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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

To the Edge with Friends and Dogs

Public Land Ptarmigan

We all have limits.

But that edge is never static. It’s a river that rages perilously close or meanders docile and aimless in the distance. Most people are perfectly comfortable keeping a healthy distance—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is something about that torrent that is captivating and revealing.

What we see when we reach those limits, what we do, and how we react can’t be predicted until there.

Very few of us actually know where those are. They are much harder to get to than one might think. Our brains tend to go into safe mode in order to stay a step ahead of catastrophe. That voice in your head does a great job of can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.

I’ve been watching our pack of bird dogs run. They have no voices in their head. They run the edge without hesitation, occasionally splashing through the shallows of limitation. They are free of any thoughts of how far or how much.

There was a point in this last trip where everyone found the shore.

Whether that was a puppy on her first hunt half frozen at high elevation on a march to find open water; or hunters creeping across talus slopes appearing impassable in pursuit of ghost birds; or legs and lungs extended to exhaustion where adrenaline is the only fuel remaining for the next step.

I convinced friends that we should kickoff the upland season hunting White-tailed Ptarmigan in the backcountry of Colorado. These winged demons have a nasty habit of residing at the highest points available. In the Centennial State that generally puts them at elevations above 12,000’ where oxygen levels are 30% lower.

After our fill on the mountain, we moved camp into Wyoming and Montana in pursuit of prairie grouse and partridge. We averaged close to seven miles per day over the duration of 10 days, often carrying packs in excess of 30 pounds. The bird dogs would have doubled or tripled that distance depending on age and experience meaning 200 miles for the longest-legged.

On a particularly warm day the second week after hiking a few hours, I noticed that Wyatt, my black lab, was laboring for deep breaths. I reined him in to cool off but his breathing continued shallow and wheezy. We were three-quarters of a mile from the truck. I handed off my shotgun and carried him out.

He had no inclination to stop hunting and didn’t like being carried. He actually struggled to get free at the sound of one of my hunting partners shooting in the distance.

A trip to an observant vet in a remote Montana town revealed a grape-size mass far back on Wyatt’s tongue. It had likely been covering a portion of his trachea when hunting. Think about that for a second: Past middle-aged, running a marathon with a grape lodged in your throat blocking a portion of your airway—then think about wanting to continue.

I don’t know how to be free of the barriers, where the edges are, or how to silence the voice in my head. I only know I want be more like Wyatt. The satisfaction he gets from fulfilling his calling has him run that edge with reckless abandon. He’ll give it all up to hunt just another step, another field. How it has come to mean so much to him escapes me.

But maybe he knows.

The stretch for the edge keeps that river of doubt bending away from us. And if we can do that while chasing birds then so many possibilities open elsewhere.

I want others to see that. I want them to take a step past their comfort zone. Then take one more past that.

Hunting in the Shadow of Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch North Dakota

When I hunt in North Dakota, my thoughts often drift to Teddy Roosevelt’s days at Elkhorn Ranch — He named his Dakota home for a pair of locked elk skulls he found at the site. Today, centrally located within the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Elkhorn is a great place to visit while upland hunting within this expanse. Sharptail still congregate on the bluffs and Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge have invaded the territory.

You’re confronted with a landscape of stark contrast. Fractured buttes and rolling bluestem, cottonwood culverts and the hellish infrastructure of fossil fuel harvesting which I imagine has Teddy’s grave in Oyster Bay sufficiently churned .

In the winter of 1884 after suffering the loss of both his wife and his mother within the span of 24 hours, Roosevelt retreated to the torn beauty of the Badlands for solace. The solitude, and toil of a new cattle business and pursuit of plains game provided the healing or at least sufficient distraction from depths of darkness.

Even the name badlands casts doubt on the therapeutic essence of this territory. Until you step into it. Unique views stretch to the horizon at the top of each new hill drawing you further into the folds, farther away from anything recognizable. The one benefit to the oil wells, they are unsightly beacons that can lead you back to “civilization”. At times I think I prefer the prospect of being lost. And when the setter and lab steer into the cuts where grouse gather out of the wind to dine on juniper berry, the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture of this forgotten landscape is at hand.

