On Friday, we spent two hours in one of our autumn haunts, hitting all of the thicker spruce cover in the hopes of catching up to some grouse. It took a while, but Rosie established point off the edge of the logging road we were working and Monty whoaed to a stop at the edge of a bunch of blowdowns. The grouse rocketed out of the patch of cover before I could get there unfortunately. A little later on, Monty's beeper started going off in another patch of small spruces, and this time Rosie whoaed to a stop. Instead of focusing on the bird, I decided to first take a picture of Monty's staunch point for posterity (you never know, that could be our last point of the season!). Just as I was taking the picture, the grouse flushed out and it would have offered a good chance. At least I didn't have the opportunity to miss that one.
Total, we were in the woods for about 5 hours those two afternoons, moving 7 grouse in our travels, and certainly working hard for the birds we contacted. There was about 3-4" of snow on the ground then, but we have gotten a few more inches of snow in the last few days.
Oh, and we're supposed to get 5-8" more tomorrow. Looks like snowshoes might be the only way to get after them now, and while it's still fun to be bird hunting, showshoes add another challenge to a sport that is difficult enough already. The NH and Vermont grouse seasons go until 12/31.
In other words, it is officially winter grouse hunting now, which is quite different from the hunting we do in early and then in late October. I have read that there are usually three different periods to the three-month grouse hunting season, and this depends upon the transformation of the cover due to changing weather. The "first season" is the early season, where the leaves are still on the trees, and the grouse are still enjoying the plethora of cover (vertical) and food sources that are available. They can be found anywhere and everywhere in the first couple weeks of October, making some of the flushes that we get particularly surprising.
The "second season" usually begins as the leaves start dropping in earnest, and the vertical overhead cover and some food sources start drying up. Grouse are usually found in the thicker areas in the last couple weeks of October and the beginning of November, and evergreen stands become more important to grouse as well. As the vertical cover recedes, the horizontal cover is desired by the birds - thick stands of spruce, and blowdowns become favorite spots for grouse to hole up during bad weather. When the weather's good though, the grouse are often out and about looking for greens (fern tips, raspberry leaves, etc.), if they're still available.
The "third season", or winter grouse hunting season, starts earlier up here than most places in New England, and you never know when it might rear its ugly head. Sometimes it's not until halfway through December, but most years, it is about the mid-point of November, as it is this year. Now the grouse are exclusively in the stands of spruce and evergreens, as all of the greens are either dead or buried under a blanket of snow, and their primary food source is buds and catkins from birch and poplar. Hunting at this time of year can be feast or famine - they aren't where they were even a month ago, so if you can identify the thickest spruce cover in the areas you like to hunt in October, it is likely to be holding grouse right now. Don't expect there to be grouse in each thick, dark area though - you can walk for quite a time and see very little … and then come in to a veritable bonanza of birds.
While winter grouse hunting is not my favorite - the snow is hard to get through once you get to 4"-6" of snow depth, and the points and great dog work that you came to expect in October and early November is much harder to come by in the winter woods - it can still be fruitful occasionally. One of my best days was five years or so ago when I went out with Monty and walked a huge area - we put up at least 20 grouse that early December day, and two of them became my dinner guests as well. There was only an inch or two on the ground that day from what I can remember, but there was 3" or so on the ground today in Vermont. In an hour and a half, Bode and I moved 5 grouse, three of which were together in a stand of large spruces. Bode did have a point on a grouse that eventually flushed quite a way out from us and he also tracked another that I ended up spotting on the ground. When it finally flushed, it flew low and I took an ill timed shot. It flew in to a neighboring spruce tree, and after withstanding my picture taking and branch throwing activities, I had finally decided to let it go - it looked to be a female and perhaps some tame genes will be a good thing for the grouse gene pool up here.
Rosie got the call today, in my effort to put her on as many birds as possible and get some good work from her in the process. Things started off slowly, but Rosie was eventually getting in to the birds, and not pointing a majority of them, but then … her beeper started going off as she was intently and staunchly pointing in to a stand of small spruce beside the trail. The grouse exploded, and I nearly didn't get my safety off in time, but I did and it fell to the forest floor with Rosie in pursuit. Rosie's first grouse (she's had four woodcock taken by clients this season) and it was great. She looked justifiably proud, but I'm not sure that the momentous event had much of an effect on her - she just wanted to find more.
