Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grouse Covert Hunting Pays Grouse Hunter Off Later

When I was a newlywed in 1978, my father in law introduced me to small game hunting. He was a North Country vet living on a going-back dairy farm off Route 30 just north of Malone. His youth – during the Great Depression – and later his work for struggling small dairy farmers never left him much time or money for training bird dogs. But the North Country had a great abundance of snowshoe hares then – his buddies called them white rabbits – and Doc just loved to hear beagle music as his hounds ran through the cedar swamps, birch clumps and pine patches just behind the barn.

I flushed more grouse by accident back then and there than I do now on purpose in western New York’s Southern Tier. Maybe it’s because Doc’s land was my formative hunting ground, or maybe it’s simply that I saw a lot of birds erupt from that sort of landscape. For whatever reasons, that habitat has remained my personal vision of what proper grouse cover looks like.

Thirty years and 400 miles to the south and west later, early successional forests are not common on public land hereabouts. In fact, they're damned scarce. Imagine my delight, then, when I recently followed up some scouting leads and discovered a place that looks “just right.” I flushed a bird there on my initial visit, and got a shot at one on the next. By concentrating on this particular parcel, I’m finally hunting grouse instead of grouse coverts. And it paid off just the other day.

We weren't 10 minutes out of the car when Gordie, a flushing spaniel, began working ground scent on the edge of a dry creek bed. I could see his enthusiasm ratcheting up, and, happily succumbing to optimism, I took a set-up step with my left foot in the direction in which the dog was working. With incredible timing, the pup flushed the bird not a dozen yards in front of me, and I had a rather easy shot for the 20 gauge L. L. Bean “Uplander” from B. Rizzini. The retrieve was short and sweet, and before there was any sweat in my hatband, Gordie had his first-ever local grouse.

Gordie Already Eager For His Next Cast
In the remainder of the 2 hours we hunted there, Gordie flushed two more grouse and three woodcock. I had good shots at only one of each. I’m still not sure whether to be happy that I grabbed a good shotshell for that first grouse, or angry that the rest of the box was so obviously defective. Since I’ll be getting back there a time or two before the deer hunters take over in November, I guess it’s OK that I left some birds for seed.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bird Hunting In Western NY On The First Weekend In October

Blue Skies And Rolling Farmland Near NY Grouse Country
I opted for staying local on the first weekend in October. On Saturday, I hunted/ explored a spot I had only driven past and labeled “Check Out” on my map last year. It had several areas of obvious “disturbance,” and seemed a fair bet to hold some partridge. Since the covert is only 68 miles from my front door, it is also far and away the closest possible spot in which I might bang-bang-damn a grouse.

I parked the car just off the road and, after determining that 280° was “in,” put Gordie down. For the next 30 minutes, we walked either on the remnants of a skidder trail or armpit deep in brutal blackberry canes. “Disturbed” was an apt description for more than the landscape. When the trail petered out against a mature canopy, we turned south for about 400 yards so we’d have the easier walking just inside the edge of the blackberry-canopy border on our way out. His stub of a tail a merry blur, Gordie showed his appreciation of this more user-friendly cover by snuffling under, around or through it all in the pleasant morning shade.

After almost an hour, Gordie flushed a beautiful red phase bird from a large rotting log into a golden shaft of sunlight. I whiffed gracefully at this calendar-art shot, but sent Gordie out for a precautionary sniff anyway before we moved on. As it turned out, we were less than 60 seconds from where the car sat parked.

On my way to a second parking spot, I stopped for howdy and shake with the dairy farmer whose property is adjacent to this bit of state land. After I explained what I was doing, he told me that he’d often seen partridge near a road just a bit to the north, and encouraged me to give it a try. I thanked him and promised that I would. But when I got there, the block of cover was a bigger bite than I wanted to chew, so I saved it for another time.

I parked once more and hunted another disturbed piece of cover. It, too, was very attractive, but we had no flushes in our short hour on the ground. Even so, with the bird and cover I’d seen, and with the farmer’s endorsement (unless he just wanted me away from the edge of his herd ;-) I felt very pleased to have added a decent partridge place that was birdy and close to home.

On Sunday, family commitments left us just an hour to see whether we could take a pheasant left over from the morning’s hunts at my release club. The weather was again gorgeous; but in 58 minutes, Gordie didn’t make game once. I already had my 16 ga SxS broken and resting on my shoulder for the last 100 yards to the car when the dog went into hyperdrive. I swung the AyA 4/53 from right to left and was rewarded with a dense puff of feathers floating slowly downward in the after-shot stillness. In a jiffy Gordie brought me the stone-dead hen and we were done for the day.

I was delighted with the mild report, at both ends, of the shell I’d used. For the record, it was a 2.75” RST 16 ga. “Best” Lite 1 oz. load of #6 lead. Although the load put very little hurt on me, the pheasant was mercifully dead in the air.

On Monday, woodcock season opened, so out we went for our third species in three days. We went to an old spot we’ve been scouting for the last two weeks, turning up a bird or so on about half the visits. Today, unfortunately, belonged in the wrong half, although Gordie worked with enthusiasm for an hour and a quarter. I noticed with disappointment that a single Posted sign suddenly has appeared in a corner of our hunting area. But the posting was the only small blemish on three days that were otherwise terrific.