Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Gunning before winter

You usually figure if you can see the grouse you can kill it. In the mostly tight cover we hunt around here the bird often disappears behind bush or tree before it is out of shotgun range, but it seems I have a hard time remembering that. Many times I've stood flat-footed after passing a shot I thought was too far only to realize the grouse was easily within shooting distance when I last saw it. Sometimes, however, they are just too far out for a chance.

I'd just turned the corner and peered at the long straight uphill trail that would lead to the better cover I wanted to hunt. My busy setter, Gabs, was out on my left side darting in and out of the tangled maze of blowdowns in overgrown mixed balsam, maple, and popple. I could hear her bell clearly enough and could see her every few seconds zigzagging through the thick stuff in her quest for birds, though I've known her to get more interested in pine squirrels than I like. And I can't say she's totally adverse to rabbits, either. I started up the hill when a jumpy grouse took wing ahead. It was probably 30 yards out when it flushed and though there was a chance one or two of my load of 7 1/2s might have caught up and hurt it, this one seemed truly too far to shoot. The bird flew straight up the trail to the top of the hill and I thought we might find it again.

It had been a few years since I'd been on that trail and up top things were looking familiar and welcoming again. Little stands of pine and balsam broke up the aspens and along the way the trail dipped to little creeks and runoffs lined with alders and willows. Sunshine glowed on rock outcroppings common here near the Canadian border and patches of hard stunted scrub oaks rattled their few remaining leaves. I stayed the easy route on the trail and let Gabby do her thing in the cover with little direction from me.

My heart quickened a few beats when we came to a swale of young aspen that dropped off to the right. Gabs was in there and making game, trying to work out the scent and get a locate on the bird. I stood ready and waiting, guessing the grouse was a runner. Suddenly the explosive whir of wings started behind me and I spun around to see a big grouse highlighted in the sun and speeding for the conifers just ahead of it. I hardly recall raising my gun but the shot felt right and a moment later I heard the throes of wings beating the ground and saw a feather drifting in the air against the green balsam backdrop. Gabby came over and pointed the dead bird on the ground and I lifted the mature male grouse in my hand.

A big grouse adds a comfortable heft to a gamebag and we continued on. At a muddy crossing I tried to stay dry while Gabs pushed into the alder run and locked on point. I followed in clumsy, splashy fashion and heard a grouse flush before I had any hope of a try. After that another went out wild just before we reached my friend's deer camp. I used to know where the key was hidden but there'd been some re-modeling since I'd last been there and I couldn't find it. Just as well, however, as it was a beauty of a day and we sat at the outdoor table for a rest. In four days the deer hunters would be here patrolling the woods for venison.

We took the shortcut route on our return and at the fork I watched Gabby quickly check her pace, spin to the side, take a slow tentative step and stretch out to an intense point. She was under a stand of red pines that had that clear, park-like look and the only thing between her and me was a narrow strip of hazel and dogwood brush alongside the trail – hardly enough to hide a crouching grouse – but it was and the bird blew out across the trail when I stepped closer. My gun was up almost on it's own and the grouse folded in an eruption of feathers, centered by the pattern my shotgun threw at it, with little help from me.

That's how my wingshooting goes. When I see the bird well and have a bit of moment to do it right, like on the skeet range, I often end up watching the bird sail away unscathed over two smoking shotgun barrels. When they blast out like cannonballs and fall to the shot I stand wondering how it happened, wishing I could recall the sight picture when the trigger was touched.

I should have had another good chance when I paused at an overlook to scan a beaver pond and lost track of Gabby. Moving on I spotted her solid looking towards a blowdown. Her head was low and her rear was high with her tail straight up. Her legs were pushed forward as though she was trying to keep from getting any closer. A beautiful sight that had me thinking a woodcock must be lying close to her nose. I should have walked right up to her but of course I didn't. Instead I circled around to approach from her front, dead on. I pushed through the brush on the wrong side of the blowdown when a grouse exploded out from a few feet in front of Gabby and winged past her too low to offer a shot. She had the bird nailed and all I had to do was walk up and flush it away from her. Instead I went out and flushed it back at her. You'd think by now I'd be better at this!

We moved several more grouse before reaching the truck, I missed one and couldn't get a chance at the others. I suspect Gabby couldn't resist starting one she saw running away, but nobody's perfect. I broke out a sandwich and thermos on the tailgate. We were parked in a grassy meadow bordered by the narrow dirt road to the south, and an alder swamp and lowland river on the north. Gabby had her share of a sandwich while we watched a flock of geese overhead. The earthy smell of autumn and strong coffee were captivating and I wish I'd brought my pot and campstove instead of the thermos. Just so we could wait while coffee brewed and linger here a bit longer.

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