Well, we found more - 17 grouse to be exact in 4.5 hours of hunting, which is a good number considering this year's bird numbers. Another fell to my gun on a wild flush, and Rosie seemed to be excited about that, but not enough to retrieve it (Rome wasn't built in a day, after all). While she probably pointed three birds today, she also had plenty of bumps, but I think she's on her way to becoming a bird dog, and hopefully she will be a grouse dog someday - in my opinion, the highest achievement for any gun dog.
It helped that it was a walk in only area that probably doesn't get a lot of attention from hunters, particularly as far off the road as we were, plus the cold temperature seemed to hunker the birds in the dense firs beside the road and trails. We had several pairs that we got in to, but the rermainder were singles. We are hoping to get out there a couple more days this week before the deer hunting season starts in Vermont, and hopefully Rosie can get a little more bird exposure.
Saturday turned out to be the opposite … and a very frustrating day of grouse hunting. That morning was dominated by quite a few pointed and closely flushing woodcock (nine to be exact) from the efforts of Bode and Rosie, but strangely enough not a single grouse flush in an area that traditionally has held a good amount of birds. The afternoon session, where we were looking for grouse (my client had limited on woodcock in the morning), yielded only three flushes and none of them offered any opportunity for a shot. The areas that we were in had been the scene of quite a few good days on grouse in the past, so it was surprising to take the bagel. The weather conditions had changed that day - from rainy on Friday to cool and sunny on Saturday - but there was still enough of a breeze for good scenting conditions for the dogs, or so we thought. Just in the wrong spots that day, which turned out to be our worst on grouse sightings this season.
Sunday's breezy weather (ahead of the storm front that came in on Sunday night) made it even more challenging for the dogs to successfully scent and lock down the birds. It was swirling and gusty yesterday to put it mildly, so we had several times when Monty and my client's two Brittanies, Kiya and Pink, seemed to look unsure of where the birds were when stopping on a point. We did have a few staunch points that were rewarded with close flushing chances on grouse (one of which flew right over Monty and the other flew a few feet over my head - thanks Brian for not pulling the trigger), but there were also several times when one of the dogs would lock on point and nothing would be there at all - a grouse that had already gotten out of town we figured. We also had several occasions when the dogs didn't seem to scent the birds at all, pushing them in to flight, rocketing away from us.
While we moved thirteen grouse on Sunday (one taken by Brian), we only moved three woodcock, none of which provided good opportunities for shots. We noticed quite a few areas with chalk from a day or two before in them, but no timberdoodles to be found - perhaps headed to points south we assumed. The season on woodcock ends in New Hampshire and Vermont in a little over a week on November 14, and there still seems to be a few of them around - more than most years at this time.
The great question, "Is New Hampshire or Vermont better for grouse hunting?", may have to go unanswered for another season. It appears that I didn't compile a large enough sample size from Vermont to know for sure, and I cannot, in good conscience, reach a definitive conclusion on this topic without doing so. Research will have to continue, and I am hoping that it will in December …
Yesterday was bittersweet - the end of another grouse guiding season for me, my tenth in total, and each year presents its challenges. Most of them are physical as you might imagine, but there is certainly a mental side to hunting our wily grouse these days. The goal is to stay a step ahead of them, and there's been a few times when it has felt that way, but for the most part I'm several steps behind, trying to cram the successes and failures of our days of grouse hunting in to a memory bank that is overfull already. As usual, my clients were an interesting and entertaining mix of folks with a common obsession ("affliction" as one of our veteran grouse hunters at the lodge has put it) and unusually optimistic outlook on bagging a couple grouse or woodcock on our hunts together. Much like grouse coverts, there are clients that have been with me from the start and some that have joined me along the way - I appreciate them all and eagerly anticipate dragging them over hill and dale in search of the King of Gamebirds once again next year …
The abundance of moisture has also helped the scenting conditions for the dogs, adding to the enjoyment of our grouse and woodcock hunts. I never get tired of watching good dogs work, whether they be my own or those of my clients, so we've had a good stretch of hunting over the past two weeks now.
