|Great as October’s foliage can be, there is a segment of the sporting world that waits in gleeful anticipation for some heavy rain and frost to put the pastels of autumn on the ground where they belong.
Of course, I’m talking about Maine’s upland bird hunters, especially those who seek partridge and woodcock with pointing or flushing dogs. It’s long been a tradition to walk the woods roads and pot a few birds along the way, but in the sporting world the word is “on the wing,” and you can’t shoot many grouse or woodcock in flight when the leaves are so thick you can’t see behind them.
Shotgunners live for the next few weeks in Maine, when the leaves start to fizzle and no one’s in the woods but a few eager bowhunters. The combination of cool weather, barren treetops and wide, open spaces is as close to heaven as a bird hunter is likely to get, and the time to go is right now!
Books galore have been written about the ways and means of taking on ruffed grouse and woodcock in fall. Most of them laud the season, the foliage and the birds themselves, while others discuss every nuance of the hunt, from how to tie your bootlaces so they don’t come undone in the brush to how to cook your birds over the coals at the end of the day. I like to rub elbows with both camps, enjoying my days in the woods, successful or not, but also very pleased to hear the sizzle and pop of a couple of grouse breasts on the grill.
If you’re going to win at wingshooting this season, you must try to put the odds on your side, and that begins with your shotgun. Light, short, open-choked and quick on the second shot is about as brief a description as you’ll find. Reams have been written about grouse guns, chokes and loads, but they all come down to the same thing: the ability to throw a quick, wide pattern of shot ahead of a fleeing bird. After decades of grouse hunting, I’ve narrowed the timeframe from flush to shot to about two seconds, which can be a long time in the uplands.
The technique is simple enough to describe, but (as many hunters discover each year) not so easy to execute. This is a time for instant reflexes, not careful thought. When a grouse leaves the ground his fluttering wings will start the clock. You’ll have a generous two seconds to mark and track the bird, and if you are paying attention, your gun fits you and a tree doesn’t jump in the way, you’ll have your bird in hand when the smoke clears.
There is always a caveat, however, and in grouse hunting it’s that the birds don’t always flush and fly in a straight line. He may swerve left or right, go high or low, or simply skim along the ground like a grasshopper. Your reflexes, experience and intuition will tell you which way he’s going and (in that same two seconds) allow you time to make the necessary adjustments.
On a perfect day you can tumble two grouse in a single flush going in opposite directions (I’ve done it a very few times in some 40 years of hunting them). On the worst of days you can’t hit the ground with your hat, but that’s of no concern to the grouse. They flush and fly all day when stalked by hawks, foxes, coyotes or weasels, and avoiding you is just another exercise to them. Be prepared to end the day with more misses than hits, but therein lies the challenge, and that’s what brings us back for more each season!
Woodcock are considered to be much slower and easier to hit in the woods, but that’s the considered opinion of people who haven’t spent much time in the alders. “Slow” is a relative term for a bird that flushes straight up, flies like a wounded butterfly and often waits till you’re right on top of him before he goes.
The two-second rule goes out the window with these long-beaked bog dwellers. They may flutter up and down within a few yards, they may zip and twist through the alders at head height for 20 yards, or they may go up and out like a Harrier jet and leave the county. All of this goes on in cover that is so thick it’s impossible to get through without losing your hat several times a day, and you will likely miss many more birds than you hit.
The key to successful woodcock shooting is to use fine shot (No. 9 is about right) in an open-choked shotgun that is held at port arms throughout the hunt. If you stumble around in the alders with your shotgun under you arm or over your shoulder you probably will never get a shot. I enter the thickest with my shotgun at the ready, and I expect a flush at every step. Of course, this can be tiring and frustrating work when the birds are scarce, but when things go right I can drop my limit of three birds in the first half-dozen encounters.
For both species, a good way to go (without a dog) is to walk steadily, even noisily, for about 20 yards, and then stop and look around, gun at the ready. Grouse and woodcock are used to intruders, but when “something” walks in and then stops, they go on the alert. Expect a flush at your next step, and be ready to shoot by starting off with your dominant foot (your left foot if you’re a righty, your right foot if you are a left-handed shooter). When birds are numerous and the cover looks good, don’t be afraid to shuffle forward a few yards, keeping your gun up and your dominant foot forward. I have downed many a hesitant grouse and woodcock by remaining vigilant in this manner, and I know many more escaped when I failed to do my part.
The best time of the year for uplanders is from now till the opening day of deer season, so get out there and make the most of it. You won’t get perfect conditions like this again for another year!