A lot of bird hunters have gotten in a rut and don’t even realize it. They hunt the same places for the same birds with the same dogs week after week, season over season. Though there’s nothing wrong with this, I think it slowly saps some of the charge out of the upland pursuit. Anything that is routine inevitably becomes less exciting.
If you know where the birds will flush before you ever step foot in the field, then that’s even a little sad.
I spend a lot of time bird hunting. Though I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever tire of it, I never want it to seem typical. I never want to feel like my time afield is perfunctory or just going through the motions. And that’s how I end up in the North Woods hunting birds with a rookie dog and strangers with guns.
I’m not sure Britney Starr knew exactly what she was getting into when she agreed to meet on her home turf and show me the ropes in the UP. But because she is part owner of Starr & Bodill African Safaris she’s accustomed to talking hunting with folks from all walks of life, albeit normally about plains game. And I figure since she owns a safari company these next couple days are going to be a true adventure right out of Roosevelt’s African Game Trails.
Britney has hunted these forests her entire life and her willingness to share the passion of this pursuit is infectious. Add to this that’s she’s a gunzel; anything relating to firearms gets her psyched up. We’ll be hunting with her dad Dwaine and his friend. I’m fairly certain there is always a hefty dose of competition in the Starr family when in the field and I’m more than happy to feed that rivalry. Britney and I become Team Ultimate Upland and at breakfast her dad chooses the Team Jason moniker because Halloween is just around the corner and they intend to “kill everything”. Britney promptly renames them Team Retirees and implies they’ll need a walker just to get up the first hill.
Because shooting is so challenging in this thick cover, we decide that we’ll use shooting percentage to determine the victor. Britney and Dwaine shoot as much as anyone I’ve ever hunted with (skeet, trap, sporting clays) so it makes for good fun to put some stakes on the upcoming hunt. The wager is simple bragging rights which in the Starr family are worth more than any amount of money. And I like an emphasis on good gunning too.
The Starr’s have always hunted with GSP. Britney has a large male named Wesson and Dwaine is hunting with another big boy, Colt. I love hunting with Shorthairs because it reminds me of days afield with my old girl Finn. Colt is still a young dog and Dwaine is a traditionalist who resists the e-collar trend. With the drive of the normal GSP, the issue is how exactly to slow down a young dog in this cover. Dwaine’s solution is secure a lead pipe to a length of rope, wrap it all in a healthy amount of duct tape and attach it to the demon hound thereby slowing his roll. I’ve heard of folks leaving leads attached or lengths of log chain, but never a lead pipe. The mental image of a pipe with a protruding “wick” is too much to resist, so Colt will always be nicknamed Pipebomb in my book. Both he and Wesson are prototypical male GSP: solid muscle, broad chest, supreme hunting desire, loving companion, and a bit too smart for their own good. The lessons they could teach the young Jornada Setter Rio are intriguing and a little frightening.
When the Woodcock flight is in full swing in the Upper Peninsula it is tough to find a game anywhere in the country that is better. Because these birds are migratory, the window is brief and has a lot to do with weather conditions. Luckily Dwaine lives in a prime location, is a dedicated uplander and knows the woods and the migration intimately.
There has been an abundance of rain as of late, but this morning we are met with sunny bluebird conditions. We wish each other luck and Team Retiree splits from Team Ultimate Upland in pursuit of glory.
Wesson and Rio are off through the cover. Wesson with the learned pace of an experienced dog dozers through anything in his path. Rio dances around and over the brush like a ballerina. It’s a contrast I find completely mesmerizing. Rio points old scent that Wesson strolls right through on his way to birds. Opportunities are abundant but I find myself quickly behind in shot count. A lifetime of hunting in the North Woods trains one to be fast on the draw as Britney proves again and again. She likes to burn powder. Though we’re on the same team this morning I can’t help but remind her that shooting percentages require that she hit the bird. In all fairness, some of these shots are crazy difficult, but I don’t let on that is the case.
