December 17, 2010
Need some stress in your life? Grouse and woodcock may be just the ticket.
It's been right around 10 years now that I've been taking a two week-hiatus from prairie birds to lay siege to the grouse and woodcock in Wisconsin. My buddy John and I haven't exactly been throwing the local birds into a tizzy of anticipation. After 10 years of pounding the same coverts, we know where they live. And after 10 years of evading our shot strings, they know we can't shoot. I like to think they need the exercise.
Grouse and woodcock are as different from the birds in my 'hood--Huns and sharptails--as the moon is different from the sun. The former live in trees so thick they'll steal your hat, poke you in the eye, pin your arms to your side as you raise them to shoot and lash you viciously across the face, drawing tendrils of sweet, salty blood.
On the prairies, you can hunt all day and never see a tree. And yet trees go with grouse and woodcock like wheatfields go with Huns, like rimrocks go with chukars, like oak trees go with Mearns quail. Each gamebird has a flavor, a niche in the biological scheme of things, an essence unique and profoundly fitting. Finding a ruffed grouse in a wheatfield would be like finding a flamingo in South Dakota. And since trees are where the grouse and woodcock live, I drive north every year to the dark, brooding coverts where the trees grow thick as pins in a cushion.
This hunting in the forest primeval business takes some getting used to. It's easy to think you're miles from civilization when in fact northern Wisconsin is profuse with interconnected logging roads, woven like a loose fabric that stitches together the land. It is at once an odd and thrilling experience to thrash your way out of some God-forsaken swamp, lost and despairing of ever seeing your truck again, only to emerge on the shoulder of a two-lane blacktop you had no idea was anywhere in the county, a bar with a "Welcome Hunters!" banner just a stone's throw away of where you--still dazed from your sojourn in the woods and gripped by a terrible thirst--now stand.
The birds are usually in the thick stuff.
The grouse and woodcock set don't frequent the bars much, but it wouldn't kill them if they did. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of bird hunters I've met in Wisconsin bars, and I've done plenty of research, believe me. This is bear and whitetail country, with grainy enlargements of Godzillian black bears draped over the hoods of rusted-out trucks adorning the bathroom walls of every bar in the northern half of the state. A 400-pound black bear draws yawns; a 300-pound whitetail isn't unheard of. But grouse? Woodcock? There just ain't enough meat on them little birds.
This deeply provincial attitude fills me with unadulterated joy. How many places are there where such regal gamebirds are left alone to scratch and peck their happy lives away? My dogs may be the only bird dogs some of these grouse see for weeks on end. Or at least it seems that way.
With that thought in mind, I keep hoping for some level of residual stupidity in the Wisconsin grouse population, but it ain't happening, folks. I may flush 25 birds on a very good day, yet catch a glimpse of only half of them. Of those, I'll have a passable shot at two. I might actually kill a bird every other day or so. That's far better than my shooting average last year, which was so far down in the bottom of the barrel, I had to throw out the barrel and shop around for an economy-sized version. I'd tell you what that percentage is, but not right now. I'm working up to that.
Maybe my shooting has something to do with the time John and I spend in bars. John's a teetotaler, so I feel morally obligated to drink his share of Leinenkugel's Berry Weiss, which tastes like blackberry liquor with a head. Or maybe it's the cheese curds, which neither John or I am particularly averse to and which I'm pretty sure are why they have 400-pound bears in Wisconsin. Then again, it could just be that grouse are damn hard to hit.
Even when a bird is pointed, making the shot is by no means a given.
An Obscure Bird
Trying to hit a ruffed grouse is like trying to hit a knuckle ball shot out of a grenade launcher. The birds really aren't that fast. From time to time I'll flush one under wide-open blue skies and watch it fly away, mentally comparing its speed to the other birds I hunt.
But put a grouse in a popple thicket and it's a different story. Ever watch some poor schmuck flail away blindfolded at a piÃ±ata? That's what my shooting looks like in the grouse woods. John and I have a formal bet every year: The first person to kill a grouse buys dinner. The informal bet, also years in the running, is to see who will be the first to saw an aspen tree in half with his shot charge. Usually, the aspen gets it before the grouse does, and it sounds like this: "Point!" Boom! Crash!
