by Jens Heig
In our family, every bird we take is on the wing. It creates equality in the pursuit, allowing grouse and woodcock to engage their natural defenses for a worthy escape and honor the tremendous instincts of our dogs. More often than not, they exit the standoff with our English setters and pointers unscathed, fit to strengthen their species with offspring even more likely to humble us. We take this requirement seriously. However, we do allow one exception.
The first. The first bird you harvest can be hidden among the boughs of a spruce tree or perched high in an aspen, unaware that its exposed position could fail it. As a young boy, I took advantage of this exemption alongside my father on the last day of the National Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock Hunt. Over two decades later, my wife, Ashley, would shoot her first woodcock on the same ground, during the same prestigious event. Though long separated by time, we were connected by being at similar points in our journey with hunting and the outdoors. At 30, Ashley is a new hunter. But what culminated in her moment was a process years in the making, sparked by her complete adoration for the animals we use to pursue these wonderful birds.
When we first met in 2010, the idea of a working dog was new to her, along with the woodland birds they seek. Though having been raised with dogs – her grandparent’s pooch assisted her first baby steps – she hadn’t experienced the companionship that comes with a dog bred to hunt. When she met the six-strong string that my father, Bill Heig, employs for our guiding service at Bowen Lodge, her understanding broadened. They’re more than pets. These dogs unlocked an entirely new way to explore the vast forests around our home, its secrets revealed by the way that Gee throws her head to the wind in search of a scent cone, or Bobbi’s cunning dissection of a cut in a prime age class. If they would stray from the flow of the hunt, she saw how her sharp commands could bring them back to the pocket. She experienced the excitement of walking over point, the tremendous anticipation before an explosion of wings and feathers from a seemingly impenetrable wall of hazel that would shock her heart and engage a new passion. Watching the dogs fostered the critical transition of recognizing the woods as something more than an ensemble of plants and trees. They unveiled what she now fondly knows as the grouse woods.
Thus began Ashley’s shift from observer to participant and hunter. This next stage took time. Grasping the fundamentals of hunting over a pointing dog and the thrill of the flush, she began carrying a stick that bore just the slightest resemblance to the Browning Citori awaiting her at the truck. Sturdy and with weight, this was her way of navigating the maze of trees with something cumbersome in hand, and to simulate the swift, purposeful action of moving toward a bird. She would later confide in me that learning how to bird hunt was overwhelming. The responsibility added from carrying a gun only intensified that feeling. Having been raised in this world of firearms, I had to remind myself that Ashley’s comfort level with a shotgun was far different than mine and would require something more than what I, or the dogs, could provide. Ashley needed a mentor.
As fate would have it, that mentor would be Wayne Jacobson, a founding member of both the Grand Rapids, MN chapter of RGS and the National Hunt. Not only is Wayne a dedicated conservationist, but the man is also one hell of a shot. Birds fall and clays break with steel in his hands. Throughout the summer in 2018, he set the foundation for all successful wingshooters before her with three essential elements: proper foot placement, visualizing the target and, perhaps most importantly, how to build muscle memory with your gun mount. Soon the Citori was gliding to her shoulder, her left hand pushing the barrels toward the target in a fluid motion that brought the stock to her cheek, the trigger unleashing energy and lead with an almost simultaneous burst of clay. He emphasized consistency, and after hundreds of spent shells, the woman who had never held a shotgun flourished into a formidable and safe shooter. Under Wayne’s tutelage, Ashley felt relief from the pressure to shoot. She felt calm and prepared. Having realized the intricacies of the woods, the language of the dogs and shooting discipline, only the capstone of Ashley’s journey as a new hunter remained: the magic formula of point, flush and shot.
It’s now the 2019 National Hunt. Ashley and I have volunteered as huntsmen and were assigned to hunt alongside Wayne at his grouse camp, an expanse of exquisite habitat that he has thoughtfully developed for over forty years. As I was finishing an exciting hunt with RGS President & CEO, Ben Jones, and Vice President of Mission Sustainability, Sean Curran, my phone rang. An elated Ashley greeted my ear, and I knew it could only mean one thing.
Mentor and mentee had entered the grouse woods with Ice, a tactical, efficient and veteran English pointer that Ashley has grown close to over the years. The sun was making its final descent in the west when the dog’s tail went poker straight, and its paws became rooted in the earth. Confidently, Ashley closed her shotgun with a soft click as the lever found its home, and she intently walked over point, senses acutely tuned to the cover, wind and dog. What happened next was not about shooting or killing, instead it was the natural outcome when all things fall perfectly into place. The woodcock rose into the air as she almost subconsciously raised her gun in chase. She saw everything with clarity as a resounding crack broke the stillness of the woods, and the bird fell, its small body coming to rest for Ice to locate and retrieve. Joy filled her as she turned to Wayne; his ear-to-ear smile confirmed that she had done everything right.
Ashley knew that she would never shoot her first bird out of a tree. With such intense love for the dogs, she could not betray their faithfulness to carry out their role in the hunt. The next scene unfolded the same as it had for me as a child. The hunters gathered around the fire, jovial from a day rich in fellowship to celebrate a monumental achievement in every upland hunter’s life. Only this time, Ashley’s story was being engraved into the lore of this hallowed place, joining the countless memories that had been fondly made here. The task of her first bird was complete. Now, a lifetime of pursuing them lies ahead, guided by the wonderful companions she will follow through the grouse woods.