Monday, November 1, 2010

Rough Shooting

I kind of like the term “rough shooting.” There’s even a book titled A Rough Shooting Dog. It’s about gunning come-what-may over a Springer spaniel. I also like the idea of following a gun dog and taking whatever game is presented, be it grouse, pheasants, ducks, rabbits, squirrels and such. I like the idea of it, but I haven’t shot a rabbit for quite a while, the red squirrels around here are nothing to put on a plate, and ducks are an entirely different game thanks to non-toxic shot requirements. But I have old photos of my grandfather in his high laced boots and old shotgun posing with a Springer or cocker before truly mixed bags and I have to think how fun that must have been.

Bird hunting this season has been pretty darn good over my setters. Old Ty is finding plenty of grouse every time out, and Jack is trying to do as well. But we have Dad's eager little Springer spaniel, Molly, living here now and she is a delight to have in the woods. No need for bells and beepers. No wondering where she is or how far out she is because she is never far away, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dog that likes to be with me as much as she does. Whenever I drop the tailgate she's in the truck and eager to jump into the dog box.

She’s fun to watch darting in and out of the cover, searching for most anything, and when she gets whiff of a grouse she bounces up on her hind legs in true Springer fashion and literally rockets in to flush. She’s always loved to retrieve, but the freshly dropped grouse always seem to surprise her with a mouthful of feathers that she hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with. But she always brings ‘em in and I can’t imagine losing a bird over her.

There are a few folks who can still step off the back porch with a shotgun and whistle up the dog that’s been busy keeping chipmunks from getting under the house and keeping an eye out for strangers coming up the drive. They walk out through the woods and fields following a dog that’s forgotten about chipmunks for grouse and pheasants. If there’s a pond or stream nearby there could be a chance to jump a wood duck or mallard. If pooch comes by a rabbit she’ll roust that out, as well, and retrieve it happily if the gunner takes it.

I was happy to often have some sort of spaniel around the house when I was growing up. They are the kind of dog that is great for a kid, because they’d join my friends and me and run alongside our bikes as we pedaled down to the swimming hole and happily splash in with us. They’d retrieve any baseball that was hit out into the long grass, help us find frogs and snakes, and they’d be in our tent when we camped giving us great comfort against any possible marauding wolves or bears. In the fall they eagerly started game birds for us to try for as we learned to wing shoot and were quick to bring ‘em in when we did connect.

While I surely love finding a pointing dog in deep cover with a grouse nailed in front of him, I’ve come to enjoy walking down an easy-going trail and letting the spaniel flush what she can near me. Perhaps she won’t find as many birds as a wide searching setter, but she found three this morning on the short loop we made and I had some easy shooting right from the trail. It may be that there are good numbers of grouse this year, but she’s found enough birds on several different hunts to rival the bigger running setters. And as she was cheerfully delivering my Halloween grouse she paused, looked left and dropped the bird she carried. I read her right and reached for the rear trigger just as she darted and flushed a second bird. That grouse came right at me and I should have taken it then, but I hesitated and tried for it when it turned and crossed in front of me about 15 feet away. I missed, which may have been good at that point blank range and it disappeared into the thick balsams. Molly made a search for the long gone bird and returned satisfied to grab the one she’d dropped and finish her retrieve. Neat stuff.

The first gundog of my adult life was a big liver colored male Springer we named Tyler. He did himself proud on grouse and woodcock, of course, but also pheasants, snipe, and ducks. I hope I get the chances to give Molly the same opportunities.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

taking time for trout...

I woke to a light rain drumming my tent, but it wasn’t enough to keep the wild turkeys from announcing the beginning of another day. I’d slept the night through and was happy and peaceful camped there in Trout Valley. I was in southeast MN trout stream country and had enjoyed catching and releasing brown trout on my hand-tied flies the day before. Cold, spring fed water lapped around my light waders and kept me feeling cool on the hot, sunny day. Even my casting was going well, and I was thinking I was doing exactly what I was meant to do.

I grew up fishing those very streams with an old bamboo rod of my grandfather’s until I could put together enough muskrat trapping money for the ultra-light spinning outfit that appeared so deadly. In my younger days I suppose it was more important for me to catch fish by whatever method seemed easiest, and the more and bigger the better. But it wasn’t long away from those crystal clear spring-fed creeks and rivers before I missed the activity and satisfaction of casting a tiny fly from a decent fly rod. I’ve visited those streams sparingly over the years, mostly during the winter catch & release season, but I hadn’t camped in that country since I was in high school.

