Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Partnership For Success

     The autumn woods, alive with kaleidoscopic colors, and the moist earthy smells of composting leaves, religiously draw sportsmen, and their dogs to impenetrable tangles of thorn, and boot swallowing bramble in search of grouse and woodcock every year. Many of them, like myself, are prone to temporary bouts of amnesia, forgetting birthdays, names, and the where-a-bouts of the honey do list, as the humidity of summer passes, and the temperature slowly falls. It's a time of the year when a gundogs place in the family pecking order quickly rises, while shotguns of every imaginable configuration are cleaned, inspected, and cleaned again. Familiar grouse coverts, and tote roads worn with boot traffic bring a sense of relief like no easy chair and tumbler has ever provided during the off season. While the pleasure of watching ones dog course the woods in search of grouse scent is held in higher esteem than a first class upgrade, and the intensity of a bird well pointed holds more excitement than a Stanley Cup over-time game, the end result sometimes fizzles, rather than pops, because no extra hours on the sporting clays course, nor weekends working with dog trainers can take the survival instinct out of the grouse.

     Pointing dogs, being the choice of most grouse hunters, can reveal the location of quite a few grouse in their life time, but making the most of the situation requires more than just a heads up dog, and a keen shooting eye. The Ruffed Grouse's compulsion to run requires dog and handler to form a partnership to put birds before the gun. Countless water-colors depict the lone hunter and his staunch dog, locked onto a grouse flushing straight away from the base of a tree in a long abandoned orchard, but it seldom happens this way. The idea of strolling behind your dog, and sauntering up to his point for a shot may work on plantations lousy with quail, but in the grouse woods, especially when hunting solo, it's better to be proactive. Not only will a little forward thinking put more birds in your bag, but it'll greatly improve the bond between man and dog. Here are a few tips that will help you and your dog to enjoy more grouse hunting success, no matter how you define it.

     Trust your dogs nose- For the most part, the upland hunter uses a dog because it's olfactory system has the ability to detect and decipher the tasty smells of nature. As the scent moves from the dogs nose to it's brain, the dog communicates to us it's excitement through subtle changes in body movement. How we react to that movement can either break or seal a deal. While a dog should hunt for the handler, rather than going where, and doing what it pleases, it should be given some latitude. A dog that lifts it's head, and looks in a direction other than that being traveled might be telling you something, and encouraged to investigate. The same with a dog who, while running a beat, circles back and double checks an area behind you. Grouse are cunning, and will circle around on occasion. Though we'd like to think we're pressuring a bird, and moving it ahead, that's not always the case. A dog that checks it's back trail could well end up pointing a bird behind you.

     Resist stopping the dog- The Whoa command is a great command. It ensures steadiness in a young dog, can re-enforce manners when running multiple dogs, and can be a great safety tool when near roadways. Used too often, it can give a running grouse a head start every time you use it. Once a dog has become grouse wise, and knows not to crowd birds, the whoa command should be used sparingly. Allowing your dog to reposition as the grouse moves on keeps both you, and the dog closer to the bird as it try's to make it's escape. A dog with good grouse sense will expertly handle all the repositioning on it's own, until pinning the bird. To build this grouse sense in your dog you've got trust him. Laying off the whoa command allow this to happen, and strengthens the bond you two share, as well as increase your enjoyment afield together. Refraining from using the command also keeps you from having to walk over and release the dog after it has complied with the command.

     Get Ahead- Hand in hand with allowing your dog to reposition, and probably the biggest piece of the partnership puzzle, is knowing when to get ahead of your dog. I'm not talking about moving in on a point, but hustling well ahead and letting the dog work towards you. Once a dog has become birdy, and it is clear it's working the hot scent of a runner, make a big loop forward so as to end up between 30 to 50 yards ahead of him. Then either start working back towards him slowly, or move back and forth perpendicular to his path, as he herds the running grouse forward. Once the bird realizes it's between the two of you it'll find a hide out, and be pointed. This tactic is easy if you hunting along a tote, or a gated road, as you can get on the road and quickly move ahead. A word of caution, however. This tactic is for the solo hunter. When hunting with others safety is paramount; always know where your shooting partners are. It is best, if hunting with a group, to refrain from having someone circle ahead, but rather have two flankers, designated as shooters, move forward quickly, parallel to the track of the dog. This will cause a grouse to either hold until it can be pointed, or come unglued.