A lot of people recoup their dismal percentages on grouse with woodcock, which tend to flit up from under the dog's nose, hang in the air at, say, 15 to 20 yards, and then level off. The trouble is, they never really level off. They do the doodle version of level: juking from one side to another like a marble in a shot glass, with a few abrupt dips and rises thrown in for aerobatic consistency. Consequently, on some years I shoot even worse on woodcock than I do on grouse, which even I find hard to believe. But it's true; I've got the figures to prove it.
The author's buddy John admires a woodcock and grouse. Such combos aren't always easy to come by.
Luckily for me, I'm there for my dogs, not to fill my freezer. Since my dogs eat dog food, and not grouse, they really don't care if I kill birds or not. But I care powerfully about snappy dog work, and there's nothing that tests a dog's tenacity and bird sense more than a ruffed grouse.
Hunting in the north woods is the big leagues for pointing dogs. Growing up as a kid in the Midwest, I read every outdoor m
agazine I could get my hands on, and was in thrall to the famous eastern writers of the day--Spiller, Evans, the whole tweedy lot. I had a picture in my head of how grouse were supposed to behave, modeled after the only birds I'd ever hunted: bobwhite quail.
But real grouse are far different from the fantasy birds I used to believe in. Not only do they run, but they run as much or more than almost any other bird I know of. The difference is that grouse rarely run in a straight line. After a while, going in on a point becomes a guessing game: is the bird really under the dog's nose? As often as not, it isn't. After a while, you may not ignore where the dog is pointing, but you learn to keep your options open.
And at least half the time, the bird isn't there at all. I once followed my best grouse dog, Powder, as she trailed a grouse through a hundred yards of alternating clearcuts and tag alders before she finally pinned the bird at the top of a steep, eroded ravine. Since there was no clear area left for the bird to run, I figured, darn it to heck, we had the little sucker.
So much for logical deductions. A "clear area" is a concept that doesn't register with grouse. The bird blew out somewhere ahead and I never saw it again. This kind of behavior is why many grouse dogs are so seemingly tentative: They learn through hard experience that the birds simply won't put up with being pressured.
Once in a blue moon, you might get a shot in the open. It doesn't happen every year.
Compare that with woodcock, which I've almost stomped into doodle muesli in my attempts to get them to fly. If grouse are birds on which good dogs become great, woodcock are the perfect bird for puppies. I've seen puppies nearly hypnotized by the intoxicating scent of a doodle holding tight as a tick between their trembling paws. Three of the four dogs I currently own had some of their very first points on woodcock, and the fourth, my English pointer Tango, will get her chance this October, when she'll be just a few weeks past a year of age. If there's any bird you can count on not to run, it's a woodcock. But that doesn't mean it never happens.
A few years ago, my setter Hanna pointed a woodcock in a tag alder thicket, which, for those of you who have never been in one, are not nearly as much fun as Wisconsin bars and don't serve cheese curds. But that's where we were finding the woodcock that day, so in we went.
I haven't a clue from which direction Hanna pointed the bird--my navigational skills are roughly on par with my shooting percentages--but let's say she was pointing south. The woodcock ran under her tail to the north, skedaddling on its spindly little legs for all it was worth.
John, also situated up north, was in a perfect position to cut it off at the pass. "Doodle!" I said.
"No! A doodle. And it's running your way!"
"A woodie?" John said. John, not an uneducated man, has some kind of verbal dyslexia with sporting terminology.
"A woodcock!" I said. "Cripes. Just walk toward me and get ready to shoot." He did, the bird flushed, and he killed it. Just like that. I offer this as the only published example of driven woodcock shooting.
Till Next Season
At the end of our trip, we add up the pros and cons. Hunting in the rain and in bogs of ankle-deep muck versus the cold, hard statistics: typically, about a dozen woodcock between the two of us. And last year--I promised I'd tell you this--my personal low of exactly one grouse. With 17 shots. I told you I wasn't in this for the money.
But on the long drive home, all the way across the prairies of Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, I'll have the plans for next year's trip cooking in my head. And I'll be thinking of trees.