The weather was really cold yesterday morning (20 degrees at the start, and we don't think it ever made it up to 30 degrees), so we were anxious to get moving, in part to stay as warm as possible. We were hunting with Jo-Ann's springer Anne, and she did a fine job of hunting hard and close and finding birds. We were in to some birds relatively quickly and one of the grouse made the mistake of flying in to my shot pattern (further reinforcing my belief that most birds are killed because they make a mistake, not because of my shooting ability). Anne tracked it down and retrieved it to Jo-Ann, making my trip east a success almost immediately.
We hunted the mountain for the remainder of the morning, moving eight grouse total. Moving to one of Jo-Ann's private covers, we found at least as many grouse in the afternoon. The cover was mostly thick, but Anne gave it her all and ended up flushing a low escaping grouse that Paul connected with - a nice shot that ended up being our final bird contacted for the day.
Today's hunting turned out much differently - fewer grouse seen, but several more heard, at times distantly heard, so they knew what the game was. At least it was a bit warmer today, and much more comfortable for hunting. Jo-Ann's springer Pepper gave great effort as well and got in to some birds, but they were on the run and out of sight for much of the day.
You may have noticed the band on my grouse pictured above, as well as the pictures of an antenna and transmitter that was on a grouse shot yesterday by another hunter on the mountain. The Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department does a lot of research on their grouse population here on the mountain, tracking movements of birds to gain a better understanding of their cover needs.
It seems to be working, as there were good numbers of birds this year, but be advised about these birds - they are the wariest, wiliest, and most challenging birds that I've ever hunted. They flush unexpectedly, in all directions and they often go out way (80 yards) ahead of us. In short, they're tough birds and holding one in your hand is somewhat of a trophy - I love it.
We have some bad weather moving in tonight and continuing tomorrow - we'll be out in it, along with those grouse.
This year's weather conditions were quite different from what we've had traditionally, as this coastal area had its first "sticking snow" of the year on the night we got in to town. While several inches of snow may signal misplaced footsteps and snow sliding down your back, it has it's good points as well. Snow means a much stealthier approach to extremely wary grouse, and perhaps helps hold those grouse a bit tighter than they normally would.
I have read that the first snow is particularly alarming for young grouse, as they have never seen this natural phenomenon before, and don't really know what to do with it. This effect has proved itself to be true in some of my hunts in northern NH and Vermont (usually that sticking snow happens in late October though), as several of my best days ever have been under these circumstances.
Our first morning of hunting was good, as we moved 11 grouse in around three hours, and one grouse made the mistake of taking a low dash right-to-left across an opening in front of me. With one in the bag, and feeling quite full of myself, I had to shoot at a few others that were either out of range or simply succeeded in placing a tree between us. Yes, some good Maine timber suffered the scars of my errant shooting eye that day ...
Day two brought better conditions, with temps in the upper thirties, but the snow still hanging on the mountain and while we moved 5 grouse in the morning, the afternoon hunt saw more action. We had 7 grouse fly before us that afternoon: whether off the ground or out of trees, but the common denominator is that they were absolute rockets. Paul made two nice shots on fleeing grouse on day two, and Jo-Ann's veteran of the grouse woods, Bonnie, helped locate and bring them back. One of the more amazing aspects of hunting with Jo-Ann is her uncanny ability to predict the locations of grouse in her coverts, as well as their likely escape routes, making it seem as though she is the master of her coverts and the habits of the birds inhabiting them.
My reflexes were too slow this day, though one of them should have been mine. The millisecond of a chance that he gave me just wasn't enough time!
As I've noted before, Jo-Ann has her dogs excellently trained, almost exclusively with hand signals only, and they are very repsonsive to her every whim when we're out there. We hunt grouse quietly when we're there, and those of you that have been out with me know by now that I have adopted several of Jo-Ann's techniques and strategies in the hunting that we do up here in northern New Hampshire and Vermont. The one aspect of hunting with Jo-Ann that is sometimes hard to get used to is being able to consistently read the flushing dogs as they work, instead of the pointers that I'm used to. While it is different, there are similarities in that there usually is some kind of a slowing in pace from a flusher just prior to the acceleration of tracking, and then flushing, a grouse. If you see it enough, you begin to be able to identify these actions by the dogs, allowing some time to get in position.
Of course, the birds have to cooperate too, which is rarely the case from these cagey grouse - the birds near Jo-Ann are true survivors, and therefore don't tolerate much pressure from dogs or hunters before they make an escape. In fact, it dawned on me that for either of us to actually take a bird, the grouse would have to make a critical mistake, and fortunately for us, it happened a couple of times in two days of hunting. I took a close flushing bird that had waited a bit too long to make an escape on our first morning, and Paul took a bird on the second day that made an unusual boomerang flight back at him, when it seemingly could have just flown straight away.
We also had our share of misses too, most of which were long shots where we were hoping to connect, but all in all it was a successful two days over there. The weather was chilly, but sunny for the most part, which helped us to stay warm. Jo-Ann and her dogs did their best, and we'll be back next year chasing those grouse all over again I suppose.
What of the grouse hunting in the north country, you may ask? Winter has reared it's ugly head a little early this year, so we have 4" - 5" of snow on the ground near the lodge, so there's probably more in the woods. A slight warm up is predicted next week, so that may put us back in business for a little while yet. What's even better is that the deer hunting season ends this weekend in NH, and the Vermont muzzleloader season goes for another ten days or so.
More updates on the way hopefully!