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Category: Ruffed Grouse Hunting

Lost……again

Charlie the Shorthair

“I am lost”

“Going to shoot. Let me know if you can hear it.”

“Hear it?”

“I was 50 yards from the truck.”

It’s my hunting buddy’s first foray into the realm of the Ruffed Grouse.  We’ve hunted a few days now, but this is the first overcast day in an area previously unexplored. It is remote, the far reaches of the king’s territory. What my friend doesn’t know is my cell phone is dead in my pocket. Even if it were live, I have no service. His texts are spinning in digital purgatory as he turns laps at the edge of this hellish bog we elected to enter.

I did hear his shot though. I thought, “that lucky bastard took the right route back to the trucks and knocked down a bird.” I assume all single shots to cut feathers, the second barrel is reserved for us less skilled who prefer burning powder to accuracy.

At the time of the shot I was actually directionally challenged as well. The setter had managed to point a woodcock that offered no shot. But it lit her fire and she had no intention of turning towards the exit now. Ida, the lab pup, thought all this might be the best thing she’s ever done in her young life: distant shots, flushing birds, swamps with knee high mud holes.

For me lost has become more of an equation to solve and respect than something to fear. I’ve obviously not done a great job relaying lessons I’ve learned over the years to my disoriented friend. Even though all my technology has failed me, which technology has a nasty habit of doing, and I’ve spun a half-dozen loops around this marsh, I recall the map I looked at just prior to departure. The two-track we entered on runs a fairly straight north-south direction. We walked west into this mess. All I need to do is point toward the east and I will hit that road if I can stay on a heading.

Eventually I convince the dogs there are better places to hunt and we make it back to the truck. We all regroup and have a laugh about how far south that initial plan quickly went. About an hour later after the phone has recharged and we’ve returned to the comforting blanket of cell service, I get those texts.

Many versions of upland hunting cross prairies, mountains and high deserts where landmarks can be identified or departure points are never far beyond a line of sight. But Ruffed Grouse will lead you into the darkness, impenetrable thickets that make navigating straight lines virtually impossible. Picking distinct landmarks becomes challenging when they are swallowed by the forest mere paces behind. On overcast days when the sun can offer no assistance, the grouse woods can quickly become a labyrinth.

It’s taken a number of years to get accustomed to trekking previously unexplored areas. I’ve been lost. Lots. I’ve come to look at the word with less permanence than I once did. It’s not easy to find an area where if you walk far enough that you won’t eventually stumble upon something recognizable, man-made, another human. The trick is to do it before running out of energy, water and good sense.

Coverts are talked about as specific places, ones you can actually walk to, find, maybe even find your way out. It’s a word that always sounds too small to me. I can’t think of a single area where I can walk directly and know there will be a grouse. The fact these areas even exist is absolutely foreign to how I hunt the woods. Maybe that’s simply because I’ve not wandered far enough to find my own coverts or spent enough time in the greasy spoon to befriend enough Old-timers. Maybe I don’t even know what a real covert is; I just kick into a few birds exploring areas outside their clandestine drumming grounds.

These Old-timers (that’s anyone older than you) often talk of cherished coverts; the areas they know to hold birds year-over-year for generations. The loss of coverts to development or land purchase I imagine lamented over coffee in local diners by gentlemen now too hobbled to have visited the covert in years. But it’s still lost, a few years earlier than when it would have been taken to the grave. I wonder if the Old-timers discovered these areas initially or if it was handed down as some priceless inheritance.

I am convinced that a covert can only have one true owner. If a forest feels as though it’s been previously explored then it doesn’t feel right for finding a new grouse nirvana. That’s how the search for coverts often leads us deeper and farther from beaten paths, and closer to being lost.

After a morning of turning circles in a young forest too big to be circled, I drove down to the local rocky beach to sit and soak in salty air and allow the dogs to recover from hours of stump jumping. A minivan pulled into the adjacent space and I looked over to the gaze of a rather hefty Griffon in the back seat, tongue out. I spend some time trying to translate any meaning in her stare, hoping she might share some secret of the local birds that will solve the current riddle. Eventually I notice her human counterparts, an older couple in the front seats with windows down enjoying the same salt air.