     Silence is golden- keeping voice communications to a minimum will leave the wary grouse guessing as to your where-a-bouts until it's too late. When your dog is pushing a running grouse, your dog represents the imminent threat to the bird, and it's only thinking about escaping the dog. When you begin pushing in on a point, the threat changes, and you become the imminent threat. The bird is now focused of you. Why alert the grouse to your presents before it's absolutely necessary by giving commands, or encouragement? Letting your presence be a surprise might just be the thing needed to force the grouse to make a mistake in choosing it's escape path, putting right in front of your muzzles.

     Know your coverts- Grouse can be predictable. If you are familiar with your cover, you'll have a better understanding of how the grouse move about in that cover. Some smaller covers will allow you to predict with stunning accuracy where, and which direction a grouse will flush. When this happens you can begin to dissect the cover by casting your dog in a direction you know will influence a birds behavior on the ground. By paying attention to the features In coverts you're intimately familiar with, you will begin to see similar feature in new coverts, and can adapt a strategy for you and the dog based experience elsewhere. Speeding up, or slowing down, based on experience elsewhere may well have you and your dog pinning birds quicker and easier.

     Double the dog- Not only is it exciting watching two dogs working in tandem, but it's double the scenting power. Should you be lucky enough to have two pointing dogs this maybe something you want to try. Naturally, the dogs should hunt independently, and have different ranges. The wider, bigger running dog has as much chance of pressuring a bird to move towards you, as it comes around on it's beat, as it does away. When it does, the bird will find itself between the two dogs. You'll find this represents a different kind of threat to the grouse, causing them to hold sooner, ground routes cut off.

     Next time you're in the woods, just you and the dog, think about these tips, and give one, or all of them a try. I think they'll help you get productive points quicker. Your dog works hard for you, and you should work just as hard for him. After all, your relationship is real a partnership, and the success of the solo wingshooter depends on the success of the dog, so help him out. You're game bag will appreciate it.

**This is a piece I wrote back in June and shopped around to some outdoor publications. While I recieved good feed back from editors who liked the idea, none wanted to spend money on it. Seems budgets are tight in the periodical world right now. Anyway, here it is now for your enjoyment.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Grouse Camp '11

     Last Wednesday Ginger and I pointed the car north right about the time the sun was peeking over the horizon. With a steaming cup of coffee, a cooler full of groceries, and an amped up puppy I headed to grouse camp where for five days my good friend Bryan, and I would chase grouse, woodcock, and bunnies. As usual we'd be hunting with the same cast of characters who make the trip to hunt with us. Of course, sometimes we make the trip to hunt with them.

     Our grouse camp has been a tradition for about 12 years now, but has changed in form slightly over the years. When we started organizing the camp most of us lived in Massachusetts, so making the trip to Coos county, New Hampshire twice a season was easy. As job transfers, and promotions found a few relocating to NYC and Pa it became time to rethink the location of camp. For a few years we made the trip to Pa, but that wasn't working out too good for everyone. We ended up finding a location in western NY where the bird numbers were good, and the driving time reasonable for everyone.

     This year, however, things didn't shape up as we'd wanted them to, so Bryan and I, decided to salvage the season by booking a cabin in Coos county again. Of course invitations were sent out, and soon it was realized that we'd gone from no camp, back to our original camp up north. The differences didn't end there. A couple members could make it due to family and work commitments. There were dog issues, too. Most of the dogs of the earlier camps were either retired, or passed on. This left us with an elderly GSP, Lula, a middle aged Chessie, Pogue, and a young Lab, Ruby. Yes, my Springer Pup, Ginger, made the trip, but she wouldn't hunt; she's not ready yet.

     There are a lot of ways to measure success when it comes to hunting, and grouse hunting is no exception. It's also rare that you meet someone at a camp that doesn't wish they'd killed a few more grouse, so it's hard to measure along the birds killed scale. So how is the success measured?

     Here's how I see it; The company was exceptional. To be able to share a camp with like minded, ethical sportsman, who have become good friends over the years is hard to beat.

     Like always, we all pride ourselves in our abilities in the kitchen. Grilled woodcock, pulled pork, T-bone steaks, and beef stew are just a few of the culinary delights we feasted on. Followed each evening by a dram of scotch, or a glass wine was the cherry atop the Sundae.

     Dog work, too, provided some great entertainment. Pogue, unfortunately came up lame early and was left to rest, but Ruby and Lula both put on a show. Lula has a rather metered gate, and isn't very fast, but proved to be methodical. At past camps she had always found herself beaten to the birds. Without faster legs in camp this year she was pointing grouse and woodcock right out of the box. Seeing a weekend pheasant dog perform like this for us was a joy. And Ruby, whose been trained strictly as a duck dog hit her stride in the uplands. Once a species was kicked up, and shot over her, she took in the info needed to track em down, and put em in front of the gun. Yet another grand performance.

