The great north woods are a magical place. Well, at least for me they are, though I doubt I'm the only sportsman who feels this way. Whether it's fin, fur, or feather there is game to be had in the great north woods. Its for this reason that I routinely make the long drive several times each season. Couple the great sport of the north with a young dog in need of a quality education, and my desire to go north increases dramatically. This year I had the great fortune of having my vacation from work fall right in the prime of grouse season, so off I went to spend 12 days wingshooting. The first five days would be accompanying G.W. who was headed up to cap off the trout season. Then, after a four day regroup I'd head back again to spend 7 days in camp with B.K. and his lab, Ruby.
If I was to experience any difficulty on my adventure it was of the nature that warrants no true complaint; traffic slowed my departure from the city. Before too long I was zipping past the multitude of leaf peepers clogging the roads. As the local traffic had put me an hour plus behind schedule I decided I stop and hunt at least one of my coverts near the halfway mark to camp. This would allow me to blow the dust off my reflexes, and serve as Ginger's grouse and woodcock debut. Mid-morning would be the prefect time to slip into the abandoned orchard, and it's surrounds. I did not regret this decision. Ginger quickly found her stride, quartering the thick under brush between the long forgotten trees. Soon she'd catch a scent she found irresistible and launch a woodcock skyward. It wouldn't be until the third flush that the 20gauge side by side would bark loudly, but it wouldn't register a kill, and Ginger would have to wait a bit longer to get her mouth on some feathers. To my surprise Ginger held steady, planting her but on the ground with each flushing bird as we'd trained for, not moving until sent on. We worked the edges, before moving deeper into the cover. A few more birds were flushed, and a couple of misses registered before my eye, hand, and the 20 found the rhythm needed, and knocked down a fleeing timberdoodle. The bird flushed late, pinched between me and the dog, requiring Ginger to be stopped on the whistle, and sent on a hunt dead for her first retrieve, as she'd not marked the fall. Enthusiastically she took the cast and scoured the area until nosing the bird, and looking at me quizzically with a "You want this?" expression. A moment of coaxing, and the bird was delivered to hand. Five minutes later the scene would be repeated only this time the bird would be flushed on her nose, the fall would be marked, and the retrieve made without hesitation. We would work our way deeper into the linear cover, and then around to our starting point with couple more woodcock flushes, but only a lone, distant grouse flush. With two woodcock in the bag Ginger and I continued our trek north.
The north woods would provide the action I was looking for, and the education Ginger needed. Woodcock were abundant and provided plenty of sport. Grouse numbers are up too, which presented Ginger with tricky situations. To that end I shot not only Ginger's first woodcock, but her first grouse, too. Ginger's first grouse came in the midst of some heavy woodcock shooting. As Ginger quartered, stretching slightly further to the windward side to my left a grouse was pinched between us. Like her first woodcock the grouse's flight and fall on the shot went unmarked by Ginger, so I whistled her to a stop, and moved her forward to hunt dead. The Grouse, with a broken wing put some distance between us, but wasn't able to avoid a keen nose, and was retrieved nicely to hand.
Sometimes, however, it's not a young dogs firsts that you remember, and proudly reflect on, but it's second that shows a dog's potential, and willingness to please. Ginger had begun making game on a thick stemmed hillside. I followed her to the edge of the cover where she continued to make game below me even though the cover had thinned and looked more of a likely place to flush a hare, than a grouse. Suddenly the young dog made a quick move to the base one of the few trees spread across the area, and a grouse flushed explosively on her nose presenting me with a left to right slightly quartering away crossing shot. My first shot failed me, but on my second shot the grouse dropped from the sky, and landed somewhere out of sight over the edge of a slight drop off. My attention then turned back to the young dog, who was sitting staunchly at the base of the tree the flush produced from, casting glances from me, to the mark, and back again. I walked towards the mark about 5 yards until I could see the area of the fall, then released Ginger on her name. She raced to the mark, where she ran a couple of quick, tight, high speed circles before picking the grouse from the underbrush and presenting it to me. My little girl had flushed a grouse on her nose, stayed steady throughout the entire flush, shot, and fall, marked the fall, and retrieved to hand as if she'd been doing it for years. I couldn't have been more proud. I'd learn later that not all birds would be handled as nicely, but we were off to a great start.