Bird dog people are my people. These folks don’t have the outward appearance of hunters, but they do have a dog along for the ride that looks game. Bird dog people who don’t hunt with their dogs is another riddle I am always interested in tackling, so I strike up a conversation with this elderly couple. Charlie and his wife seem surprised of my knowledge of their pointing breed. We talk of the unseasonably warm weather and the prevalence of Leaf Peepers before getting around to my business in the area. It turns out that Charlie does hunt with this wirehair. He interrogates me enough to realize I am rarely a good shot and root often for the birds. He decides that he’d like to show me some of his hunting spots if I’m interested.

The next morning is set to bring cooler weather and I can think of nothing better than following an Old-timer to some of his partridge haunts. I jot down Charlie’s number and ask when he’d like to embark. “Why don’t you call me in the morning and we’ll meet at the coffee shop. We can have a coffee and talk things over.” Invites like this are rare and seem particularly fragile. So I gingerly ask Charlie what time he’ll be up and around because I’m just as likely to call at 4 a.m. if given an opportunity to hunt a new place. “Sometimes I’m up at five, then other days I don’t get up until after seven.” We agree that if I call around 7:30 that should work and we’ll meet for coffee, then head out to find some birds. I thank them, smile and wave as they pull away from the beach.

The next morning I’m up early to get the dogs fed, vehicle reorganized, waters filled and then head to the specified coffee shop. I pull into the parking lot at 7:25 and give Charlie a call. It goes straight to voicemail.

“Morning Charlie, just wanted to let you know I’m at the coffee shop, looking forward to chasing birds. I’ll wait here for your call or see you when you arrive.”

I waited for three hours.

I speculate the remainder of the day how the invite went sideways as I follow the dogs through cascades of leaves. I could have dialed Charlie again. But his coverts are his to will and whatever reason changed his mind is something I can only respect. Maybe he just overslept. And maybe these coverts are one day closer to being lost.


Quick tips on how to avoid the abyss:

When jumping into a new area, regardless of terrain, I like to mark the time of departure. I have a general idea of the path I want to take though it can be affected by the dogs’ will. I normally think of this path roughly as a triangle which helps prevent hunting the same ground twice. I pay attention to how much time I spend on each leg of the triangle. The second leg, no matter the length, running what I believe to be parallel to the starting point. Then I know when I make the turn back towards the truck on the final leg that I should spend close to the same time as the first leg of the triangle to put me near the departure point. Often I get my angles by the position of the sun — being in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the southern sky somewhere between southeast and southwest depending on the time of day. If overcast I can often use a prevailing wind direction or I can get a quick heading from a compass.

Filson Watch

Your smartphone’s GPS chip should work even when you don’t have cell signal. A little known fact is you can still drop a pin and mark you location in the standard mapping programs even when the map won’t download to your phone. What good is this when you can’t see the map? You are still able to determine your location and approximate distance in relation to that dropped pin even without a cell signal. The blank grid of death actually isn’t as useless as it may seem, so marking a waypoint prior to departure is always sound strategy.

Death Screen
Even better, onX Hunt has done a great job upgrading their App in recent years. You now have the ability to download maps for off-grid use — 5, 10 and 150 mile sections — no cell service required. Depending on what layers you have active onX Hunt can show you public lands, designated hunting lands, state lands, even the names of individual private land owners. It’s an invaluable resource for gaining hunting permission or regaining your position. If you’re in an area where cell signal is sparse, put your phone in airplane mode so the onX App doesn’t struggle with minimal signal trying to download the real-time map. Airplane mode is also a great way to reserve phone battery instead of your phone constantly working to attain signal.

onX Hunt
And when I’m in serious backcountry when the threat of injury or mishap is real, I carry my SPOT GEN3. This allows me to send messages via satellite to friends and family relaying my location. And in the event that I’m unable to extract myself and the dogs, I can activate the emergency beacon, hunker down and wait for reinforcements to arrive.

SPOT GEN3
Don’t’ be afraid of unknown places. Just practice your orienteering and be prepared. And though technology is great, always have a backup. A fun way to test your progress when hunting with friends in remote places, everyone pick the direction they believe to be the trucks, then pull up your GPS, phones or mapping program and see who’s closest to correct. The loser buys breakfast.