I still remember the day when the river called louder than the school bell so I drove my old ’54 Ford pickup down into the Whitewater valley and spent the day in the company of hardwood trees and sunshine and trout rather than teachers and the walls of a building. On my drive home I noticed a familiar looking car on the side of the road but forgot it quickly, trying to come up with a story of how I came from school with a creel full of trout that Mom might believe. The next morning a shop teacher pulled me aside as I entered his class and told me to grab a floor jack and air tank and go and fetch his car. Seems it had a flat and the spare was also without air. I asked where I might find his car and he exclaimed, “You know darn well where my car is because I took the day off to go fishing and when I finished I saw your truck down on the south branch!” He was on to me. “You must have driven past it on your way home! Take one of your buddies with you,” he added. So Ken Stock and I spent our class that day retrieving a teacher’s car. You’d think a shop instructor would have his vehicle in good repair. Anyway, I doubt there are many teachers like that, anymore. That’s too bad.

The rain was letting up while my coffee was boiling and I pulled on my waders and rain jacket for the morning fishing. A quick breakfast and I headed to the south branch, that same water I was caught playing hooky on those years back. On the stream I was casting a small dry fly into riffles, mimicking the technique I was successful with the evening before, when I spotted a rising fish in a slick pool just upstream. After a careful stalk I cast to lay my line just short of the fish, hoping not to spook it yet getting the drift just right to tempt the trout. The fourth cast worked and I had the fish on! It was the biggest of the trip and a great way to cap the morning. I posed the fish for a moment lying in the net and took photos to add to the other beautiful shots I taken of the trout, turkeys, and river valley scenes that I’d missed for so long. Then I bent to remove the hook from the trout’s lip and dropped my camera into the river. It was swept away in an instant. I splashed downstream hoping against hope to see it tumbling in the current, but to no avail. I stood bemoaning my misfortune when my net and rod came shooting by! A quick lunge and I saved them, at least.

After a couple of days of feeling like an accomplished, sophisticated fly angler who knows what he’s doing -- dropping my camera made me realize those hours fishing and camping were a gift I’d be wise to accept with humility, because I can still be just a clumsy, bumbling fool.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Grouse are hatched & hatching...

This is the time of year to be thinking more about fishing than working, or mowing the lawn, or household chores, or just about anything, I suppose. I even take a break from thinking about hunting … well, just a little, I guess.

Yesterday I sat in the yard in the sunlight and read a book and sipped a cold beer while the girls did the same. It was Memorial Day and though we didn’t drive to town to take part in any of the official celebration we are well aware and grateful for the freedoms we have. And sitting in the warm sun yesterday enjoying the beautiful weather made it easy to appreciate how lucky we are.

Jack lay at my side so I could rest my hand on his haunch while I read, but every now or then he would hear a squirrel or chipmunk and tear off into the woods to secure my safety. When he gave up the quest he would trot back in all setter regality and again rest in the soft grass. He’s a well built dog and I’d admire how dignified he looked until he’d jump up and chase dragonflies and their shadows. Jack is no pup, anymore, but I doubt he’ll ever grow up. Ty, the senior member of Team Bird Dog, watched from the shade of the birch tree, refusing any part of such antics.

Grouse had been drumming since March and I’ve heard them steadily up until about a week ago. But I haven’t forgotten them and after a while I hopped on my mountain bike to check a couple of nests I came upon last week. I left the setters home but took a camera in hopes of getting some decent photos, and was happy my little digital camera worked OK. The last time I took any quality wildlife photos I was using my expensive film shooting SLR with telephoto lens, and I’ve yet to replace it with a digital model.

I knew where the hens were sitting, but it took some time to locate them in their perfect camouflage. Actually, I found only one hen still nesting, the other had left with her brood of eight in tow, leaving only egg shells to mark the spot. I know the survival rate of baby grouse isn’t all that good, but it’s almost surprising any survive at all. I wonder how many predators passed the sitting hen as she watched motionless, exuding little scent thanks to Nature’s defense system. I saw coyote tracks within a stone’s throw of her nest and I’ve seen plenty of fox in the area. It’s a mystery how the sharp eyes of hawks and owls miss her during the weeks she incubates the eggs.

Since early spring I’ve searched out and found the drummers on their logs, then listened to their drumming efforts to coax a mate. It’s neat to see the effort was successful with the hens on nests, and finally the hatched eggs. Now I can hit the lakes and streams with fishing rod in hand and only have to worry about the grouse through the summer months until autumn, when, of course, they’ll worry about me.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

spring has sprung...

It’s hard to complain when Spring comes early. We’re all eager to enjoy some sunshine and open the windows for some new and fresh air. Robins are hopping around the yard, and ducks and geese are finding the open water. There is still some ice on a few lakes, but the four or five rivers I crossed today are flowing free. There are those who will worry over fire danger, and I suppose there’s truth in that, but I’m going to enjoy things while I can.

I’m going to be out in these spring woods with a couple of bird dogs who know their business better than I do. As a matter of fact, the setters don’t really need me for much, except I think they take some pride in finding and pointing grouse for me. Someone has to be there to give them a bit of praise, a pat on the head, and a ride home for supper -- and I sure enjoy watching them work so I might as well be the guy following them.