     The weather held out pretty good, too. We got some rain in the mornings, but by the time we were ready to hit the woods it had usually passed. The Temp held in the high 40's, and low 50's, and the overcast sky kept the sun from blinding anyone as they swung on a bird.

     The area of the county we were staying in being known for it's grouse population, mean that the other cabins were almost always occupied by other bird hunters, and the occasional moose hunter. This year was no exception, but in the mornings when everyone let their dogs out, rather than seeing pointers, setters, and GSPs running around the lawn, it was all spaniels. A contingent from the Patriot Sporting Spaniel Club, in New Hampshire happened to be there the same time we were. Incidentally, the Secretary of the club, who I'd been having an e-mail exchange with about membership just the week before, was in the cabin next to our. By the time we left I'd met 7 members of the club, and 15 spaniels.

     There is one thing I learned I need to work on for future grouse camps. My video skills are lacking, and I didn't manage the camera as well as I could have. Sorry. Not much video to share with you all. but here are a couple. One is of the All Seasons Outdoor "pro staffers" getting ready to get in the woods. The other is Bryan showing off a nice grouse he scratched down.

     The hardest thing about grouse camp is waiting for it to get here. I'm not going to have to wait too long, as I'm headed back up, solo this time, to hit the woods for 4 more days. But then the waiting begins, and as Ginger progresses in her training I'm sure it'll seem like the time until next grouse camp is crawling by. Fortunately I have local grouse and woodcock to chase, as well as ducks, and deer. But it's the grouse that makes the blood course through my veins.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Time To Occupy

I'm sure you've noticed, like I have that an "occupy" movement has been sweeping across the country, and maybe even the globe, now. I guess which ever side of the turmoil coin you look at there is something to be angry about. I haven't really studied the issues, and I probably should, but it has occurred to me that while the occupiers are occupying, and standing up for their cause(s), they might want to study another cause they can add to the list. As I've stated, I haven't studied the issues, so I may be remiss in suggesting it, but the occupiers seem to not have noticed that their comfort in tent city has been much better than expected for October. Yup. The weather has supported their movement. And maybe it should serve as an indicator that they should add climate change to their agenda.

I don't much believe the global warming theory, but I do believe that something is affecting the behavior of our weather systems, and our climate. I'm also pretty certain that we (the humans inhabiting the planet) are responsible for it. I probably contribute my share to the destruction, too, having moved some years ago to an area which requires me to have a car. Whether emission is a factor or not in the climate issue, I drive way more than I should; I drive to work, the grocery store, into town, to the gym, to the kennel, and go hunting and fishing. Some things are unavoidable, and driving to escape the city will remain a neseccary evil.

I have decided, in the spirit of the occupy movement, and their avoidance of the climate change issue to hold my own "occupation". Unfortunately, it comes with a little environmental sacrifice, and a bit of road time, but tomorrow morning I will occupy the drivers seat of my car for about 4 hours, as I head north to newest hot bed of protest; Occupy Grouse Camp.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Things You Should Check Out, Youtube Channel

The All Seasons Outdoors Youtube channel is up and running, and I will be posting more outdoor related videos as I get them. You can look forward to seeing dog training, hunting, fishing, and a variety of other interesting videos, which hopefully will be enjoyable and helpful. Many of the videos you will have seen before, as I intend to embed video into related stories. I hope you enjoy it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Grouse Cover 101

The upland tradition is alive, taking place in various forms all across the country. In the west hunters carry themselves across hostile rocky terrain in search of Chukars, while down south hunters in wagons drawn by mules, follow muscular Pointers across plantations brimming with quail. The Dakotas see military like formations of walkers and blockers push hundreds of pheasant across the sky, and in the woodlands of New England picturesque Setters, and side by side shotguns chase Ruffed Grouse through the autumn colors. For many in New England, however, the uplands consists of wildlife management areas, generously stocked with pheasants. American favorite game bird, once wild to these parts, but now a rarity, has found it's demand much greater than it's supply. The Ruffed Grouse, and the Woodcock, by contrast, are still wild, and in many places abundant. And finding them may not be as hard as you'd imagine.

Surprisingly, I've found that many uplanders don't pursue the ruffed grouse.  Not many uplanders don't know what a grouse is, but haven't made the effort to give them a go. The reasons vary, and many may not have an interest, but for those that do, and would like to try, there is only one thing you need to know to make a go of it; What is grouse habitat.