End of Season Omens

Final West Virginia Hunt

Rio the setter suddenly hits the brakes, sliding to a stop on a steep grade beside an old logging road being reclaimed by the forest. We’ve spent a couple days wandering the hills of West Virginia searching for late-season Ruffed Grouse with no luck. I can tell by her stance, even on this awkward angle, there is a bird here. There’s no style, no high-head, no raised-foot or flagging tail. She’s just one solid muscle strained against the scent of this grouse, the first bird she’s marked in over 20 miles of running. It must be close to her because she won’t even sneak a look in my direction, afraid that even the shift of an eye might spook this elusive foe.

Wyatt the lab has been at my side for the past few miles bored with the lack of bird density. He’s unable to see Rio but notices a change in my demeanor which spurs him to double-time. I’m curious the tell he has picked up, though I suspect he spies my second hand move to grip the shotgun and thumb the safety. Whatever the clue, it’s rooted in the same assurance I have with Rio’s stance. We’ve seen this thousands of times before. We know what this looks like and it never gets old. I’ve tried for years to coach myself to not tense up. Stay loose and shoot better, right? And yet I’m still holding my breath, I still have butterflies.

We’re new to this area. Whenever we try finding birds in new spots I work down a mental checklist generated from other bird chasing experience. One item always on that checklist is talking to locals. Anyone we come across willing to engage in conversation about upland birds or dogs can help solve the equation of where birds reside. It doesn’t appear that many people chase birds in this area because the words “grouse” and “partridge” are met with blank stares, as if a foreign tongue. Even the outdoorsmen here fishing in unseasonably warm weather seem unaware they encroach on the realm of the King of the Woods.

The winter forest can appear flat and homogenous. Much of the color and highlights associated with other seasons is gone. That mental checklist has us probing different elevations looking for edges. Guessing why birds are lacking in an area, then looking for the solution to that issue in other areas. There’s a method to our late-season upland madness. But for all the thought and strategy, it’s not what has brought us to Rio’s point.

Evenings I pour a couple fingers of wisdom into a cheap plastic motel cup and pour over maps detailing 900,000 acres available to hunt in this National Forest. We can’t cover all that in even a dozen weeks. I look for cuts, different ages of forests where timber has been harvested or burns. The areas we’ve hiked so far have been dry and there’s very little snow on the ground. I decide we’ll try hunting creeks or culverts that should provide a water source.

I notice a name on the map I recognize, not from any intel or hunting journal. There’s a tiny tributary that shares my grammie’s name. She was an opinionated old bird who loved the dogs and stories of wild places. But she hated the hunting. Luckily she wasn’t above bribery and a few tail feathers from a recent trip would keep an uneasy accord. The name of that creek is an omen and I know regardless how the terrain looks, it could be a parking lot, we’re hunting there. How this level of superstition nullifies what I want to believe is some level of skill, I’m unsure. But the maps folds cooperatively and I tuck in for a night’s sleep untormented by indecision.

And now Rio is locked down a few yards above Grammie’s creek. Wyatt homes in on a spot at the base of a large fir as I shift to one side trying to predict a flight path. But late-season birds rarely allow you to guess right. I see a brief flash of a white, more blur than form. Faster than I can fully mount the gun, I shoot as positive reinforcement for the dogs. But there’s no way a single pellet has penetrated the evergreen shield this grouse threw between us.

Grammie would be happy with that outcome. And truthfully I am too. The deeper into the season we get, the more I root for the upland birds. I want to be proficient and deadly, no doubt. I want to be challenged by the conditions and educated birds and be able to overcome that with the dogs. But even more I want the birds to show us how they’ve made it this far and that no checklist or level of supposed proficiency is going to foil survival.

The dogs are reenergized as we turn back the quiet path to the road. Maybe there will be another omen on the map. And hopefully the birds continue to beat us.

Rio in Creek

Wyatt with Shed

Red Phase Grouse

SHOT Show 2013 – BugBand

Many of you followed along as I hunted the North Woods with Rio the young Jornada llewellin on her first grouse hunt this fall. Prior to that trip I had always thought that Frontline was bullet proof protection from ticks. But even though I had just applied a new dose, after every walk in the woods we’d return to vehicle and I would notice 15-20 deer ticks all migrating towards Rio’s head.

 

We obviously needed something to apply from tip to tail, but that also wouldn’t be harmful if ingested since dogs will obviously lick. None of the local shops in the rural area had any suggestions. They obviously hadn’t heard of BugBand who have a full line of natural products derived from geranium oil.

I’m excited to put these to the test while grouse hunting. Though there are all sorts of guns and gadgets at SHOT, this is truly one of my big finds. Anything that helps protect my hunting dogs from evil disease-ridden ticks is a good thing.

