September 23, 2010
Michigan's Upper Peninsula Offers Fast Action For Bird Dogs And Shooters Alike
Trouble proudly shows off with a woodcock for the camera.
We all run into circumstances that make us realize what a small world we live in, how so many of us are intertwined. This is especially true among bird dogs and bird dog people.
The most recent example of this small world thing occurred on a grouse and woodcock hunt in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That's where Jim Clary of the lower part of the state was running his setter--Trouble. Turns out Trouble's mother was a granddaughter of Elwin Smith's outstanding Tomoka. But Jim bought Trouble from Dick Stroup.
Dick lives not far from me in Pennsylvania, plus Stroup bought a pointer pup from me back in the 1970s. He bought and trained the dog for Pete Burchfield, and today Pete hangars his Grumman Widgeon in the hangar opposite where I hangar my planes. Yes, it's definitely a small world! Trouble is a hard-driving, easy-to-love bundle of English setter.
He could sleep with me any night, but let's get to the area, the dogs and the bird hunting. Jim Buzzard and I drove from western Pennsylvania all the way to Curtis, Michigan on the UP in one day. Joe Coogan with Benelli was there, as was Joe's television film crew.
The idea was to get the background for Joe's TV show, Benelli on Assignment. The story that follows was my assignment for Gun Dog. For each Benelli on Assignment TV show Coogan takes an outdoor writer along--a writer who has a magazine assignment. Joe's television show, therefore, gives viewers an inkling of what it takes to get an outdoor magazine story.
Joe Coogan, his first ruffed grouse, one of the setters and the 20 gauge Benelli Ultra Light. Note grouse feather in Joe's hat.
Bill Jacobs was our guide. Joe had met Jacobs when doing another TV show in Florida involving Bill's operation, the "Treasure Coast Hunting & Fishing Club." Bill's members hunt and fish around Florida, but Bill takes a couple of weeks to drive to Curtis, Michigan every late September and early October to enjoy his passion, woodcock shooting, with ruffed grouse gunning thrown in for good measure.
The cover he selected for our first hunt was an omen of the covers to come, for it was thick, thick, thick, with lots of slash the timber cutters had left for us to trip over. There was almost no let-up in the difficulty of the walking for three days running. How the two TV cameramen lugged their huge cameras around was a fitting tribute to their endurance and dedication.
Despite the heavy cover (most of the leaves were still attached to their moorings) we did flush 12 to 15 grouse that first morning--not spectacular in the flush-rate realm, but certainly enough to keep the hunters and the dogs interested. Trouble was the star of the show, ranging wide, always looking good and picturesque as a portrait on point.
Tinker Bell is Bill's aging setter. He had her pretty much tuckered out from a long hunt the day before we arrived, so Jacobs rested her until the third day of our hunt.
I marked down that Trouble had six points, but I never touched off a trigger as it was just too thick. I was carrying a relatively new 12 gauge that would be a part of the TV show, the Franchi I-12 Upland Hunter. It was already light at about 6.3 pounds, but Coogan was asking advice on how to make it even lighter. Grouse and woodcock hunters always seem to be interested in light shotguns.
The author with a ruff and the 12-gauge Franchi I-12 Upland Hunter.
Jim Clary also showed and hunted his young male setter Kid, a grandson of Tekoa Mountain Sunrise. We also hunted Bill Jacobs' shorthair Kit Kat. In addition to the six grouse points, Trouble also pointed several woodcock. Joe knocked down the first bird of the day, a longbill.
Shortly after that Trouble pointed. It took me quite a while to reach him as he was in dense second growth, and I had a zillion tripping hazards to negotiate. Though the setter had the woodcock dead to rights and right in front, I never pulled the trigger, didn't even see the bird, only the sound of it twittering away.
Frustration was setting in, but it wasn't long before Trouble's beeper had switched to the point mode again. So there was more ground slash that tried to trip me on the way to the dog. Woodcock run to escape plenty these days, and this bird kept moving and moving after point after point. It might have been a grouse, well known for their leg work before a serious frost and while the close-to-ground vegetation abounds. We never did get that bird airborne.
I've hunted over much of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, plus at least 10 different counties in Lower Michigan, where I started in 1975. But the covers Bill Jacobs put us in were as tough to negotiate as any I've ever seen. Some years back, maybe the early to mid 1980s, a lot of aspen harvest was done by "whole tree harvest."
