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Perhaps one of Maine's longest-standing sporting traditions (other than the opening day of deer season and the first day of fishing season) is the state's upland bird-hunting season. The ruffed grouse (or partridge, as we like to call them), has been a staple of the fall hunting scene since before there were laws set in place to protect them, and though deer, bear, moose and such tend to get more media coverage in the fall, Maine's bird hunters are as dedicated and persistent as any of them.
Just as some hunters will take the month of October off for the archery deer season or November for the firearms season, there is a tattered legion that lives for Maine's legendary “bird season,” and all they do is beat the alders and birches in search of the perfect wing shooting opportunity.
There are several ways to bag a limit of birds for the Saturday night bean pot. The cheapest (and probably most expeditious) route is to simply grab a handful of shotshells, a trusty single-shot shotgun and just walk the endless back roads of Piscataquis or Penobscot counties in search of graveling birds. This is pot shooting at its best, nothing fancy or elite about it. You walk slowly along till you see or hear birds in the brush or in the road (unpaved roads only, of course!) and bag your birds as you see them.
A couple of variations on this theme include sitting in an orchard on a balmy October afternoon and waiting for partridges to walk (or fly) in to feed on the bounty of apples, or waiting quietly in a known roosting site and potting birds as they fly into the uppermost limbs of a big spruce or hemlock to spend the night.
None of this is considered “sporting” by the upland elite, but if you want birds in hand, it's certainly the most productive way to go.
Despite the persistence of subsistence hunters, the trend has been to a more glamorous form of hunting Maine's signature game bird. Join this exclusive club only if “price per pound” is irrelevant to you. It's generally assumed that you'll need a well-trained hunting dog (pointer, setter, flusher or retriever), which can set you back a month's pay and all the time and dedication it takes to train and maintain such a sophisticated “pet;” a hunting outfit (pants, shirt, hat, gloves, vest and boots) that can retail for close to $1,000 if you “go with the best,” as the ad theme of one supplier suggests; a well-rigged vehicle designed to transport dogs, guns and well-heeled hunters for travel with style; a shotgun that can cost as much as most second vehicles; and the opportunity to hunt for an entire month without losing your job or the farm. Believe it or not, there are plenty of hunters out there who fit this mold, and more power to them. They've elevated the sport (and the bird) to an almost sacred level, and spend as much time pondering the nuances of the sport as they do beating the brush in search of game. An odd but harmless bunch, this last, and they will never be the ones to shoot the last bird on the property, you can be sure of that!
Somewhere in between comes the rest of us, hunters who enjoy being outdoors in October, who love flushing birds in abandoned orchards and taking them on the wing (or at least trying to do so) with whatever shotgun and outfit we can reasonably afford. We believe our quarry deserves a better than even chance to escape, so we let them fly rather than shoot them on the ground, but we'll take our limit every time we can (a rare event in any case) rather than settling for “just one glorious bird in hand” as the elitists contend.
I think the best grouse hunters are the ones who stomp the woods all day (alone and without a dog) and come home with their limit of birds taken on the fly. Partridges are stealthy, unpredictable and unexpected; they flush with a rush and are gone in an instant, always managing to put a tree, bush or blow down between themselves and the approaching cloud of birdshot. You won't get them all this way, you won't even get many most days, but you will earn every partridge you carry into the kitchen, and that's worth a lot to the guys who do it this way. The bird is more than just a piece of meat to us, and we respect rather than revere them - it's a game of wits and reflexes, and even the most experienced hunters lose the contest more often than they win.
I have had days where I've walked for miles, flushed a few birds out of range and shot none. On other, better days I've lucked into a limit of birds while still in sight of the truck - you just never know, and that's half the attraction of upland hunting in Maine. It's probably safe to say that you can expect to flush some birds on every trip, but there will be days when you miss everything you shoot at, or get not shots at all. The partridge is truly wild, a bird of the woods that won't be raised in captivity. They do you no favors and give you no breaks; a partridge is never as tentative as a woodcock or stoic as a pheasant. A grouse won't be crowded or cornered, and if worse comes to worse they'll exit at high speed out the back door. You won't figure them out in a lifetime of hunting - you can only guess, hope and shoot faster next time!
Mid-October is the beginning of prime time for partridge hunting in our area. Get out there for a day or two between now and Thanksgiving and find out for yourself how easy it is to bag a limit of four birds in a day. Don't be surprised if you end the day without a feather in your pocket, however, because Maine's premier upland bird is no pushover.
You'll work hard for every bird you bring home, and the price per pound goes up with every missed shot, but no matter what happens you won't go hungry - wild apples are abundant right now and, so far, they are still free!
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