Trusting the Dog in the North Woods

Rio is fresh off her first wild bird hunt in Nebraska. It seemed like a good opportunity to start over with an absolutely clean slate, discovering the North Woods together. The way I look at it the same thing that applies to hunters applies to the young Jornada Llewellin setter;  get exposure to as many different birds in as many varied situations as possible and become better bird hunters.

I had heard lots of stories of the impenetrable cover, inability to see the dogs, and fleeting shooting opportunities. Because Rio is so young, I am nervous. I’m throwing her in the deep end where even experienced dogs sometimes have difficulties. But these challenges drive me and is exactly what we need.

Rio is a sporty little dog and has shown she will point almost anything from the smallest bug to the neighbor’s cat. But we’re about to enter the big leagues of bird hunting and in this brush there is no way to put a lead on the dog. After the lack of birds in our earlier Nebraska hunt, Rio still hasn’t made the connection that holding point eventually nets a bird in the mouth. My top concern is that there will be so much bird scent and new stimuli that she’s just going to run wild. I expect a young dog to bust some birds, that’s a normal part of the learning process. But the problem arises if they find so much joy in flushing they decide that’s the mission.

Maybe Rio senses my anxiety. Once I turn her loose she immediately starts hunting. And she points. And points. And points as if to say ”don’t worry boss, I’ve got this pointing stuff down.” I just laugh out loud the entire time. Anyone within earshot of this had to be thinking who let the lunatic out? I can see the wheels turning in this little setter’s head. She’s pointing old scent. In Nebraska we had difficulty finding any birds due to the earlier drought. But here there have been so many flights of Woodcock through the area, sign is everywhere. The false points don’t worry me at all because I know Rio is soaking up both scent and knowledge like a sponge.

As Rio holds I give an occasional “whoa” and lots of positive reinforcement . I watch her lock up again and again. And when I approach I can see her looking at me out of the corner of her eye. At times I walk over and touch her head to release her with an “ok”. I know eventually she will mark an actual bird and I will need to do my job.

Unlike hunting behind the flushing lab Wyatt where I have to be ready to gun at any moment, there is a calm that comes with hunting behind a pointer. I’m not shooting any of the wild flushes which in this thick cover are very common. This is one of the best ways to reinforce staunch points. Follow this rule with a young dog and it will payoff down the road. And because I fully intend to hunt Rio with Wyatt later this year, I need her to understand that a different set of rules applies to her.

Eventually Rio slams on the brakes just to my right and a Ruffed grouse erupts from her glare. I raise the gun, snap the shot and walk through the feathers cascading among the trees like a ticker tape parade.  It’s Rio’s first wild bird and my first gray phase Ruff. I want to sit and soak in the moment in the late morning sun. But Rio insists that there’s more hunting to be done. I hope every bird we take together from here on feels as sweet.

Over the next few days of hunting in Wisconsin, we move our share of birds which are mostly wild flushes. Rio gets a number of solid points on Woodcock, but I can’t seem to bring one down. Slowly we’re solving the mysteries of North Woods hunting. The birds will be in the cuts and thickest of cover, and you certainly can fly them from there. But this cover also makes for some supremely difficult shooting. Often there is no room to even swing the shotgun, just pick a window between a couple of saplings and hope you can connect.

There is so much more to learn but Michigan calls. I meet up with the Saltville crew of Ultimate Uplanders who’ve hunted these Upper Peninsula forests for years. I’m excited to see how Rio hunts with the other dogs. Johnnie, Robbie and their friends have brought a pack of Brittanys and my old buddy Boomer, the English Setter. These guys are the engineers of my first ever Ruffed Grouse, so when they hear I haven’t been able to connect on Woodcock yet, they take it as a personal challenge. Of course it comes with a large serving of ribbing about my lack of shooting skills. I know regardless the weather or any other factor, I will have to shoot a Woodcock because they have made it their mission.