Rio finally locks down on a Woody which fortunately flushes straight away and I dump it: one shot one bird. I’m batting 1,000 and the thought occurs that maybe I should stop right there at perfection. And even though Britney is on my team I can see that notion grinding on her competitive streak. It’s still early in the day and there is more hunting to be done.
Wesson is being tormented by Ruffed Grouse that are running. These birds have been hunted for a few weeks and they no longer have any desire to play a gentlemen’s game. Luckily the Woodcock still abide by the rules and Wes nails one after another. Talk of shooting percentage and numbers gives way to bird dog banter. Rio’s prolific pointing adds a comedic backdrop as she ignores the GSP’s tutoring. Britney and I clear a set of evergreens and Rio slams on the brakes as she has dozens of times today. I casually say to her “Britney doesn’t believe there is a bird there Rio, so let’s prove her wrong.” And with one step in her direction a Doodle flushes and flies straight at my head. Apparently from Britney’s perspective I make a Matrix move to avoid being taken out by this migratory missile. I send two wayward shots and don’t cut a single feather. Calling the point will be one of the most memorable moments of this trip and I plan to make it a habit on all future hunts with Brit.
We hunt on criss-crossing the forest allowing Wes to continue the quest for grouse. We’re met with wild flushes from cagey birds often getting just a glimpse or the sound of thundering wings in cover too thick for light to penetrate. Team Retiree wins the day’s battle as they should; I was secretly rooting for them anyways since I’m just a few seasons away from falling in the same category. We recount the day’s events over a Nacho dinner at the Starr residence and plot for the upcoming morning hunt. I won’t say who individually had the best shooting percentage of the day (cough, cough)……
It is the weekend and when we roll out the following morning there are noticeably more hunters in the area. There is plenty of forest but the spots Britney is used to hunting all seem occupied. So we roll the dice, pick a new location and let the real safari begin. Following the dogs’ lead we wander wherever their noses point. Before we know it we’re a couple miles from our starting point. The dogs have directed us into what I think they may refer to as a bog up here. But in the South this is a good old fashioned swamp with downed trees, eerie dark canopy and knee-high pools of stagnant black water. We talk it over and decide there must be better places to hunt. Just as we select an our evacuation route, a grouse flushes and escapes the exact opposite direction deeper into the swamp. We toss the exit plan and take up the pursuit.
Before long I recognize there is no amount of careful foot placement that will prevent my pending soaking. Not many bird hunters would venture here, and I’m convinced that if they had we may find their skeletons. Both Rio and Wes are hard at work trying to pin down this grouse as we slog over logs and through muck. Rio locks up and then repositions but can’t quite figure where the scent has gone. As she moves to reposition again this Ruff flushes from a the low hanging branch just to my front. Off balance and unprepared I’m still able to send both barrels into a small shot window.
We begin circling in this obstacle course of downed timber looking for any sign that my salvo had found the mark. Just as we’re about to concede victory to the bird Britney notices that Wesson hasn’t been moving in his normal wide arcs. He also isn’t standing so still as to set off his on-point beeper. You know you have a smart dog when he recognizes he has to keep moving just enough or the jig is up and he must surrender this hard fought bird. Wes is convinced this bird is his and it’s hard to argue, because without him we never would have found it. If you don’t hunt with dogs it only takes a moment like this to be hooked.
At this point neither Britney or I have any idea where we are. She points one direction to the car and I point the other. Luckily there’s enough sun to get a bearing and we begin the slog out with our new trophy species, the Swamp Grouse. The bog collects its toll though when Britney takes a header into the deep end of one of the dark pools. I find this the perfect time to tell her she needs to add this location to her list of hunting hot spots. I’m sure she’ll see it my way once she wrings out her socks.
We expanded our bird hunting horizons into the heart of this swamp. It’s a day that we’ll talk about for years and makes me appreciate the game that much more.