are in a bitterly cold winter.
- I heard quite a few drumming grouse this spring while turkey hunting - another indicator of good adult grouse survival through the winter.
- June was one of our wettest, and perhaps one of our coldest as well - not good for chick survival when that happens.
- Small broods of turkeys were being seen in late June and July, as well as small broods of mallards on Back Lake. Needless to say, I could only assume the worst for our grouse. Yes, sadly, that's how my paranoid mind works when it comes to grouse …
So, this all leads us back to somehow predicting what this fall will be like. My observations over the last two weeks of scouting have given me some optimism - in three different coverts, we have run in to a different brood of grouse, with at least six birds in each (there may have been more, but they are hard to keep track of when they start popping off). Perhaps the grouse fared a bit better than their avian cousins, and we've been seeing some woodcock too.
In the end, does it really matter what the predictions are?
After all, are you going to rake leaves in your yard this fall rather than follow your bird dog through the woods in search of grouse and woodcock?
I didn't think so. Me neither.
"How was the bird hunting last season?"
This has been a common question for me from Tall Timber guests and bird hunters alike. My response has been that we seemed to have two different seasons last fall. The first one wasn't great - it was warm, with lots of foliage on the trees for the first couple weeks of October. Not that the bird hunting was bad … in fact, we had a few phenomenal days on grouse, and the woodcock seemed to be everywhere at times. But it was mighty tough getting a good view (and shot) on those birds, due to the screen of foliage we had to try to shoot through.
The "second season" last year was very good for my clients and I. This seemed to occur right after Columbus Day, as colder and more blustery weather blew in and took many of the leaves down. The colder weather got the grouse moving in search of food sources, and the leaf drop made the shooting chances better. This resulted in our second best year of harvesting birds in my nine years of guiding, and it would have been even better if the snow didn't come so early. Unfortunately, my season was totally over by Thanksgiving, as the snow depths in some of my favorite places made navigating them nearly impossible, and no, I'm not a big fan of wearing snowshoes while hunting.
The best aspect of last hunting season for me (and a few of my clients) was discovering some new covers - I think there are four new additions to our lineup. Some are in New Hampshire and some are in Vermont, but they all have what is needed for grouse and woodcock. All of them will require more investigation, which is my favorite part of getting ready for a new season - we can't wait.
The development of the dogs was great to see as well. Monty was his usual steady self, working closer as he gets older (7 years old), and pointing birds seemingly like a machine at times. Bode (3 years old) really came along well as the season progressed, and he was at his best as the weather turned colder - out of all of the dogs, he's most dependent on good conditions for a good day of bird finding. Both dogs got a lot of work last year, as well as lots of practice retrieving birds (my hunters had a good season of shooting as well), and they both have become adept at making sure no birds go to waste out there.
Rudy (10 years old) has settled in to semi-retirement, but we're keeping him in good shape just in case he needs to strap the vest on again. He did hunt four or five times last fall, and while he's definitely slowing down some, he still shows great desire when we hit the woods. Rosie (now 4 months old) is the newest addition to the lineup, and we're hoping she'll be on her way this fall. She has typical intelligence for a female (she's bright, almost scary at times), and great lineage - she's Bode's daughter, and her mother is Dixie, another great grouse hunter, so hopefully she doesn't fall too far from the mountain ash. Guiding will be in her future, but maybe not this year - stay tuned …
We have been seeing a few grouse around our neighborhood this winter - one day after a fresh snowfall, I counted four different tracks at various points along the trail as we were snowshoeing. It has not been a terribly cold winter, but it has been snowy. Hopefully this spring's weather is good for them. I have heard recently from a contact of mine in central New Hampshire that there's a couple of woodcock already back down there - early returners with all of last week's warm weather I suppose. Hopefully they stay down there for a little while, as we still have plenty of snow in the north. When they come back, we'll be anxious to get the puppy out for her first experience with timberdoodles.
The last tidbit that I have is an advisory issued in Maine for sporting dog owners passed on to me by Rich Johnson. For those that use the Garmin Alpha or Astro GPS systems to know what's happening out there with their dogs while hunting (I'm one of them), they recommend that you check the channel that the collar is set on to communicate with your dog. It appears as though the collars use the same MURS (Multi Use Radio Service) frequencies as those of truckers and loggers, unless you manually change the frequency channel of the collars. It might be a good idea to check the frequency that your dog's collar is set at and change it to MURS channel 5 (this one is not used by truckers or loggers), as an additional safeguard for all of those involved. If they're doing it in Maine, we might as well do it here too - there is still active logging operations ongoing here in the north country. It's easy to do and instructions can be found on … where else? Google!