Boomer is a lock down dog; there is no other way to put it. He’s found a pace which allows him to hunt infinitely. Rio could certainly use this lesson, but instead she takes off like a rocket. Luckily Robbie had a spare GPS collar that he strapped to Rio, and I’m thankful because apparently Boomer’s presence has given her confidence to extend to crazy new ranges. The cover here in Michigan is thicker than what we’ve been hunting in Wisconsin and though we’ve seen Rio pointing, she also quickly gets separated from us and out of earshot. The GPS collar is just an assurance that we’ll be able to eventually locate her. There are thousands of contiguous acres up here and an inexperienced dog can easily get lost. Removing the stress of losing a dog is well worth the expense, so I’m convinced of the benefits and will be getting a SportDog TEK for our Kansas hunt later this season.

We eventually reign in Rio and decide to hunt from some two tracks so that we can keep a better eye on her. Boomer even seems to like this idea after busting heavy cover all week. We don’t walk far before he’s frozen on a bird to the right of the path. The later it gets in the season the more jumpy these grouse get. This bird flushes, breaks hard to cover and Robbie swings and fires twice. Unsure of the result we wait for Boomer’s ruling. He eventually tracks down this grouse and brings it up minus some tail feathers.

We hunt on and not to be outdone, Rio wheels and locks up on the path ahead allowing Robbie to down another Ruff. About this same time a storm rolls in and the drenching begins. We have yet to flush a Woodcock to the dismay of the Saltville crew as we head back to the truck to grab a snack and talk over the options. Frigid rain is one of the most miserable bird hunting conditions to try and hunt. The upside is that birds typically don’t like flying in this weather either and they will hold for dogs.

I’m pretty certain the Virginia boys like to test my mettle. But they should know from last season when we hunted in an Old Dominion deluge that a little rain isn’t gonna pull me from the pursuit. And I know damn well it isn’t gonna stop them either. Still the question of quitting is fielded in the hopes that someone will accept resignation thereby becoming the target of intense mocking.

Instead we go rustle up Johnnie and head to a different area where the Woodcock have been frequenting. Straight out of the truck one of the experienced Brittany goes on point. And once I get Rio headed in the right direction she locks down on the same spot. Apparently this Timberdoodle had wormed out behind us and it back flushes offering no shot. But what an amazing sight to see those two dogs rock solid together.

Robbie and I head the direction of the escapee as the rain intensifies. The only way to stay warm in these conditions is to walk faster or push through thicker cover. Rio has run herself silly by this point in the day and has little left in the tank. Luckily Boomer just keeps plodding along with the same consistent pace and confidence. And just like that he locates a bird. The initial flush is screened to me, but as it flashes into a small opening I shoot and watch it fold.

According to Robbie, normally fast on the trigger, he had waited an extra second to give me a chance at my first Woodcock. I’ll be paying for that extra second for many years I’m sure. It is certainly worth it to spend quality time with good people in pursuit of birds.

Big Bad Wolf Stopped with #8s

I’m not sure bird hunters in Minnesota normally head to the woods prepared to defend their lives. But that’s apparently exactly what happened on a recent ruffed grouse trip for one unlucky hunter.

Most grouse hunters I know use #8’s — I’d certainly be concerned that wouldn’t be enough stopping power for a full grown wolf. I’ve been carrying one salvo of #4’s in a side pocket for a couple of years now, and am often concerned they aren’t enough deterrent in a bad situation — or that I could even swap them out quickly enough to make it count.

A ruffed grouse hunter in northern Minnesota shot and killed a wolf he said was charging at him and his dog, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR’s weekly law enforcement summary includes the following report:

“(Conservation officer) Sam Hunter (of Park Rapids) took a call from a grouse hunter who had shot a timber wolf that was chasing his hunting dog. The dog ran back to the hunter with the wolf on its heels. The hunter shot the wolf at about 8 yards with bird shot as it was coming directly at him/his dog. Proper measures were taken by the hunter to notify the DNR and enforcement action was not necessary. It was a frightening experience during a grouse hunting trip that will not soon be forgotten.”

Killing a wolf to protect livestock or pets is legal throughout Minnesota at any time of year, provided the kill is reported to the DNR within 48 hours.

Be prepared when you head to the field. Run through even unlikely scenarios and know what actions you will take in advance. Just glad this turned out for the best.

See the full article.