Like all animals in the forest, grouse inhabit a particular habitat. I learned a long time ago, that to be a successful grouse hunter, one doesn't hunt grouse, one hunts grouse habitat (cover). That is; if you try to find grouse buy looking for grouse, you won't find many, but if you try to find grouse by finding where they want to be, they'll be there. But what is grouse habitat? How can I find it? Let's take a look.

The first thing to know is that grouse like early growth successional habitat, often called second growth cover. What is that? Well, it's quite simply young woodland under 25 years old. This type of young forest allows sun light to reach the forest floor, resulting in a carpet of thick vegetation in which the grouse can feed, and move undetected by avian predators. Now, it's not quite as simple as finding this type of cover, but if this was all you were to remember, you'd be well on your way, and would find some grouse. Grouse, however, do have a few other requirements. They will seldom be found in cover less than 10 years old, unless it's full of food, and adjacent to slightly older cover. The type of tree is important too; you'll want to find hardwoods. Hardwoods are species such as Oak, Maple, Dogwood, Poplar, Apple, Thornapple, Alder, and most importantly, Aspen.  In short, hardwoods are anything that doesn't resemble a christmas tree. While its not important you remember the species of trees I've listed, you would be wise to remember two of them; Aspen, and Alder. Aspen, identified by it's smooth, almost white bark, and yellow leaves is very important for grouse because of it's ability to re-generate  multiple trees from it's root system after being cut, and for the forage its buds provide. Finding Aspen stands often results in good things. Alder can provide good shooting for the uplanders, too. Alder runs are often found in wetter areas which hold woodcock, another wild bird which offers exciting shooting and excellent table fare. Grouse and Woodcock go hand in hand, and should not be over looked.  Softwoods, such as Pine, Conifer, Hemlock, and Spruce play a role in a Grouse's life too. These softwoods provide escape and shelter cover from predators and weather. For this reason they are important to grouse, and should register on your radar. Second growth cover interspersed with softwoods, or nearby softwoods is ideally what you'll  want to find.

To put it all in a nut shell, ruffed grouse prefer young hardwood lots with a vegetive understory, greater than 20 acres in size, interspersed with stands of softwoods, and usually within 300 feet of open land. This type of cover is really not hard to find. But how does one find it? The first thing you you should know is that another grouse hunter will not tell you where to go. Grouse hunters will discuss habitat type, and hunting tactics, but most, and by most I mean all grouse hunters, pride themselves on having worn out boot leather finding good habitat. That doesn't mean you shouldn't look for advice from them. Many will point you to areas of a state or county with good grouse cover, but it'll be up to you to find the good cover amongst all the other offerings in the area. How do you do that?  First, start by familiarizing yourself with whatever grouse cover you are familiar with. Many WMAs have sections of habitat suitable for grouse, which may have been stumbled upon. Many uplanders split their time, sitting in tree stands during the archery season, where a grouse might be happened upon, too. If this has happened to you, remember what that cover looks like, and find other cover that looks the same. After all, this is exactly what all those grouse hunters are doing, but they've just seen more cover. Another easy trick when finding young hardwood cover is to imagine how difficult it'll be to swing a shotgun in it. If I think a cover will be really hard to shoot in, I hunt it. Chances are grouse will be there, and chances are you'll find a way to swing your gun.

Maps can help you find grouse cover too, but many won't show you the habitat, just the land features. State WMA maps may not show you the habitat, but often have a summary of the type of game found on those lands. This is a clue, but you'll need to spend time on the ground looking. Topo maps can help, as they show fields and orchards. Fields and orchards may not be the grouse cover you're looking for, but sometime these features aren't updated on the topo. The fields may have regenerated, and the orchards gone wild, becoming grouse habitat. In many parts of northern New England the land is owned by lumber, and paper companies that routinely clear cut. Clear cuts regenerate into grouse cover, and often it is superb cover at that. What's more, these lumber and paper companies usually allow public access to their lands. Many will provide you with a map of their holdings. These maps, like others won't show you the habitat, but sometimes they'll show you recent cuttings. Either way, used to navigate their road system, you will find grouse cover. Google Earth can help you narrow down possible cover if you know what you're looking for. When going to a new area, I like to look at areas I'm familiar with on Google Earth, then look for area with similar features in the area I'm going. This will allow me to have a list of possible cover, which I'll assess once I'm there. When using google earth, remember that each image you look at was taken at a different time of the year. If you look at an image from Massachusetts it might have been captured in the spring. If you then look at an image of Maine, that image might have been captured in the fall. Similar forest features might look different.  I like to use the time line feature to look at either fall, or winter images of both my areas and the areas I'm interested in. Whether you use maps and the Internet or not, the only sure way to know if the cover holds grouse is to walk it. Of course, as you look at more cover, and become successful at finding grouse cover, spotting good cover will become easier. As will happen occasionally, too, as you drive through the countryside, peering into the woods, a grouse will run across the road or flush from the side. You'd be wise to investigate such places more closely.

