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This is the week for Maine bird hunters to get out and enjoy topnotch upland shooting that many out-of-staters consider the best in the world. Our grouse and woodcock hunting is as good as it gets in this country, and many sportsmen from around the world spend thousands of dollars to come here and sample a little of what we have in our own back yards.
There is nothing like poking around in the alders and birches in search of birds that fly fast, erratically and with vigor. Thanks to the thick cover and “see ya” flushes that are the trademarks of our big and little brown birds, you can expect to be on pins and needles all day. You won’t find a bird behind every bush, although it’s good to expect it, so after several hours of anxious cruising with gun in hand it’s easy to get lazy, slow and distracted. That, of course, is when the biggest partridge that ever lived will fly out from under your feet, making you look like a bumbling, stumbling fool. Don’t feel bad – they do it to us all!
It’s fun to hunt in late October with a dog (or dogs), but good upland dogs are expensive, hard to find and take time to train, so most Maine bird hunters just go out with comfortable boots on and an even more comfortable shotgun in hand. You can walk the logging roads and find birds enough to take a limit of four each day, or you can crash around the alders and brushy cover along waterways to pick up a woodcock or two. Either way, plan to spend some time on the prowl because the going can be tough and when the cover is thickest, that’s where you’ll find (or lose) your birds!
I like to hunt the edges and thickets in and around old apple orchards, which are plentiful in our part of the state. A simple way to find these areas is to pore over an old plat map and find the locations of long-abandoned homesteads. All of the old family farms in our region had an orchard nearby, often within 100 yards of the main house. Many years ago I found and plotted the locations of these orchards on a large county map I’d made, and was amazed to find that there were dozens of such homesteads in places that, not long ago, were empty woodlots or paper company land. Without the locations of the homesteads you would never know that there had ever been a house on that hill or in that valley. The names and faces have long faded away, but the “fruits” of their efforts, those still-productive orchards, make great places to find birds during the tag end of October.
If you are the adventurous sort, you can find plenty of places to hunt by simply hiking off into the wilderness. Most of the old homesteads were built on high ground on south-facing slopes, or in secluded valleys near water or roads (which may now be gravel roads or nearly overgrown woodsman’s lanes). However you decide to go, plan to walk . . . a lot! You can expect to put a mile or more on your boot soles per flush, which means about one flush per hour on average. Grouse are especially good at dodging hunters because they are not afraid to walk away from approaching danger, but if the cover wears out or you are going too fast, they are not shy about flushing (behind you, as often as not) and sailing into the thick cover behind at least one, shot-proof tree.
To counter their standard escape tactic, it’s a good idea to walk briskly for a few minutes, and then stop and stand quietly, shotgun at the ready, for several seconds. This puts the bird on red alert because he’s thinking this big, ungainly predator is about to pounce. With this in mind, have your gun ready to shoulder at the next step you take, because you’ll barely get your foot down before the bird flushes low and fast.
Those battering wings will take him out of your sight in about three seconds, which means you won’t have time for much more than a fast snap shot at a fleeting brown target. This is the place for quick, instinctive shooting – no time for “form and follow through” in the alders! Your favorite duck gun may not be the best choice for this kind of hunting; instead, pick a light, short-barreled, open-choked shotgun and fine shot (No. 8s are great) and plan to fill the air ahead of the bird with as many lead pellets as you can put out there in the allotted time.
There are plenty of birds available in our area thanks to our prime habitat and endless miles of it. It’s not unusual to spend an entire day in one small area, especially when the bird numbers are up and your shooting is not! We all like to think we can down every partridge or woodcock that flies (every hunter’s dream), but the truth is you’ll be lucky to connect on every third or fourth shot. One day I hunted a favorite orchard in Atkinson under perfect conditions – except for the shooting part! My records tell me I flushed 14 grouse in one afternoon, got shots at 10 of them and came home empty handed! The dog and I had no trouble finding or flushing birds, but for some reason I could not put a charge of shot where it needed to go. There is a lot of room around them, that is for sure!
By comparison, woodcock are probably easier to hit than grouse, but “easy” is a relative term. I once put my old brother-in-law in position to take a woodcock we could see on the ground. He was ready, the bird was in plain sight and I was able to move in and flush it perfectly for him. The bird went up and out as woodcock normally do, but my partner could only stare, open-mouthed, as the bird disappeared over the alder tops. I guess he expected the bird to fly slower, stay longer and present a nice, open shot.
I would have laughed a little harder about it except I’ve been there too!
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