The thought of losing the little things we love about grouse and woodcock hunting reveals truly what’s at stake for the future of our sporting traditions if we don’t strive to create healthy forests now.
On a Friday evening this past February, I rounded into the entryway of my home and spied my blaze hunting vest hanging on the wall in the same place I had it after every hunt since September. I stood there for a moment while numerous memories from October and November flooded through my mind and honestly felt sad knowing the season was over. That unfortunate and inevitable time had come to put it away until next year.
I grabbed the vest off the hanger and walked toward the kitchen garbage with my two bird dogs close behind. They, of course, anticipate the sight of hunting gear and shotguns in high hopes of what they dreamed. I saw this and regrettably said, “I’m sorry boys . . . not till next year.” I reached into the back pouch to clean debris and pulled out a handful of spent yellow shotgun shells, broken twigs and dried leaves. As I did, multiple feathers floated through the air as if in slow motion. After enjoying the show, I knelt down and picked up one red-phased tail feather that had helicoptered to the feet of my dogs as they patiently watched. That particular feather sent my mind directly to an October afternoon where the heft of a male grouse in-hand following a grand hunt deep in my favorite northwoods covert was a memory I will never forget.
Little things like this February feather make you want to spend the off-season lost in A Sand County Almanac next to a winter fire.
A long high-pitched whine from the cardboard box sitting in the passenger seat of my truck kept my mind focused on the literal and figurative road ahead of me. Inside, a new bird dog pup seemed to calm when I held my hand still on his white back. Being a young hunter and just out of college, this was the first bird dog I would own and train by myself.
About halfway home, thoughts of dog food choice, crate training tips, bird training and all the other dog-owner responsibilities were overwhelmingly starting to sink in. The perceived daunting task made me nervous for a moment, but the warm fur under my hand as the puppy slept calmed me too and reminded me about the future for this few pounds of pure potential.
Grouse hunters can spot possible covers just by driving by them, and on our way home, I teased the pup by saying, “Right there, young pup . . . that might be where you find your first bird.” As we arrived, I reached in the box, scooped the pup with one hand and carefully set in the front-yard grass. His new surroundings did not bother that bold little spitfire in the least, and he bound around the yard in constant search of something . . . “Surely a grouse,” I thought to myself. As I admired his confidence that afternoon, my mind wandered to glimpses of future sunny October days together afield hopefully filled with heroic points and proud retrieves.
Little things like a puppy’s first steps afield open up a world of upland possibilities that drive us as hunters to the grouse and woodcock woods every fall.
Not long after leaving the truck, my bird dog was dodging aspen and alder like on a slalom skiing course with what seemed to be extra energy that day. Lucky to be in the midst of the October woodcock flights, it was not long before the bell went silent not far away. I gave my lone hunting partner some steady commands as we found the pointing dog, and we both slowly and safely approached. I tried to position him for a productive view while I flushed the bird – almost as if meant to be, the bird flushed under foot. From one knee, I saw the most picturesque sight of dog, bird, hunter and shot.
In one fell swoop, my hunting partner reached down and raised a freshly harvested woodcock above his head. As he turned to me, the smile on his worn face said the whole story – this being his first upland bird, he immediately asked, “When can we do this again?”
He grew up hunting, mostly for deer, and while he knew his way around a shotgun, he was new to the grouse and woodcock world. As I approached, he patted the dog on the head for a job well done and shook my hand tight. I too smiled, proud of his first bird and pleased by his statement about wanting to go again. I had been eager and excited to introduce him to my yearly fall obsession, and I find once one gets a taste of grouse and woodcock hunting, they too become addicted.
Little things like a shaking a budding grouse and woodcock hunter’s hand after harvesting their first bird is a special moment we all need to enjoy more often.
The thought of losing the little things we love about grouse and woodcock hunting, some as simple as twirling a tail feather in your fingers, watching a puppy’s first day afield and shaking the hand of a smiling new hunter, reveals truly what’s at stake for the future of our sporting traditions if we don’t strive to create healthy forests now.