The nature of the Ruffed Grouse being what it is; a truly wild game bird, the king of the uplands, it shouldn't come as a surprise if you find them in habitat that doesn't hold all the features I've listed. Grouse are survivors, and have the ability to make small adjustments. They can be found in 5 acre woodlots, or cover with few softwoods, but if you adhere to the basic principles outlined, you'll find prime grouse cover. How to shoot them as they zig and zag through the tangle of branches is something you'll have to figure out on your own.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Breaking The Seal, A New Chapter Is Started

I broke the seal on the 2011 upland season with a trip north to get in a day of grouse hunting. In doing so I started a new chapter in my upland life. As my new pup isn't ready to get after 'em I'm chasing grouse without a dog; walking them up. And I'm sure it'll be an educational experience.

The weather could have only been marginally better, the temp hovering just south of 50, with a bit of a cold breeze and intermittent light rain. The leaves had begun to fall, and the foliage thin. The rain made walking quiet, and the temp kept the sweat at bay. The musty smell of the composting leaves and vegetation brought back visceral memories of seasons past, and the comforting feeling of being someplace you belong; a place shared by deer, moose, bear, and a variety of feathered creatures. But quiet was the order of the day. Without a dog there was no tinkling of the bell, pips of the whistle, nor cry of the beeper signaling a dog on point.

My first stop was at a covert I call The Owl, where a trail twists it's way up a hill through perfect grouse cover. Normally I'd walk the trail while the dog ran the cover to either side. Occasionally we'd venture off the trail to follow a thread of cover that stretched deep into the woods. Without a dog, however, I'd have to venture into the cover to kick birds out, so I decided I'd follow the trail, jumping from side to side into the cover, zig-zagging the path of the trail. While I'm sure the cover held grouse, and I'm sure I came close to some of them, I never got to experience the thundering flush I expected. Perhaps this hunting without a dog thing is going to be harder than I thought.

After lunch, and a brief sit, as the day slid into it's final quarter I headed to another nearby spot, an abandoned apple orchard I figured would be the perfect place for an end of day hunt. The cover was a little heavier, with apples both littering the the carpet and hanging over head. Again, zig-zagging through the cover I stayed alert for not only rocketing flushes skyward, but for bounding rabbits and hares, too. Picking my way across, and down to the creek below, the orchard began to come alive. Not with rocketing grouse, but with twittering woodcock. The long walk down and back saw three woodcock skirt the tree tops, heard two reports from my right barrel, and saw zero game placed in my game bag.

Back at the car I cased my gun, slid out of my boots, and doffed my blaze orange shirt for a more subdued color scheme. But most importantly, before I started the long drive home, I looked again across the valley, down at the orchard and the cover below, and with I smile on my face I was grateful to know such a place, and silently vowed I'd be back. I'd broken the seal.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Few Things To Look Forward To. More Expansion.

In my quest to bring entertaining, helpful, and amusing outdoors anecdotes to the world, and make this the numero uno outdoors blog on the planet I've decided I'd make a few changes, and expand a bit more. To do this I've enlisted some help, and now have a team of pro-staffers/ roving correspondents. Of course no one is actually pro, as I don't have anything to offer them other than the prestige of contributing to the blog, and maybe a hat in the future. None of them are actually roving either, but they are prone to spending a significant portion of their free time in the outdoors. So you can look forward to a few different views, and some reports from a few exotic locales in the future.

With everything that's wrong with outdoor TV, especially hunting TV, I thought it was time to show the world what actually happens. No, I'm not hosting a newTV show. But I will be making, and posting my own videos, and starting an All Seasons Outdoors YouTube channel. You will get to see me and the guys miss all kinds of easy shot on game, break off big fish, and suffer extreme humiliation at the whim of our expertly trained gun dogs. But you'll need to be patient; it'll take a bit of time to get both the video footage, and the channel up and running. But it'll be sure to make you smile.