Doing penance

Photo challenge: Somewhere in this photo a French spaniel is on point over a woodcock. Can you see her? Could you get to her to flush the bird? Could you attempt to shoot in this tangle of aspen? This is a typical day of woodcock hunting in the Nemadji State Forest.

Photo challenge: Somewhere in this photo a French spaniel is on point over a woodcock. Can you see her? Could you get to her to flush the bird? Could you attempt to shoot in this tangle of aspen? This is a typical day of woodcock hunting in the Nemadji State Forest.

Sasha, learned years ago that my “put it up” command meant she could release from point and cautiously flush the bird. Abbey and I have not yet established this bit of teamwork. She will not break her point, so I stumble into the brush in front of her nose to flush the skulking woodcock myself, as calm and collected as if I were poking a short stick into a den of angry rattlesnakes.

Doing penance

My days spent hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock in northern Minnesota must be self-imposed penance for sins that lurk in the dark cellar of my conscience. No one would endure this physical, mental, and emotional suffering unless there was some spiritual reward or divine compensation.

To shoot grouse and woodcock, one must hunt in the birds’ “prime” habitat. In Minnesota’s Nemadji State Forest that habitat is dense stands of aspen trees and alder shrubs, usually around the edges of marshes, bogs and flowages. Tough hunting for man and dog.

And nearly impossible shooting conditions for any shotgunner.

After each and every shot at a bird during this fall’s hunt, I made the mistake of tossing the empty shotshell hull into the game pouch of my hunting vest. When I returned home I dumped out the vest and counted the hulls that tumbled out into a loose pile on the deck: thirty-eight of them. For a total bag of eight woodcock and one grouse.

That’s 4.22 shots for every bird on the bag, if you are doing the math. But I console myself that two of those shotshells were fired at a tall spruce tree’s top branches. I had to clip off the limbs that had caught and ensnared the grouse as he had come cart-wheeling down after one of my hurried shots. Discount those two “pruning saw” shells from the number of wing shots I attempted and my average soars to an even 4.0 rounds per bird.

Not good. Certainly not the sort of shooting that would impress the champions of live pigeon tournaments in Europe and South America, but they shoot in an open field, not the aspen and alder tangles of the Nemadji. The degree of difficulty is considerably higher in these coverts that are so thick with tree stems that you sometimes have to search five minutes or more to find where your dog has gone on point over a ground-hugging woodcock.

Shooting instructors scold their tyro students for “spot shooting” – trying to break a clay target by snapping off a shot at the “best guess spot” where the swarm of shot pellets and the target might intersect –rather than smoothly tracking the target, swinging the barrel muzzles through it, establishing the correct lead, and then pulling the trigger.

Yes, that is the correct method for hitting birds on the wing, but it won’t work in the Nemadji where all attempts to hit a bird are spot-shooting and snap-shots. There is no other way. Try the track-and-swing-through technique on any bird that flushes from these jungles and your gun barrels will whack against a slender tree trunk, become snarled in web-like branches, or carom off a stalk or twig, making a slapstick comedy of your attempts to shoot with skeet range form and smoothness.

A few years of hunting experiences in the Nemadji can destroy any shooting confidence you may built up over a lifetime on the clay targets ranges, to the point where you begin to talk to yourself as your push you way into those thickets of second-growth aspens. The young trees are about ten or twelve feet tall, two to three inches in diameter, and still hold enough leaves to obscure your sight of any woodcock that helicopters straight up from the woodland floor.

“Good cover. Excellent cover. There’s going to be a cock or two in here. No, probably a grouse. Shoot fast. No, take your time. Wait until the bird peaks. No, snap off a shot as quickly as you can. Walk right in on the dog’s point to panic the bird. No, maneuver yourself around to get in a good shooting position.”

This proposal-and-counterproposal argument in my head was exacerbated this year by the faultless track-and-point work of my French spaniel, Abbey, two years old and in her second season of woodcock hunting. She would come to a rock-solid point over a tight-sitting cock and would hold steady for as long as it took me to find her and flush the bird. Beautiful style and technique, but hard on my nerves.

My older French spaniel, Sasha, learned years ago that my “put it up” command meant she could release from point and cautiously flush the bird. Abbey and I have not yet established this bit of teamwork. She will not break her point, so I stumble into the brush in front of her nose to flush the skulking woodcock myself, as calm and collected as if I were poking a short stick into a den of angry rattlesnakes.

The cock comes flapping out of hiding, flying more like a bat than a bird, and flutters this way and that, back and forth, around and through trees, dipping and diving. I poke the barrels of my gun in a dozen directions, trying to match the twists and turns of the bird’s escape flight. I usually fire one hurried and misdirected shot, followed two seconds later by a carefully aimed but equally misdirected shot.

The final line of my woodcock shooting monologue is always the same. “Damn! Sorry, Abbey. No bird.”

Twice over a three-day hunt she replied, “Yes, bird!” and plunged off through the brush and grassy understory to retrieve it. My woodcock shooting technique is so bad that I sometimes fail to see that I have in fact winged the bird. Fortunately, both Abbey and Sasha are more observant. Or perhaps unfortunately, since they have a habit of looking back at me after a typical two-barrel miss and asking, “How could you possibly miss that one?”

Foolish question, really. I can miss any woodcock, but am especially adept at missing those that rise in front of picture perfect points by my dogs.

Why do I do this? Penance. Obviously, it’s a bird hunter’s penance.

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If you enjoy reading the posts on my blog, Dispatches from a Northern Town, you may like reading my book Crazy Old Coot, a collection of essays about bird hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and the fascinating people who pursue the sport. Available in Kindle and paperback editions at amazon.com.

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About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
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3 Responses to Doing penance

  1. chrispdm1 says:

    Good, fun article!! I try to refrain from hunting grouse deep in the bush. You almost make me want to do it… I doubt my chessie would point though.

    • You’d have to be a bit quicker with a Chessie. I hunted grouse 25 years with springers; even more challenging than hunting them with pointing dogs. Chessie would be a great dog for finding dead birds in those aspen thickets, though.

      • chrispdm1 says:

        I have actually taken him out for grouse once. We found one and I managed to call him back before he rushed at it, but it flew before I shot at it.

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