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At this time of year anticipation builds over the various deer and bear hunting seasons, which all but steal the limelight from another of Maine's most important sporting traditions - bird season!
I have had some of the most interesting, amusing and surprising experiences in the October uplands, and every time I hear a partridge thunder away behind a canopy of leaves and limbs I'm reminded of how enjoyable a day with shotgun in hand can be.
I still remember the very first Maine grouse I ever shot, a fat old cock bird that had the nerve to walk down the logging trail in front of me somewhere deep in the woods on the south side of Boyd Lake. I was technically shotgun hunting for deer (back when the deer season opened in October) and had a full clip in my Mossberg bolt-action slug gun. I was none too good at deer hunting and, after a couple of days of seeing nothing, that big partridge looked mighty tempting. I had to unload the gun, replace the slugs with birdshot and then creep close enough for a shot, but just as I was about to drop the hammer the big bird suddenly took wing and headed for the birches on a nearby slope.
I knew nothing about lead, sustained swing, patterns or angle of flight but, by heck, I knew enough to pull the trigger, and when the bird came crashing down in a thick copse of jack firs, my transformation as a lifelong wing shot was complete. Normally, our camp fare was Habitant pea soup, plain spaghetti or bacon and eggs, but that night we feasted on broiled grouse and, no doubt about it, I was hooked forever.
One of my favorite grouse hunts occurred off my front porch while I was living in Orneville on the Philpot Ridge Road. I was working at the shoe factory in Milo at the time and barely had time to hunt after work, but I had a routine (when I could get out the door at 3:30 p.m., which wasn't very often!). I'd dash home, pull on my hunting boots, grab the gun, a few shells and the dog and literally run across the road to a nearby apple orchard that often had birds in it in the late afternoon.
This particular day I stepped onto the porch and was surprised to see the Lab dash across the road ahead of me. As I stood there loading up, two partridges came sailing through the dooryard right in front of me, and without thinking I knocked them both down not 10 yards from the front door! I heard another clatter of wings and crashing brush as the dog put two more birds to flight, and I barely reloaded before the pair sailed right in behind the first two. I swung and shot, and both birds tumbled into the yard! The dog came bouncing up behind and paused for a second, as amazed and surprised as I was. Then, she pounced on her quarry and brought them to me - with my boots still untied and still not having left the porch steps!
It's tough enough to shoot a limit of four Maine grouse on the wing no matter what the circumstances, but to pull off two doubles without setting foot on the ground...let's just say I knew how lucky I was!
The only other true double I ever made (after 30 years of serious grouse hunting) down the same road but at another orchard. Once again we were heading out to hunt and I was not even thinking about shooting - we were 200 yards from our destination (another abandoned orchard) and still suffering from shoe shop anxiety when, without warning, two grouse took off from the roadside alders. I knew birds would often peck for gravel in the old, dusty road, but I wasn't thinking about it or ready for it - I just turned and shot by instinct and, to my everlasting surprise, both birds flipped and rolled to the ground! The dog looked at me like she didn't know me (she was used to seeing me miss, apparently!), and then she bounded into the thicket and retrieved the birds like the master that she was.
Of course, not all of my Maine grouse hunts went quite that well. I used to keep track of every trip: flushes, shots fired and birds bagged, and while my overall average was fewer than two shots per bird, I did not always enjoy “average” days.
One of the worst days ever (from a shots-per-bird point of view) took place one October while hunting a favorite abandoned farm in LaGrange. It wasn't that we couldn't find birds - we found all we could stand - but there was the little problem of hitting what I aimed at. My records show that we put up 14 grouse, I fired 20 times and...well, good thing we still had a can of Habitant pea soup on she shelf!
The best thing about partridge hunting is that the birds themselves never change. Domestication is always a failure, so every partridge you see is wild and untamed. They do everything they can (and that's a lot!) to thwart hunters and they give no quarter. If you are not alert, ready for action and quick on the trigger (the average grouse flushes and disappears in something less than three seconds!) you may as well quit buying shot shells because you won't need them!
There are days when you may walk all day and not flush a single bird, and there are other days when you'll take your limit before you even get started, but in general you can expect to work hard for every shot and, in most cases, the bird will win. In my heyday I averaged about 30 grouse per season, which may sound like a lot but remember, I hunted every day of the season (which closed at the end of November in those days). So, my true average was about .5 birds per day - not great, but I never starved!
If you want to find out what real upland sport is all about, practice up, take to the woods this fall (Maine's bird season opens Oct. 1) and focus all your energies on shooting partridges in the air with a shotgun. Making a hole in one at golf would be easier and probably a lot less frustrating, which is probably why there are a lot more golfers than there are grouse hunters!
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