We hunted in Vermont today, and Monty got the call on an abbreviated rainy day hunt. We were supposed to do a full day, but it really turned in to a long half day hunt, and Monty did not disappoint. My victims on this day have hunted with me in the past - Todd, Dave and Tom have all been dragged over hill and dale in search of grouse and woodcock, and usually it has been Monty responsible for the dragging.
Over the years, they have not only adjusted their approach to grouse hunting ("when you hear the beeper, get to the dog, quickly!"), but they have also witnessed the maturing of a true grouse dog. Monty, now 8-years old, hunts much more deliberately than he used to - he has mastered the "economy of motion", and doesn't seem to waste his energy locating where I am, something that I have noticed in the younger dogs. I trust him when he goes out, whether it be near or far, and am confident in his ability to find and hold grouse and woodcock.
Monty was at his best today in some pretty wet conditions, getting bird scent and often slowing in to his points. We would contact 19 grouse and 1 woodcock in our four hours of hunting today, and he was responsible for pointing quite a few of them. Some of the birds we just couldn't get to in time, and a few others we heard flushing over fifty yards away. There were even a couple of others where Todd, Dave and Tom were in position for good chances, but the shots were missed. The boys managed to bag four grouse, two of which were directly on his points - the other two were taken with his assistance and three of them were retrieved by Monty.
We had a good day and the guys had one like this coming - we've taken a couple of birds over the years, but we've had our share of goose eggs too, so it was good to have some success and for the guys to witness a true grouse dog in action. Two more days of guiding for us and then our season is at an end - it seems like these are our best conditions of the year, but we'll be taking some time off and give the woods to the deer hunters for a couple of weeks.
First off, we had over three weeks of unseasonably warm weather - anytime that it is routinely reaching seventy degrees or more, it is very difficult for both dog and hunter alike, and it becomes quite a hindrance in our search for birds. Unfortunately, we had to deal with an extended period of conditions like this, where scenting was very difficult.
Another unwanted byproduct of the warm weather has been the apparent stalling of the annual woodcock flights from Canada, as they pass through our area to points south. Fortunately, we have a solid resident population of woodcock here in northern New Hampshire, so we were still seeing our share of timberdoodles, but the lack of flight birds in some of our more productive woodcock covers seems to indicate that the majority of the flight birds have yet to reach our area.
So … we wait. However, perhaps we won't be waiting too much longer. On this Halloween night, the temp will dip to 29 degrees in Pittsburg (undoubtedly colder in Quebec), and a clear night sky, perfect for travelling woodcock, is gracing us this evening. We will also have a full moon on Saturday night, so this could be the weekend where all of us that pursue woodcock could have our day. We shall see …
We spent our first day in Vermont in quite a while and had a good morning, moving 6 grouse and 5 woodcock in our travels. My client took one wild flushing grouse and two beautifully pointed and retrieved woodcock by Bode. Though he bumped a couple of the grouse, he worked close and had a good morning with the woodcock. Our afternoon, though we were in a couple of good looking covers, was mostly uneventful - a couple of distantly flushing grouse was all that we were able to contact.
More updates to come …
But what if none of these food sources are readily present for some of those "deep woods" grouse? Well, their large menu selection just seems to get larger, as they also incorporate the green leaves of raspberry plants and fern tips (what is termed "salad" by grouse hunters), mushrooms, and the buds and seeds of many different types of trees (yellow and white birch, maple, and beech are most prevalent in northern New Hampshire and Vermont). As you can see, these birds had plenty of salad, but the one bird with the "all you can eat buffet" crop also had lots of those maple seeds (whirligigs) - it was undoubtedly loading up for the weather that we had last night and are currently experiencing today.
There have been no hard frosts as of yet, so there is still plenty of salad out there in the woods - if you're hunting in the next week or so up here, you might want to pay attention to some of those thicker "green" areas. There might just be a grouse in there getting its next meal.
