“Before I was born, I was destined to be a bird hunter. Double barrels, thorns, briers, dogs, old stone walls and Hoppes #9, the life blood of a bird hunter. “ – Thomas P. Grouse
Before the Woods
It was twenty seven days of straight work leading up to my first bird hunt this season. (Most, if not all of you reading this have probably worked similar stretches.) For those twenty seven days the only time I made it out hunting was to sit in a deer stand for ninety minutes in the pouring rain- because sometimes you just need to be in a stand.
I ran into John at our monthly board meeting. As talk after the meeting often does, the conversation turned to hunting. Between busy work schedules and home lives, neither one of us had been able to make it out into the woods yet to chase any woodcocks or partridge since the season had begun (a sadness no hunter should have to endure). This problem would soon be remedied. After some quick schedule checking and a call to my wife, plans were set. That weekend we would be on the chase for the king of the game-birds.
I spent the remainder of the week praying that our plans would not fall through. The big man upstairs must have heard me because when the weekend arrived, I met up with John at his farmhouse and together we set off for some beautiful state land on “The Hill”- a place more known for record setting snowfall than upland bird hunting. My good friend Paul and I had discovered the spot a few years back by luck when we walked into a local diner and asked if anyone knew any good bird hunting spots. Fortunately for us, one of the old timers spoke up and said, “If you are looking for partridge, they are crossing the road all over on the hill. Just don’t get shot by a deer hunter” (we did not get shot but did manage to put up some birds!)
Into The Woods
We drove up and down the gravel roads surrounding the public land we were planning to push, to make sure there was no parked vehicles or any other signs that a deer hunter may be hunting the land (as a hunter nothing is worse than disturbing another hunter’s hunt).We disembarked from the vehicle after adding a few additional layers, since even with all the walking we would be doing, Upstate New York winds can still be biting. Enter Dot. Dot is the kind of hunting partner any man would consider themselves lucky to have- a white and black speckled Brittany Spaniel that from a distance could be mistaken for a dalmatian. She has one big black patch over her right eye which one would assume is the reason for her name. She is slender and quick, with a fantastic nose and an endless enthusiasm for the chase. Her excitement for the outdoors is contagious. She knows what we are here to do and she is ready to do it.
Into the Forrest we go. It takes fifteen minutes or so for Dot’s nerves to calm. She starts working between John and I back and forth scouring the earth and air for a hint of prey. My mind is in awe as I take in the beauty of the woods and the crisp white of the freshly fallen snow on the ground. It’s good to be bird hunter. It’s this moment that a woodcock takes me by surprise, it’s up in front of me and moving quickly away. I raised the Browning 20 gauge in my hand and send a shot. It doesn’t connect. The bird was far more talented at evasion than the hunter at the capture. We continue on.
Bird hunters don’t just walk in the woods, they feel their way through the woods. Quickly carrying themselves through the woods one moment only to bring themselves to a standstill because the energy shifts. Your hairs stand up and your ears and eyes focus in. You can’t pinpoint it, but you know you’re not alone. That’s the moment. It happens. The bird breaks its cover, the upland bird is up and moving quickly. It knows what the failure to escape could mean. Luckily for this bird, I’m slow and not a particularly great shot. In baseball it’s called a swing and a miss. In bird hunting it’s just a miss. My second of the day. We all have days like this….where you can’t hit the broadside of a barn. Even when you are standing inside of it.
Out of the Woods
As our push back towards the vehicle began, my mind narrowed in on the connection with the woods. The crunch of leaves and snow, snapping of branches in the distance. An occasional crossing of animals tracks. Deer, fox, rabbit, squirrel, this land is all there domain. It’s while looking at the ground I notice them. A neat little pair or prints, much like a chickens but smaller. When I looked up I noted Dot was on point. Standing as still as a statue, nose out in front and slightly angled to my right. I took a few steps forward and it happened. A magnificently fast partridge was up, bobbing and weaving through the trees making its getaway. Too far and too fast. At least for me. I didn’t bother to raise my gun, I just stared in awe as it made its way out of sight.
We were soon back at the truck. John was looking Dot over to make sure she hadn’t picked up any bird-ox or any other unwanted passengers. We quickly delayered and hopped back into the vehicle, with nothing ahead of us but the road home. We as hunters have many days like this. Days where we are bested by the game we pursue. Days where we spend more time taking in the view and appreciating the moments of stillness in the woods. We have more days where something doesn’t get taken than days when it does. The success of the hunt doesn’t always lie in the kill, but rather in giving a little life back to yourself.