|© Holly A. Heyser|
I was walking through Minnesota's Northwoods with Hank and our friend Chris and I heard that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt off to my left. My bird. The left side of the trail was mine.
My head whipped to the left and ... wait, how the hell was I supposed to shoot at that thing? The woods were so thick with young aspens that it would've been like shooting through a bar code. Seriously, WTF?
The bird angled off to the right. Hank, who was running point, took a shot without hesitation, but the bird zipped away unharmed.
So, wait, seriously, I'm supposed to shoot through that? Hank and Chris confirmed that this is what I was supposed to do. I spent the next few hours trying to wrap my mind around this as we tromped through the woods uninterrupted by fowl, but pleased to soak up the sun on an unusually warm Minnesota autumn day.
Much later as we neared sunset, another grouse gave me a second chance. I raised my gun and began swinging, but as the bird's silhouette kept disappearing and reappearing through the dense woods, my gut kept telling me to stop. Take clear shots. Don't drop a bird where you won't be able to see it go down.
I think I shouldered and lowered my gun three times, which, it turns out, is not effective when you're trying to kill grouse. The bird was gone. Another apparently perfect shot wasted.
"Safety on?" Hank asked.
I may have simply growled in response. I'd had a crazy week at school, I'd taken a red-eye to Minneapolis on Friday night, and I might've gotten four hours of sleep between two flights and the early-morning drive to the Northwoods, where we had started hunting almost immediately. I was tired. I was confused.I had a headache. I was done for the day.
I walked back to the car in frustration, and felt no better when I heard the boom of Chris's 12 gauge and clear signals that he'd gotten a bird.
A shower, beer and burgers that night did a lot to adjust my attitude, and by the next morning I was determined to shoot fast no matter what.
The first area we tried was very slow - for everyone in the woods apparently, because we didn't hear many gunshots at all. So we piled into Chris's truck to look for someplace new. A guy we met at a cafe confirmed what we'd already learned - that grouse had been sparse in that area - but he had a suggestion for another place to try, and off we went.
We picked a trail, parked the truck and started walking, and almost immediately a woodcock flushed in front of Hank and me.
Woodcock! We'd never gotten one before. And we wouldn't get this one, because Hank and I both missed. But soon after that, another one flushed in front of Chris.
The bird arced toward Hank and me, almost at treetop level. At last, I didn't need to shoot through the bar code!
|© Hank Shaw|
This was auspicious. Finally, some action!
We continued down a trail with Chris and his amazingly durable 13-year-old black Lab, Finn, plowing through the woods, hoping to flush a bird in our direction. A grouse flushed right in front of Chris, and he got it. Excellent!
We kept going down that path, and we came to a spot where ... I smelled ... bird.
My sense of smell in civilization is pretty weak, but in the field, I can often smell game. Yes, I know it's crazy.
"I smell a bird," I said to Hank, and not ten seconds later, a grouse flushed in the woods on my right, heading straight away. Without thinking, I overrode my instincts, fired a shot through the bar code and lowered my gun when I lost sight of the bird.
I was disappointed, but glad that I'd finally made a shot on a grouse.
"I don't think I got it," I told Hank, "but I'm going to go in there and check."
I dove into the woods, plowing through saplings, zigzagging in the general direction of the bird, and I'll be damned if he wasn't lying on the forest floor, dead.
|© Hank Shaw|
I picked him up, which awakened his nerves and he began flapping vigorously, making that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt sound.
"Do you need the dog?" Chris yelled.
"Nope, I've got him!" I yelled back.
My first ruffed grouse! Thank God I'd looked for him.
And wow, I don't say this often, but I was incredibly proud that I had forced myself to take a shot when my instincts were screaming NO! If It didn't matter if I got nothing else on this trip: I had accomplished something new.
