Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Tailgate Shot

A recent post on the Facebook group Grouse Dogs about ATVers displaying birds they had ground-swatted and shot out of trees set me to thinking about my own hunting practices, as well as how I convey my success to the world.  I'm guilty as charged (see above) of using the tailgate pose to demonstrate success in the field for a variety of reasons. Many times I forget the camera at home, or don't use it in the field in the rush of the moment, and the only way to record the day is a snapshot in the driveway like this.  Other times, I fall into the trap of the numbers game.

What doesn't get photographed are the many days, like yesterday, when I come home empty-handed, but still enjoyed the hour or so Jenkins and I rambled through the woods.  Perhaps I should start photographing the birdless tailgate shot because those days can be just as, or even more, successful than heavy gamebag days.  Here in America we use the tailgate pose because we too often get caught up in numbers, like comparing salaries to determine who has the more successful career.  And when the limit is four or five or whatever, we use that as the measuring stick. It's not like we drive 55 or 60 when the speed limit is 70.  We drive 75 or 80 usually.  (My speed limit analogy isn't suggesting, dear readers, that you're poachers).  Numbers, however, don't tell a quarter of the story.

Sure, there's not much more I like than the warmth and heft of a just shot grouse riding in my gamebag up against the small of my back.  A bird in hand does define success: all the hours of dog training, the miles of walking, the shells spent practicing a quick and smooth swing.  Not much beats seeing that bird tumble out of the sky.  More birds should mean more success compounded exponentially, right?   

The older I get the more I value each and every bird.  These days I worry about shooting too many birds and the law of diminishing returns.  Each bird is a gift, not a number to be tallied on a scoreboard.  I hope you don't think I'm a softie, but sometimes I feel like kneeling down next to the dog with the bird in hand and crying tears of joy.  I feel like I have won the lottery, like manna from heaven was just dropped into my hands, and it just takes that one bird.  I need to remind myself of this from time to time.  Especially at this time of year.                  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Deer Hunt or Grouse Hunt?

Even though the freezer is low on venison, it's not a difficult choice for me. Besides if it's just a matter of meat in the freezer, I'm much more adept at grouse hunting than deer hunting.  There were a dozen other things I should have been doing yesterday -- grading papers, prepping for class, finishing that article with the looming deadline -- but a patch of blue in the sky and temps in the mid-40s had me loading my gear and Fergus into the car and driving north.

I wasn't disappointed.  About 50 yards from where we parked, Fergus slammed into a point, his head lower than his hips, his tail arced ever so slightly.  I hustled up to him and walked a wide circle around his point and then straight at his head.  When I was about ten yards from him, the bird came up out of a clump of tag alders, a left to right crossing shot in open woods.  I dropped it, and we had our first bird.  I could have packed it in right then and there and been happy.   I almost did, thinking about all the stuff left undone back home.

We got back to the trail, and I turned right away from the car and headed south toward some cover a mile or so from the parking lot.  I had not been there this season and wanted to check it out.  But Fergus had other ideas.  As we moved south, he kept working to the east off the trail into a two-year-old popple cutting.  These trees were about head high, not a place where I would expect grouse to hang out.  I called Fergus back to me twice, and both times he ran straight back into the cutting.  The third time, I followed.  In 20 years of hunting this cover, I had never worked this way, always bypassing it for what I thought we greener pastures to the south.  

In short order, Fergus went on point, and again I hustled up to the dog. Before I could get there, two grouse blew out of the cutting, 50 or 60 yards out, and I watched them bore to the east.  Fergus broke (Bad Dog!) and busted three more birds, who followed the first pair.  I whoaed him and set him for a short time, and then we set off after the birds, going deeper into terra incognito. Another 150 to 200 yards east and Fergus pointed.  Again two birds flushed out of range as I moved up to him.  Fergus worked to his left a few steps and locked up again on the edge of some old tag alders that bordered a marsh.  I worked up on the other open side of the tags, and the bird came out on my side low and hard, offering me a rare wide open shot on a grouse.  I tumbled that birds as well, and was feeling quite proud of myself for going 2-for-2 with my old Ithaca as I inspected the bird and Fergus buried his nose in the breast feathers.

We kept going east, and Fergus had five more points.  One bird blew out of a balsam fir, two I never saw, another came up behind me and a pair flushed out of tag alders and I missed the first one with two shots, ruining my chance for a double.  I really didn't care that I never put another bird in the bag. After all, it was December, and I wanted to leave some seed birds for the following year.  Judging from the dozen or so we put up, there would be plenty in this spot -- a spot I'm sure I will now hunt for years to come.

No venison, but I did get two more birds for the freezer -- and a pile of memories for the coming winter.