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After last week’s column on all the various hunting sports awaiting Mainer’s come October, one reader had the audacity to ask me which shooting sport I would prefer over all others if I had to choose and could not change my mind – ever!
Well, the decision was easy because, in fact, many times I’ve had to decide which way I wanted to go and, time after time, I’d take the eager Lab and my shotgun and head for the nearest orchard. If I had to spend the rest of my days doing nothing else, grouse hunting would be my preference.
It’s been shown that the best of upland hunters average one bird per three shots fired (this at birds on the wing, by the way, not perched on a limb or pecking for grit on a remote gravel road). In my absolute best of times, I calculated my season average at just under three shots per bird, and this was deduced from careful notations on how many birds I flushed per day, how many shots were fired per flush and how many birds ended up on the grill per day. I actually thought three shots per bird was abysmal until I read the likes of Spiller, Woolner and other experts of the 20s, 30s and 40s who claimed that five or even eight shots per bird was “acceptable.”
I think I may have had an advantage, of course, because “those guys” hunted over the most stylish of pointing dogs, while I opted for meat-hungry Labs that would not tolerate birds that dawdled, hesitated or attempted to run. There’s not a grouse alive that can outrun the slowest Labrador retriever, and many a day I would send my bright-eyed “duck dogs” into a thicket only to have the dog return with a live, bewildered grouse in its mouth – proof enough that the dog is quicker than the bird! (Of course, I did not count those grouse in my shots-per-bird calculations.)
If I had to live the dream, I’d go out at about 10 a.m. each morning after spending about an hour letting the dogs play just to run off some steam. I have learned that if I let the dogs out of the pen and begin hunting immediately, their pent-up enthusiasm will be more than they can bear. Back when I thought I knew all there was to know about hunting dogs, I’d release the Labs and watch them bounce like tennis balls shot from guns all over the woods. I often saw them run right over sitting grouse and woodcock, the birds feeling rightfully safe from a dog that was running full tilt and four feet off the ground in no particular direction. I discovered that after about an hour of this insane behavior the dogs would settle down and actually start hunting, so I made it a habit to play about 1,000 games of fetch before we ever entered the woods. By then the edge would be off the dogs and we’d have at least a ghost of a chance of finding a bird.
Even exhausted Labs know the name of the game: Find a bird and put him to flight. The trick is in keeping the dog close enough to ensure that any birds that flush are in range – and in Maine’s typically thick cover, that means 25 yards or less. I use hand signals and finger snaps to keep my dogs in check (I can’t stand shouters and screamers in the uplands), and I can usually see, if not get a shot, at every bird that goes up. Hearing a grouse clatter up and away is great, but if you can’t see him or get a shot, you haven’t accomplished much. I like to keep my dogs close, which means the majority of birds we see will be in range and present some kind of a shot. After that it’s all reflexes and shooting skills, which only come with practice.
Another calculation I made was that each bird that flushes offers a window of something less than three seconds in which to mount the gun, swing and shoot – not much time when you consider that the bird could go up anywhere, any time, without warning. The best shooters train themselves to swing and shoot where the bird is going to be, not where he is. This takes an open- choked shotgun (Improved Cylinder or more), fine shot (No. 8s are not too small) and hair-trigger reflexes. You can’t be thinking about work, your bills or your love life: Think about the first flutter of wings, imagine where he’s going and shoot about 10 feet in front of that. If you’re very good at it, you’ll connect on every third shot!
What I like about grouse hunting is not the easy, early-season bird that hasn’t been hunted, doesn’t know what to do and often presents easy shots because he is confused, uncertain or unsophisticated. I much prefer late-season birds that have dodged a dog or two and know how to play the game. They can be frustrating because they know when to flush (behind you) and where to go (behind the nearest tree), but when you come to know a particular bird, you can pattern his responses and work out a way to fool him.
This is “trophy” grouse hunting at it’s best and I love every minute of it. My dogs even seem to know that a particular bird is a special challenge and will move in slowly, pay close attention and even appear to be thinking about their next move. Of course, the bird will be perched on a limb somewhere watching all this anxious intrepidation, and then flush with disdain out the back door. What I like to do is find that back door and be waiting there when my quarry takes wing – and it’s not always easy!
As you can see, there’s much thought to be put into partridge hunting, especially if you believe in fair chase, hunting with dogs and shooting only flushed birds on the wing. I could easily spend the entire season in pursuit of these confounding upland targets, knowing for a fact that they are going to win the game in the long run.
I shoot a lot of grouse every year but never all of them – what fun would that be? I do my best and give the dogs their accolades, but I am always glad to see that last bird f the year sail off unscathed. I need to know that he’ll be out there waiting for me next year, too!
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