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.