All three dogs (Monty, Bode, and Rosie) worked well this weekend, providing Art and Craig with chance after chance on unsuspecting grouse and woodcock. Monty got the morning duties the last two days, and he didn't disappoint. He pointed and held close the majority of the birds that he saw (9 grouse and 8 woodcock in his two sessions of work) and he really seems to have hit his stride as a grouse dog. He attacks the cover with a mix of energy and patience, and everyone was spellbound at times as he seemed to slink in to his points, whether it was on a grouse or a woodcock - it was beautiful to watch.
On both Saturday and Sunday, Rosie was the second dog out of the truck, as we tried to exploit some of the covers where woodcock are more prevalent. Rosie needs a few birds shot over her right now, and she's been a bit unlucky to be honest - some of her points have gone unrewarded lately. She did very well on Saturday, pointing four of the seven woodcock that she encountered (she also bumped a grouse), but none of the woodcock were taken on her points. While she was a bit wild yesterday, she hunted closer for us today, pointing both of the woodcock that she encountered - one did not offer a shot, but the other was a clean miss. Better luck next time, Rosie.
The best work of both days may have been turned in by Bode, as he worked close and pointed a bundle of birds, especially on Sunday. We moved 8 grouse and 6 woodcock this afternoon, and Bode pointed 5 of the grouse and 4 of the woodcock. Some of his points were spectacular, and both Art and Craig had good chances on these birds. They took four grouse and four woodcock over their two days in the grouse woods, but we all know it could have been more - both of them will be seeing and hearing birds flush in their dreams I think. We had a great time and we're all looking forward to next year already …
Tomorrow appears to be a washout up here, but we'll be back at it on Tuesday in Vermont. One week left in our guiding season (two days left in New Hampshire and four days in Vermont), and it looks like Bode and Rosie may have to carry the load. We heard Monty yelp when returning to us on one of his casts, so he may get a couple days off this week. He looked okay tonight at feeding time, so hopefully it is nothing too serious.
Stay safe everybody, and more updates to come!
Received an email from Linehan Outfitters in Montana yesterday - if you're ever in Montana, particularly in the northwest part of the state, and are looking for an excellent time out hunting (upland birds, big game) or fishing (flyfishing trips on the Yaak, Kootenai, Missouri, and Clark Fork, among other rivers) - look them up. Tim and Joanne run a first class guide service and have been recognized for several awards, among them Montana Outfitter of the Year - needless to say, you better book early!
Anyway, the following grouse hunting tips were in the newsletter from Tim Linehan, and are worth a read, especially if you like to use the "skirmish line" tactic that many of us use when we have a group going through the woods or working a road edge. Safety and organization should be the top priorities when employing this technique, so read carefully and try to put it into practice. Thanks to Tim for letting me share this with all of you.
Grouse Hunting - Holding The Line
Here are three strategies to help you and your hunting partners stay in line and stay safe on your next outing.
1. Choose a quarterback for your hunt. Have a look at the area you intend to hunt on a map or gps and assign one person to take charge and choreograph the effort. By allowing one person the take charge on an agreed upon hunt strategy, you minimize the possibility of someone going rogue and ending up in front of the guns.
2. Regardless of whether you’re the quarterback or not, communicate vocally and frequently with your hunting partners. Every minute or two everyone in the party should call out to the person immediately next to them to assure everyone is still on line. If you have several people in your party, it’s best to call out to the person next to you and then have everyone else call out down the line as well. There’s no such thing as too much communication in a thick grouse cover.
3. Be aware of the different paces each of you employ while traveling through the cover. Experience and physical health certainly influence your partners’ pace. Size up the group dynamic in the first two or three hundred yards and have everyone adjust accordingly. Be decisive and thoughtful about accommodating your partners’ abilities.