For most Americans lost is no longer a part of the lexicon. We’re digitally connected, plugged-in to one another and the safety and warmth of a glowing screen. And I can see the benefits. But a shrinking world needs the counter-balance of Badlands, of vast spaces unspoiled by humans. Fear of your surroundings, the inconsequence of your being, the brilliance of unyielding harsh landscapes offer perspective. Roosevelt knew the value of this much like I do. Rambling over stratified buttes and fractured limestone for hours, aware that the distances covered on foot are nothing but burnt legs and bootprints to be erased in the first strong wind. Watching late season birds flush wild at the hint we’ve chosen their direction and disappear on the horizon or so deeply into ravines the prospect they can be rousted or the energy to undertake it are in doubt.

Prairie fowl were so thick in this area at the end of the 19th century that Roosevelt could walk out his front door and shoot the heads off a few “chickens” roosting in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River with his lever action Winchester Model 1876 — a roast bird breakfast. Though Teddy was a notorious bad shot, peruse his auto-biographies and you get the sense that what he lacked in accuracy he made up for in frequency.

Despite gunning, game hogging and an awkward spectacled appearance that prompted many in the Dakota territories to label him a “dude”,  Roosevelt still rose to iconic status as a conservationist. His determination and ethic created the National Park system in this country and his role in crafting the North American Conservation Model is well documented. He was the first politician to raise wildlife to a national stage. It’s a legacy for all Americans that extends well beyond just sportsmen. Annually, hundreds of millions of visitors frequent the National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and public lands that Roosevelt instigated. For all his other accomplishments, Rough Riders to the Square Deal among them, there’s little doubt that the legacy of wildlife and wild places has touched the most people.

Roosevelt, a lifelong adventurer, likely left few canyons untouched within the boundaries of the Grassland south to the town of Medora. While our pack of dogs disappears in the sage and brambles of the flats around Elkhorn, It’s seems safe to assume few areas within these million acres remained hidden from Teddy, either herding cattle or pursuing plains game. Those are certainly big footsteps. As we’re faced with the prospects of rising costs of continuing the North American Conservation Model and the pressures of human encroachment and consumption, truly wild places and wildlife seem more and more finite.

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.

Upland with Friends

It’s easy for me to get caught up in this solo pursuit. The rhythm of walking to the horizon with shotgun in hand appeals to my obsessive nature. Shut out the world and follow the dogs. Simple. Quiet. Rewarding.

But decades ago I came to be a bird hunter because of friends sharing their experience afield. I can’t say that upland hunting saved me, rather that it saves everyone around me from the monster I would become without it.

A trip to Big Sky Country reunited me with the group that helped seed Ultimate Upland. There’s a comfort in hunting with cherished friends. But the six year gap between hunts has also been unsettling.

Frequent exposure allows changes to creep up, go unnoticed. But these six years apart the contrast is stark. Time has caught my bird hunting mentors. Reflexes have been dulled. Endurance worn. It has slowed them. And they aren’t accepting these changes gracefully.

If it’s happening to my upland heroes, then it must be happening to me. I wonder if I’m on the rise or fading. Are my best days of bird hunting still ahead?

But then there are moments: a friend’s first Sharptail over my dog, an old gunzel dropping a double, campfire stories that provoke moronic laughter.

The hell with mortality.

Let’s just hunt so often we never notice the creep consuming us as we disappear over the horizon.

 

 

The Alaska Standoff

Alaska and I are at odds. I’m here to take her birds. She’s not giving them up easily. I’m to earn them one vertical foot at a time until she has determined that sufficient  toll has been collected.

She’s happy to show amazing places, jaw-dropping beauty, an abundance of nature viewing unrivaled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. But she knows I’m here for her upland game. Though I can be transfixed by her figure, by the expanse, the birds are always in the back of my mind. And she knows this.

She keeps them just out of reach. Always around the next bend or over the next ridge. They are there. I’ve seen them, even had a fleeting shot. She keeps them 1,000 feet above me, taunts me with risk. Bring your tired legs, bring your tired dogs, push yourself too far and she’ll keep you here on her peaks. You can become a permanent fixture, another notch, a story of epic failure to ward off other suitors.

I’ve heard other places we’ve hunted, but never this clearly. I talk to her. I curse her. Then I apologize. Her beauty should be enough. For so many others it is. But the damn birds are here.

I’ve seen the tales of grouse so plentiful and stupefied that a rock and a moderate throwing arm will fill a skillet. I’ve talked to locals who have snow machined by chance into flocks hundreds thick in areas where 50 bird limits are possible. But they are Alaskan and she knows this.

So it is a standoff. I will keep talking to her. She will continue flashing eye candy. I will keep hiking uphill with shotgun and hounds, and she will decide if I’m worthy. It’s out of my hands. I can’t stop wanting her birds.

Make Bird Hunting an Adventure

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.