Rough Grouse in the South

Even though my grandfather’s family settled in the Southern Appalachians generations ago, the relatives who still reside here are all strangers. It could be the early morning delirium, but I have the feeling I am meant to hunt here. I’ve been convinced by Ultimate Uplanders, Johnnie and Robbie, that bird hunting is alive and well in these parts. They have lived in the area their entire life and recite the names of individual peaks and landowners with equal ease.Robbie’s  3-year-old English Setter, Boomer, swallows ground like no dog I’ve ever seen. My lab Wyatt had the chance to hunt with setters in South Dakota this year and it worked out well. But that was prairie and these are dense stands of hillside trees, so I’m not certain what to expect. Conventional wisdom dictates that close working pointing breeds were the dog for the grouse woods. However, these Virginia boys have little interest in convention; they let their experience and results in the field determine how they hunt.Johnnie and Robbie are using the GPS collars that hunters traditionally run out West for long legged pointers. On the prairies the primary function is distance, but it is a cover penetrating beacon in the grouse woods. Boomer is by no means a long running dog, but ranging past 150 yards might make the ruffed hunting traditionalist cringe. This collar allows Boomer to hunt free. While Wyatt is trying to figure out why we’re in the woods, that handsome setter just runs and runs and runs. Magnificent.

grousehunt1.jpg

I give Robbie a full ration for using these “cheater” collars. But it quickly becomes apparent that the collar is ancillary. The primary tool for hunting birds in this territory is legs and you better have a good set. The GPS collar may allow you to flush more birds, but it by no means guarantees shots. Boomer proves this again and again over the course of two days.  The on-point indicator sounds and gives distance and direction, either straight uphill or straight down through wicked cover. And these late season birds aren’t gonna hold all day so the race is on. Boomer doesn’t get tired and he is rarely wrong. The only guarantee the GPS collar offers in this setting is that your legs and lungs will burn.

I quickly realize that Wyatt is so accustomed to keying off my actions, that if I don’t start tackling the cover he thinks we’re out for a leisurely walk. The bird density here is less than the other species he’s hunted, which is making him unsure of the game. So off trail and into the cover we go together. I’m not saying that flushers are impossible to use in this ruffed scenario, but I do have some setter envy over the weekend. Thankfully Rio, our 6-month old Llewellin from Jornada Setters, is quickly growing up.

On this unseasonably warm Winter day we manage to raise eight birds, a little better than one per hour. Wyatt even gets into the game with a couple of flushes. The ribbing I give Robbie over the cheater collar comes back in spades when I miss one of the easiest shots I’ve had all season. Shocked when a big red phase bird flies straight at me, I blow it. This of course gives Robbie the chance to return a well deserved full ration.

The heat wave of yesterday is long gone, replaced with frigid precipitation and dense fog. There are two options for today’s guaranteed soaking: wear heavy duty rain repellant gear that makes me sweat buckets or wear the lighter weight gear and allow mother nature to do her worst. I opt to let the rain in because I know Wyatt will have me hiking hard and it seems preferable to heat stroke.

grousehunt2.jpg

Since Wyatt wants me busting the cover with him, I decide to start peeling off from the Old Dominion boys to outflank these birds, letting Boomer cover the middle ground. I listen to his bell as he devours the hillsides while Wyatt and I work the left flank chugging to the top of the ridge. As I crest the peak I see Wyatt get that look. Before I can even react there’s a brief khaki flash that disappears into the next hollow. I’m left standing there wondering if it was a figment of my imagination with Wyatt offering minimal clues. Was that a wild flush 40 yards out?

My angling path runs us periodically across the Virginia crew where we compare notes. Boomer has had points but no verified birds. We decide to hunt back to the truck to try a different mountain for a change of fortunes. The rain greets this decision with renewed vigor.

The carpool ride to the next location renews our energy.  We park at the landowner’s house and start the uphill hike to cover. And we add a new member to the hunting party, a punt – the term I lovingly use for all dogs of relative football size. Robbie attempts to dissuade this punt from joining the hunt, but he is a hard headed, short legged, stubborn fur ball. We’ll probably be drawing straws later to decide who is carrying this thing back to the house once Boomer runs it all over hell and back.

Once we reach the woods the dogs immediately seem more interested, maybe the punt has sparked something. Boomer gets a wild flush and we have a general idea of the direction.

Johnnie and Robbie see another wild flush and they get a good bearing to pursue. Finally a bird holds for Boomer’s point and the Virginia boys respond with the day’s first salvo by cutting holes in the deluge but nary a single feather. Again, we have a good mark down on this bird and we stick to the same flanking strategy.