We hunted the rest of that section of the woods, and while Hank and I didn't get any more shooting in, Chris kept bringing down woodcock, so we were feeling pretty good. We took a break for a nutritious meal of Cheez-Its and Twizzlers, and Hank decided he was done for the day - he was halfway through with the fall leg of his Hunt, Gather Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour, and he was exhausted.
Chris looked at me. "You wanna keep going?"
And that's when it got good.
Chris and I found a promising section of the woods and made our way to a boggy edge. A grouse flushed in front of Chris.
Swing and a miss!
We followed where that one had appeared to land, and before we could get to that spot, another one flushed in front of Chris.
Another miss. But a few minutes later there was yet another flush in front of Chris.
Hit or miss? We couldn't tell, so we searched the spot where we thought the bird would've landed and found nothing.
We split up again and prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! One flushed in front of me, rising high in the trees. Raise gun, swing, acquire target, pull trigger...
I started hustling down the hill to that spot, saplings slapping me in the face. Almost immediately, there it was again: prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! Off to my right, heading away. But I didn't even look. Gotta retrieved the downed bird first.
When I got to the spot where I thought my bird had landed, there he was. My shot had just broken a wing, though, so he was running. Chris helped me corner him at a tree trunk, and I quickly helicoptered him. It was over.
At that point, I'd learned enough to know that this was a spectacular occurrence, because all those flushes took place within about 20 minutes. The Holy Grail, Chris told me, was eight flushes per hour.
We'd told Hank that we'd just be gone for half an hour, but Chris and I were electrified by the sudden change in fortune. Hardly anyone else in our vicinity was shooting. We kept going. Across the dirt road to another section of woods, then across another to a border of woods that surrounded a lake.
That's where it got brutal. Beavers had been busy, so big logs criss-crossed the woods, and dense aspen saplings slapped my face and tore at my hands every inch of the way. We hadn't flushed a single bird since we'd left the Holy Grail spot. If a bird did flush, I have no idea what I would've done, because I didn't have room to shoulder my gun, much less swing it.
When we emerged from the woods at a road, I gave in.
"I'm done," I told Chris. "Exhausted."
He was going to push through one more patch of woods. OK, maybe two.
Now here's what I haven't told you about Chris: He is the reason I hunt. When Hank and I lived in Minnesota and worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris was a friend of ours there. He was also the newspaper's hunting and fishing writer, and he is the one who inspired Hank to start hunting. Hank, of course, inspired me, so without Chris, this blog, and the new life I love, would not exist.
This was my first chance to hunt with Chris, and to be perfectly honest, it was really important to me to shoot well. I wanted him to be proud of the little monster he'd helped create. I didn't want to look like an amateur, especially with five years of hunting under my belt. He's the closest thing I have to a hunting dad (though he's actually just a year older than I am).
While I couldn't keep charging through the woods as long as Chris could, I was pretty sure I'd acquitted myself well. I'd survived on Cheez-Its, Twizzlers and weak country market coffee. (OK, Chris had brought nice sandwiches too, but it sounds cooler to say I survived on Twizzlers and Cheez-Its.) I'd overcome my aversion to shooting through trees. I'd fired five shots at four birds and had three in the bag. And between the three of us, we were bringing four grouse and five woodcock back to Chris's place. I felt good.
As I watch Chris's blaze orange outline slip into the woods, I smiled, and headed back to the truck where Hank was waiting. As I approached, would you believe a grouse emerged from the woods on the right side of the road and zipped into the woods on the left?
Caught off guard, I didn't shoot, and by the time I woke up and realized I should be shooting, the bird had entered the woods again. Too high, too far. I was sorely tempted to chase it, but it was no where near the ground when I'd last seen it. It could've been anywhere. But there was still daylight...
Hank and I laughed. It was OK not to get that bird. We'd had a great hunt with the guy who'd gotten us into hunting. I'd discovered a new kind of hunting that I loved - rigorous, exciting and counterintuitive. I was a convert. That was enough.
© Holly A. Heyser 2011