Big machines chopped the aspen tree right off at ground level. Then the whole tree, leaves and all, were fed into a chopper, everything trucked off to a mill that fed the choppings automatically via conveyor--the end product being pressed board.
Hunting in these covers after whole tree harvest was such a pleasure. Aspen roots are suckers that run very close to the surface. The big machinery would cut those suckers as it moved chopping the aspen. These aspen root suckers were cut easily by the big machines, and everywhere a sucker was cut a new aspen sapling would emerge.
There wasn't one bit of slash on the ground to trip you, plus the aspen stems per acre were remarkably thick. Such cover really produced a lot of birds for the hunter, both grouse and woodcock. Unfortunately, I do not see any of this whole tree harvest anymore.
But back to those thick covers. Trouble had a point at a corner where two tram roads made an "X". Edges and corners are always prime bird-finding spots. Coogan worked one side of the "X" while I trod slowly down another, each anticipating a flush between us at any moment.
A couple of woodcock and the Franchi I-12 Upland Hunter.
I heard the bird going out but never saw it until Joe shot. It was a grouse that tried to sneak out behind and between us. Joe was shooting the new 20 gauge Benelli Ultra Light, and his single shot brought down his first grouse ever. Plenty of congratulations followed. Ceremoniously, a tail feather was plucked from that bird and placed in Joe's hatband. I bet he still has it there.
Interestingly, Joe spent his teen years in Kenya, Africa where his father, an airplane pilot, was based in Mombassa and flew a land/sea Albatross back and forth to Seychelles Islands--1000 miles away in the Indian Ocean--as part of our space program monitoring system. Eventually, Joe became an African Professional Hunter (PH), working in Botswana and elsewhere.
We met when he was working for Petersen's Hunting magazine. So Coogan has written many a hunting and gun article, and now he is with Benelli and, among other tasks, hosting their TV program.
One day we worked along a river's edge. The soil was wet underfoot, which was ideal for woodcock, but the cover certainly had a "grousey" look as well. Trouble made a point not far in front of me. When the timberdoodle went out it was a hard-right shot. I hit the Franchi trigger just as the bird passed out of sight, but the sight picture still felt right.
We searched and searched. Nothing. One of the dogs bumped a woodcock, and I had a good line on its flight path. No cigar when that bird was pointed either. We continued along the river's edge, and it wasn't long before Trouble was locked up. This one provided an easy straightaway, but I was knocked backward at the shot.
"Why are we shooting 3¾ dram, 1¼ ounce loads on these little birds?" I asked, rubbing my shoulder as Trouble made the retrieve. Someone answered that it was early in the season and we would be shooting through a lot of leaves. But I've found minimal 12 gauge loads sufficient for grouse and woodcock, no matter the leaves or the season.
A bit further along the river Joe added a woodcock to his game coat pocket. In the afternoon we hunted a hilly patch some few hundred yards away from the river. The grouse there did not cooperate as they kept flushing wild. Further, we lost some time when one dog made a wide, wide swing and didn't come back for nearly 30 minutes.
To finish up the day we took pity on our poor legs and bodies, walking a tram road and sending one dog after another into the thick woods on each side. Several times I had to go into the thick stuff when a beeper went into point mode, but I never did pull the trigger on any of those treks.
Later one grouse flushed along the tram, and I had a good idea where it had set down. There was no dog work, the bird flushed right from where I expected, I had the Franchi fully ready, but never saw a feather. "I'm coming back for revenge after leaf fall," I announced to no one in particular.
The last afternoon we finally hunted a beautiful cover, i.e., one with minimal slash on the ground. Fortunately, we got into plenty of birds. Jim Clary and I were walking in on a point (can't recall which dog) when a bird went out between us.
Vegetation interfered for a bit, so it was a fairly long shot I made on that one. Joe made two more nice shots--both timberdoodles. So we switched guns, me toting the little 20 gauge Benelli Ultra Light, Joe the 12 bore Franchi Upland Hunter.
Shortly thereafter I was presented with a beautiful point by Trouble, and the little Ultra Light helped me do my job--another longbill. It was time to head for the vehicles, but they were anything but close. You guessed it--to get to them we had to negotiate more thick, thick cover, all loaded with that ugly slash on the ground that continually tried to trip us.
Hunting with Trouble was like hunting with an old pal. I remember the long-ago day Dick Stroup and Pete Burchfield came to pick up that pointer pup of mine, and the current "small world" feel of hunting with this new setter that Stroup had raised and that I was hunting over near Curtis, Michigan.