Woodcock would rule the day on my second trip to the great north woods. B.K. and I would find out quickly a number of woodcock could test a young dog, as well as multiple tricky grouse flushes could. For the most part Ginger's manners stayed intact thanks to the woodcock's nature of flushing skyward. Grouse were becoming a problem, as their tendency to flush horizontally before gaining altitude was too tempting for Ginger, on may occasion requiring me to steady her with the whistle. Thankfully through it all she still remembered what a long blast on the whistle meant, and heeded the signal.
On our second or maybe our third day in camp B.K. and I made a quick trip through one of our usual spots with Ginger. Right out of the gate we moved a couple of woodcock, and a grouse, but none were put in the bag. An hour in and things had slowed until we wandered into a cut thick with head high alders, and B.K. secured a woodcock. We'd moved barely 20 more yards and suddenly all hell broke loose. Ginger flushed (and failed to stop on) a woodcock that I rocked on the shot. Not being well hit, nor marked by my now out of control dog, I stood still and directed B.K. to the area of the mark so we could then reign Ginger in and have her hunt dead. We were soon to understand Ginger's unbridled excitement.
As B.K. reached the area of the fall another woodcock got up, but it's straight away flight line was no problem for B.K. who easily stoned it. With two down, and a seemingly unhinged spaniel I would surely be needed at the area of the fall to regain control of the dog and recover our game, however on my first step in that direction another woodcock flushed at my feet offering a straightaway in the opposite direction, and I killed it easily. Now with three birds on the ground and who knows how many holding around us, it was time to get busy, and I whistled Ginger in to hunt dead.
We elected to recover the last bird I'd killed first, as B.K. was already in the area of the other two. Ginger, now in control made short work of this bird, and we turned our attention to the other two. Working the area B.K. had marked Ginger began to make game slightly off the mark, and after a minute or two presented us with a winged woodcock. At this point I'd begun to think that I'd actually missed the first bird, and that the one B.K. had shot was a reflush of that bird, and that was what Ginger had just retrieved. But B.K. insisted that he'd clean killed his bird, and that the winged bird had to be the one I'd shot. So off Ginger was sent to find yet another bird. The search wouldn't last long as B.K. quickly notice that the dead woodcock was laying a mere 6 inched in front of his right foot as we stood there watching the dog. We now had 4 woodcock in the collective game bag. And while it took me a good few minutes to recount this story, and you a bit less time to read it, in real time it all happened real quick, with all three shots happening withing 60 seconds, and the recovery of the birds taking only a couple of minutes.
We weren't done. With Ginger reeled in we moved forward and killed two more well handled woodcock within 50 yards of where we'd picked the last three. Two limits of woodcock were killed and in the bag in about 20 minute of what was a 2 hour hunt. That many birds, that much scent, and that much shooting in such a small area did present a problem for the young dog, but nothing that couldn't be recovered from.
Throughout the week many woodcock were shot and retrieved by B.K. and I, as well as some grouse. Both dogs saw their fair share of birds, and time in the woods. Ginger and I both learned a lot about grouse and woodcock hunting, and what is expected. An additional highlight of my second trip north was sharing camp with a contingent of spaniel people. In total there were 19 springer spaniels spread between three cabins and an RV. It made for some interesting, enjoyable, and educational conversation. I was relieved to hear that I wasn't the only spaniel owner having difficulty with steadiness in a young dog when dealing with the excitement of a grouse's horizontal flush. In my opinion one of the most exciting thing in the grouse woods is when a dog flushes a grouse back at you, and several times Ginger did just that.
Life being what it is B.K. had to depart camp early because of a business trip he was required to make. On his last morning before heading south he and Ruby went out on a solo trip while Ginger and I explored a covert we hadn't touched yet. We returned to camp to find that Ruby had guided B.K. to another limit of woodcock. A nice way to part.
We did some things differently this year. Gone are the days of feeling the need to beat the brush all day long. Instead we hunted from about 9am to about noon, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then got out again late in the day, hunting the last hour or two. This tactic showed us lots of grouse, however most often they were flushing from trees. Still, having multiple flushes, 10-11 grouse from two trees, is quite exciting.
Reflecting on the trips later I easily knew what I need to work on, and what the successes were. Like always my shooting proved to be a weak link, and birds that should have fallen flew on. The weather didn't cooperate, but over the years we've learned what we can handle and how to deal with rain. So we made the best of the opportunities we had, and had the right equipment for the times it was needed. Ginger was a success, too. Though there were moments when her youth, and excitement got the better of her, the work I've put into her was apparent. All in all I give her performance a B+, improving as her steadiness improves.