The punt alternates between shadowing Wyatt and Boomer as we snare this bird again. After less than 100 yards I see Wyatt kick into bird gear and I know we’re closing. We approach a logging trail and I slide my thumb to the safety. I’m seven yards away as Wyatt and the punt jump this bird. It climbs to my right and I don’t even have time to mount the gun as it places the largest tree in the woods between us.

Thankfully, Wyatt is figuring out the game and we’re training this punt-rat-dog to be a grouse hunter too. I get to see a flush up close and personal in these brutal conditions, but the bird flies in the one direction that offers no shot.

We talk it over and all agree that this grouse has played by the rules and deserves a pass. So we break pursuit and head the opposite direction to find another.

I end up on a trail by a river with the Virginia crew working a ridge to my right. I take in a few deep breaths. The cling of my drenched shirt and the sound of Boomer’s bell make me smile. The lunacy of hunting in these conditions is genuine entertainment. And as if on cue I see Wyatt’s slicked black coat 30 yards out as he pushes a rust rocket airborne from the trail edge. I watch the banded tail climb as I raise and level my gun. I shoot twice without thought and the bird tumbles back to earth. Johnnie and Robbie meet me with big smiles and congratulations.

I now hold my first Ruffed Grouse and I am humming. We hunt the rest of the day without seeing another bird. And it doesn’t matter.

grousehunt3.jpg

Closing Out the Upland Season

Fueled by the success of the Virginia hunt I decide to make my final stand in North Carolina as the upland seasons come to a close. For a few weeks I scout the highlands with little more than a hint of potential grouse cover. Though there is a massive amount of huntable National Forest in this area, a good portion is still privately owned. Moreover, the private land tends to be around the roads so gaining access to the National Forest is often a challenge.

I start placing phone calls to friends and national forest offices while digging online for intel that can help put me on grouse. And eventually I find hope on a mountain north of Morganton. Rio, Wyatt and I finally flush a bird from a logging trail while hiking. Rio has not been shot over yet, so I’m without a gun. But this is the only sign I need. The cover is right, access is available and this bird sighting convinces me to go all in.

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Luckily I’ve persuaded some Ultimate Uplanders to join in on this long shot – Brian, a marketing executive for Beretta and his 14-year-old son Zach.  Brian has brought along the new Silver Pigeon I for me to test in this cover. I’m hoping it is the good luck charm. The gun is comfortable and the 686 frame is no stranger, it is one of the iconic doubles of our age. I switch out the chokes to the included cylinder and improved-cylinder because I know any shots on these mountains defined by rhododendron and laurel thickets will be fleeting. Local knowledge is invaluable and you have to put in the time to find these birds. The plan is to make a big down payment today.

I’ve separated this mountain into three segments, covering different elevations and focusing on suitable cover on the different faces. We cast off on the first leg accompanied by brisk air temperature but lots of sun which will eventually push the mercury  to another unseasonably warm February day. I’ve warned my hunting companions of the long odds, but Brian and Zach are native Tarheels and they are just as happy as I am to embark on this endeavor on home turf.  We spend the morning covering rough terrain through mixed cover and on occasion Wyatt indicates a bird has shared this mountain. But the grouse have vanished from this face and the depth of the rhododendron make it very apparent how easy that trick could be.  We do end up locating a nicely sheltered trout stream which will definitely require more exploring with a rod in the Spring. Lunchtime has arrived and we hoof it back to the truck to reenergize.

Zach is an experienced hunter for his age and obviously has been well trained by his dad in gun safety. Over lunch we share stories of previous hunts, dogs and good times afield. This southern Appalachian grouse hunting is challenging for young people because success is not easily defined. But I think Zach has a good grasp of why we’re here and he’s just happy to be outdoors as we head toward the afternoon hunting grounds.

A logging road intersects the cover as it swtichbacks the elevation on our downhill progress. I’m watching Wyatt closely because he’s acting birdie and as I alert Brian a bird explodes from the laurels in front of us. I’ve never seen a turkey fly out of such thick cover. We’re on the board with a flush, just the wrong species. And though we continue to stomp all over this mountain busting cover we’re only rewarded with this one flush today.

I’m going to have to test the new Beretta at the range because the off season has arrived. We’ve agreed to reconvene this hunting party in the Fall.  There are more areas to scout and more work to put in but we’ve laid a good foundation for earning our first Old North State grouse.

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*Big thanks to friend, photographer and outdoors enthusiast Kim Hummel for tagging along and making us look good.