A BRACE of game birds: plural, two wild birds of the same type that have been killed for sport or food; from the Middle English or Old French word brace (brah-say), meaning “arms” hence a pair; a sporting term that dates back to about the year 1400.
A Brace of Woodcock
Walk out of the Nemadji State Forest with a brace of woodcock in your hunting vest and you have reason to feel a bit, well, “cocky.” Based on more than fifty years’ experience hunting nine different species of upland game birds, I proclaim the most difficult bird for the shotgunner to hit on the wing is the woodcock.
The American woodcock (scolopax minor) confusticates bird hunters like no other avian species can. The little brown-and-tan devil makes us rage at our ineptitude with a scattergun, curse at our dogs, throw empty shotshell hulls at the tops of laughing aspen trees. The woodcock erodes our confidence in our ability to hit anything smaller than a moose – a standing moose, not a running one. Our futility in hitting that nasty little bird in flight drives us to despair, makes us drink too much beer at the end of the hunt, and compels us to tell lies about the number of shells we expend to put a brace of birds in the bag.
If you knock down one woodcock for each three shots taken, you are doing better than The Over the Hill Gang on a typical day. If you count five or six empty hulls in your vest pocket for each bird in the bag, don’t feel bad: you’re doing as well as most woodcock hunters and better than many.
Frankly, I don’t know why we keep trying because it’s damned near impossible to gun scolopax in the north woods of Minnesota, partly because of the cock’s twisting, jinking, erratic escape flight from the leaf-covered floor of the aspen forests and alder bogs that are its preferred habitat, but mostly because those thickets are so dense the hunter must snap off his shots using a guess-point-and-fire style of shooting that would make an Orvis instructor wince.
But that’s the only way to try to take them. Attempt to use the standard swing-through or sustained-lead styles of wing shooting and the result will be: 1) the bird will disappear into the tangled treetops before you slap the trigger, 2) it will zigzag in the opposite direction of the swing of your barrels and be far outside the shot pattern you throw its way, 3) it will flare straight up or drop straight down and leave you looking at an empty patch of sky, 4) it will fly into your face and force you to spin around and take a wild going- away shot, or, 5) any combination of options 1-4.
The hunter’s humiliation is increased by the bird’s maddening habit of lying perfectly still under your dog’s rock-solid point until you virtually step on it to make it take wing. You know the bird is right there. You have all the time in the world to position yourself for the shot. You have a good idea of the path of its escape flight.
And you miss. First with the open-choked barrel, then with the tighter-choked barrel. Damn! Damn!! Just – DAMN!!!
So, you have a hint of my happy state of mind when I walked out of the Nemadji one afternoon this October with a brace of woodcock in my vest and five empty 28-gauges hulls in my pocket. But I wasn’t just happy. My emotions included relief, satisfaction, rejuvenation, flashes of joy bordering on elation. Reaching behind me to feel those two birds in the game pouch was not just a fleeting moment of false pride, it was an escape from perdition.
For ten months I had wondered if I would ever again hit a bird on the wing. A malady the ophthalmologist identified as central serous retinopathy afflicted first my right eye and then my left over the course of a few months, creating a blind spot in the dead center of each eye. CSR is a condition caused by fluid build-up behind the retina of the eye, deteriorating vision as the central retina detaches. There is no specific cause for the onset of CSR, I was told by medical specialists; it’s a rare retinal disorder that most commonly affects people in my age group.
Well, okay then. If restoring my vision demanded, I could probably give up beer and cigars and even jelly donuts, but there’s no preventive action I can take that will arrest the passage of time and its deleterious effects on my body. Would that I could stop my slide down the slippery slope to seventy years of age, but there’s nothing I can do, no vice from which I can refrain, no corrective measures I can adopt. The optometrist shrugged and admitted that medical science can’t explain the reasons for onset of CSR, and there is not much they can do to cure it.
Wait it out, he suggested. It may get better, They gave me a test sheet, a grid of lines with a dot in the middle, to test my vision daily. Like a pitcher with a sore arm, I tested it four or five times each day. And my vision did improve, ever so slowly. The blind spots grew smaller, although they never completely disappeared.
Shooting clay target games was frustration beyond bearing. The small orange-and-black targets would disappear into the void. I’m not a great shooter, but my typical scores a few years ago would be seventy-five or eighty on a 100-target course. Last summer I was seldom able to break more than fifty. This did not bode well for the next bird seasons, which are the focus of my life from the first week in October until Christmas.
The fateful day arrived, and I entered the aspen woods in dread, following my French spaniel Abbey who was in ecstasy. She loves woodcock hunting. She soon locked down a cock with a staunch point, and I stepped in front of her with gun ready. The bird rose, twisting and turning through still-leafy aspens, and I missed an easy shot. I did not even bother to fire the second barrel. The hunting life as I have known it was ended.
A few minutes later Abbey was on point over another bird. This one corkscrewed up wildly as I fired the first barrel and crested the treetops as I snapped off a second shot. And, miracle of miracles, the woodcock crumpled and tumbled to earth. Abbey found and retrieved it and placed it in my hand. My voice was croaky when I praised her with a “good girl!” My vision was more blurry than it had been for months – due to the tears in my eyes.
We took another before the morning was done. I held the brace of woodcock in my hands, thanked the red gods for the blessing of this day, and explained to Abbey that we were returning to the pickup
“There are more to shoot!” she insisted.
“Not on this day,” I said. “This day cannot possible get any better.”
More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page