4. Use a fixed point to help you stay on line. Topography or vegetation obstructions are the number one reason the line breaks down while grouse hunting. One small hill, or one patch of blowdown that someone encounters can send them inadvertently right in front of other guns. Every one hundred yards or so and based on your quarterback’s direction, choose a tree, a stump, anything, and head straight for that point. Look up occasionally, maintain good and true direction, and do not deviate. When grouse hunting compasses and GPS help to this end but it’s far easier to look up occasionally and maintain a bearing on a big, lone pine tree than it is to constantly have to check something hanging around your neck or in your pocket. I learned very early from an old New Hampshire grouse hunter to go through obstructions whenever possible, and not around them provided you weren’t compromising any safety rules.
5. If the line breaks down and someone is lagging behind or you notice someone out in front, stop the hunt and any shooting immediately. Regardless of what’s going on, and even if you’re into the mother lode of ruffed grouse and your dog is locked up on point or flushing birds from underfoot, this is obviously one of the worst case scenarios and make no exceptions to this rule. It’s only a little bird...and hunting is definitely not bigger than life.
Staying in line while hunting grouse is an absolute. By keeping these five common sense approaches and strategies in mind while hunting dense grouse covers, you will find it easier to maintain direction and heading which will make for a better and much safer hunt in the end.
Several highlights today were when Monty pointed a group of three woodcock (none taken) and then a pair of tight holding woodcock shortly after that (none taken). Near the end of our morning session today both Monty and Chotsie disappeared over the edge of a small birm - there was a lonely woodcock, sitting in front of the two of them and it offered no chance for Jim to take it unfortunately.
What about the grouse? We have moved 14 grouse the last two days, with a few points from Monty on these birds, but in general they are getting out in front of us and launching well before we can get there. It was been warm (68 - 72 degrees in the afternoon), and very windy today. Wind is the arch enemy of the grouse hunter, as it generally makes a nervous bird even more skittish, and we found that out to some degree today. With the weather change coming, I anticipate much better scenting conditions, dog work, and hunting overall on Thursday and Friday. Tomorrow looks like it could be a washout, but we badly need the inches of rain that are coming.
The season to this point has been a strange one, and a bit underwhelming at times. Unfortunately, the weather has played the role of "turd in the punch bowl", as it has generally been much warmer than normal all over the northeast, and it has been no exception up here as well. Warm temperatures mean much more difficult scenting conditions for our four-legged friends and the number of days so far this season where I really felt that we had good conditions I could count on one hand. When the weather has been good - some moisture and temps in the 50's - we have had good days for the most part.
The unusually warm weather has also meant that the foliage has remained on the trees longer (it's coming down, but not fast enough for us) and the woodcock migration seems to have been stalled to some degree. Some of our tried and true flight covers have not produced to the degree that they usually do, but our weather is due to change for the better (or the worse, if you like bluebird days) with colder temps and lots of rain coming midweek.
If you want me to get down to specifics, our best day of moving grouse came on October 10 (the day following heavy rain on 10/9), where we moved 22 grouse and 9 woodcock as well. Our worst day was a mere 9 grouse and 1 woodcock encountered on October 12 - c'est la vie, and that is, unfortunately, grouse hunting. The big difference seems to be the moisture of the leaf litter - when it's wet, we can get close to grouse and have good work from the dogs to boot. When it's dry in the woods, we're making a lot of noise, it's more difficult for the dogs to get good whiffs of bird scent, and the birds tend to be jumpy and don't hang around for long.
As far as the dogs go, Monty (8 years) seems to be in his prime as he has really locked down many grouse and woodcock thus far - he has provided us with our best opportunities to knock down birds. Bode (4 years) has performed well but the conditions and grouse behavior have gotten the better of him at times - still, he has looked good on woodcock that he has encountered, and has made several impressive retrieves of downed grouse. Rosie (1 year) has generally done very well in her first season, though she has had a few moments of wildness. Her highlight was a morning session where she pointed four woodcock and a couple of grouse as well - my client limited out on woodcock, and Rosie did a nice job of pointing them dead. We were able to recover them, which is all that I'm really concerned with - the style points will come later.