Even in the leafless woods the dogs can be hard to keep track of. Nowadays there are all kinds of electronic devices for the sole purpose of locating bird dogs. There are even GPS units you can buckle on your pup and watch his progress on a handheld screen. I don’t have much of that stuff; partly because I don’t trust batteries, I’m technologically inept, and that stuff costs real money. I do hang a bell from their collars and sometimes have a beeper that will sound off when they stop to point a bird, and that seems enough for me.

I like working dogs in the spring. After a winter’s worth of snow and cold it feels good to walk on good old Mother Earth. The white dogs flashing back and forth in the grey and brown cover are exciting, and when they find a grouse I fire my training pistol over their points. I suppose the dogs just chalk it up as another miss, just like hunting season. Oh, I love the smell of burnt powder, even if it’s from a blank gun!
Woodcock are a sure sign of the season and a couple of days ago Ty found the first of the year for us. We don’t find as many as we used to; the little russet fellows are having a harder time surviving these days, so we don’t shoot as many either. But they’re sure fun to work a dog on and, as an indicator species, I’d be right worried if there were none. That same evening I drove to a woods meadow I know of hoping to hear and see a woodcock or two performing their annual mating sky dance. I sat quietly and waited while dusk approached, and heard the high pitched hooting of a saw-whet owl and the snipes “woo-woo-woo” until 7:50 when I heard the unmistakable “PEENT!” Then again, and several more times before the male woodcock took wing and rose up over the meadow and into the clear sky. It was a classic scene under a nearly full rising moon – I watched the bird spiral higher until it was out of sight. Then I heard its twittering chuckle and suddenly the bird shot across before me and settled on the ground to quickly start peenting again. I watched the display several times before deciding all was right with the world, and headed home.

So if you're out exploring some backroad and see a tall, kind of ragged fellow leaning on his truck at a woods clearing with a couple of tired setters in the back, don't be afraid to say hello -- it's just me watching for woodcock.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

only thing to do...

Dad and I were sitting in the ice house trying for trout the other morning and not having much success catching them. We were, however, enjoying the morning warm near the heater and sipping coffee and munching sandwiches. His little spaniel, Molly, was begging for attention and now and then I’d step out to throw the retrieving dummy for her. All in all, it was a pleasing way to spend a winter’s morn, fish or no fish.

I guess no one was catching much because of the half dozen others we shared the lake with, four of them made their way over to see how we were doing. We chatted about the fishing for awhile and one of the guys remarked that he fished because there was nothing else to do. Hhmmm…

This is the time of year I start getting withdrawal symptoms from the hunting season. The holiday madness and getting accustomed to dealing with the first snowfalls keeps me busy and occupied, but by February things have usually settled down and I get to wishing I was following a dog with a gun, or casting a fly to trout or smallmouth. Cold nights are good for tying a few flies and thinking about rising fish and warm camps. I have a few favorite patterns I’ll stock up on to replace what I lost last summer. I wish I could say those flies were lost on big fish, but just as likely they are still hanging from some high tree branch or rusting on the submerged logs they were impaled on. I get kind of crazy with the bass flies, and I like to believe my clown-colored wine-cork poppers are more attractive than they are. I know I’ll tie up some lead-head Clousers after catching nice smallmouth bass in the BWCA last June.

For a few years I traveled to Tennessee to run dogs on bobwhite quail field trials about this time of year. Once I went to Georgia and gunned quail on a friend’s plantation. Those trips aren’t as easy to pull off right now, so I practice mounting my shotgun in the house, re-living the hits and misses of last Fall, vowing to be a better shot next year -- and reading the best shooting writing I can find. A glass of whiskey on a quiet night with a good book is a real pleasure to me, and just as good is hot coffee on a cold morning letting the day dawn reading that same book. It’s inspiring, and I’m keen to get the dogs out for a run when they beg at my knee, even if it’s trudging through the snow. Jack and I took a long trek yesterday and found one deer shed and all kinds of wildlife tracks. Of course, grouse tracks in the snow are among my favorite and get my heart beating a bit faster.

I don’t burn as much wood to heat my house as I once did, but I still burn some. I live on a little patch of ground surrounded by mostly aspen, some of which are over-mature and in need of cutting. There are some that might make good lumber but I have no interesting in any kind of logging venture. I just walk around and drop what I have enough ambition to split into firewood. I know there is better firewood than popple, and sometimes I take some birch and maple when it’s convenient, but a stove full of dry popple heats the house nicely and the thermostat can’t tell what kind of wood is burning. I knock the trees over and block and split where they fall. My old snowmachine pulls a little sled-full of wood over to the shed where I unload and stack it when there’s room under the roof. It’s a small scale, leisurely run outfit that suits me fine.

There are four pairs of skis in my basement ready to go, and I still have to re-lace my snowshoes. The band I play music with seems to get busier and busier and we've spent some weekends out of the area, which has been nothing but fun. Don’t forget about those home projects that can’t get done in the summer because, well… it’s summer. Hunting seasons are far too short for anything but hunting so if anything is going to get done around the house it’ll have to be during the winter.

I wish ice fishing was the only thing to do.