In addition to the good work from the dogs, we have also been fortunate to see a young hunter, and one that we hope will be, develop a love for birds, dogs, and the outdoors. First, we witnessed 15-year old Dante Verona score his first bird on the wing, a woodcock, under one of Monty's excellent points. We were also able to guide Matt Brewster and his 8-year old son Parker behind Monty and Bode. Parker seemed to have a great time out there, and marvelled at his father plowing through a box of shells in the morning of our hunt, to no avail. The highlight of that hunt was when Parker earnestly implored his dad that his chances at scoring a bird would improve if he just "aimed better". Needless to say, we were rolling at his perceptive comment. Yes, Matt finally connected on a grouse in the afternoon …
We also witnessed some poor behavior from fellow hunters as well - alarming in fact, and the first time that something like this has happened to me. It happened this morning in our first cover. We were the first truck parked at a locked gate with foot access only and were about thirty minutes in when Monty went on point on his fourth bird of the morning (two grouse and two woodcock), about twenty or thirty yards in the cover. Matt and I moved in to check on Monty and his point while Parker remained on the road. When the woodcock flew without offering a shot for Matt (a matter of a minute or two), we returned to Parker and the road, only to be told by Parker that there were other hunters that just walked by him down the road … the road that we were going to hunt. To my astonishment, he was right and there were the hunters, quickly going down the road out of sight. Suddenly, we had to find a new cover to hunt, and while I should thank those hunters for getting us to go to a new cover (where we ended up finding a grouse and 11 woodcock), it was disappointing to say the least. When we got back to the parking area, I noticed that the intruder's truck was from a mid-Atlantic state not to be mentioned. If that's how they hunt down there, they should stay down there …
Let's hope the hunting and behavior gets better.
I get asked that question a lot, and to be honest with you, both states have been good to me in the past. I've also had tough days in both states as well, so neither has been consistently dependable either.
While I have never kept track of my time in the two states separately, I will try to do it this year so that there can be a baseline going forward. The "tote board" in the sidebar on the right will have info on what we have found in Vermont and New Hampshire and I'll do my best to keep up with it.
And no, I have no stats on Maine grouse and woodcock!
Rosie had a good morning for the most part today on opening day in Vermont - we moved 10 grouse in just 2.5 hours, and she did a nice job pointing a pair of birds in a softwood thicket. We also moved two other pairs as well as four singles.
That pair was her only point however, as she bumped a few grouse as did I - one of which nearly gave me a heart attack as it went out just about fifteen feet from me. Yes, my gun was not in the "ready position" - no shot.
In most cases, our work is over by 10 AM, as it has simply been too hot for the dogs to work comfortably and safely. We have still been seeing our share of birds out there, but grouse and woodcock don't have to move around much to search for food when it's this warm out. Needless to say, if the birds aren't moving around, they are also not laying down much bird scent either, and with the non-existent air currents (nearly none) of the last two mornings, many of our contacts were extremely close. Hopefully our temperatures change quickly once the season finally gets here.
The woods are bone dry in the upland areas, and we have been able to find some moisture, and woodcock, in some of the low areas. We haven't had good soaking rain in nearly two weeks now and the forecast doesn't look promising for wet weather coming our way either. We have come across some grouse in areas that are extremely thick and shady - cooler for the birds to hang out in - yes it would be a good plan to me as well.
As far as the dogs go, Rosie has continued to see most of the work to try to get her prepared for the season, and we've had some steps forward and backward. Yesterday she had a nice point on a grouse in extremely thick cover (never saw it flush) and a point on a woodcock as well, but … she also ran through three other woodcock and a grouse early on in the session. The points came later on, perhaps indicating that she is a bit amped up coming out of the truck, as young dogs are apt to be. Today was more of the same, with her enthusiastically bumping three seperate grouse that we encountered within 15 minutes from the truck. Later on, she was very birdy in a low spot in the woods, but took one step too many and up went an escaping woodcock. Yes, our work goes on …
Bode had a nice session yesterday morning, pointing all three of the woodcock that he encountered. He quartered well and hunted thoroughly, and he has become a pleasure to venture in to the grouse woods with. Monty will get a little more work before the season begins, but we're hoping to preserve what little tred he has left on his tires, if you know what I mean.
Guiding Availability Update:
I have recently taken a cancellation for Sunday, October 1 - if you're looking to get out there for some opening day hunting, please send along an email for more information - thanks!
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!