One year long ago, right after supper in the camp tent, an argument broke out between one of our regular bird camp members and a guest that made the rest of us hunters uncomfortable. Both were writers, and both claimed they had first written “feathered knuckleball” to describe what a woodcock flew like.
Turned out our camp member had indeed written it first, and the guest was something of a jerk and had never actually published the term, but was enjoying jerking our camp member’s chain. The interloper was never invited back.
That might be the worst memory I have concerning the hunt for grouse and woodcock, an annual rite for my golden retrievers and I. There have been three dogs over the years, and we started in 1989, just a few years after I started hunting these birds with other guys and their dogs. To me, the hunt is all about that cooperation and teamwork between my canine and I. Together in the clean-smelling, crisp and crunchy fall woods and I couldn’t care less if I shoot a bird. Which works out well, since woodcock do fly like a feathered knuckleball and grouse flush like they were shot from a cannon. I don’t hit many.
The Upper Peninsula of the state gets the most press for hunting these species in the fall, but there are birds in lots of places around the state. Some of the best shooting I’ve had has been in the Gaylord area, roughly located in the middle finger’s callous area of our mitten-shaped state, and there’s great bird hunting north of a horizontal line drawn through Gaylord, in lots of different areas. And I’ve flushed and shot at birds on public land in counties right on the Indiana line and a little north. Birds are there, and you won’t have much competition from other hunters.
I just remembered a worse memory of bird hunting from about 25 years ago. I drove overnight from our home in Union, Michigan, which is by the Indiana line up to the Pigeon River State Forest Area in northern Michigan. After trundling out of the little RV on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, my first dog Coach needed all of about three minutes afield to tangle with his first and last porcupine. This is something I would not wish on any dog or dog owner. Coach didn’t actually bite the big rodent, he slapped at it like he used to do to our cats, and the whole inside of his right front leg looked like a hairbrush, He had a little goatee of quills along with a few in his chest. That dog was so good he let me pluck them out, right there in the dried up bracken.
Some of the coolest things I remember about hunting grouse and woodcock dealt with finding the perfect coverts: seeing just the right kind of flora, stopping the truck, going in and flushing bunches of birds. What you need to find are young aspen slashings, which is one of the reason the Upper Peninsula is so popular—it’s full of them on National Forest land as well as on paper company land. Both areas allow hunting and the aspen is there because sections of hardwoods were clear cut a few years prior. Aspen is one of the first things to spring up. You’ll know it’s aspen by its many roundish yellow (in fall) leaves, and thin gray trunks, close together. Aspen is also one of the reasons that actually killing birds feels like such an accomplishment. Walking through thick aspen slashings means you rarely can swing on a bird, the trees are just too close together. While following the dog, I’m always moving rapidly between the really tight areas, trying to get to areas that offer a little bit of shotgun room.
The best cover for birds includes the brown bracken: thigh-high, dried ferns that give birds an understory to hide in. The very best covers are those with bracken and no grass, grass keeps woodcock from easily probing the soil for worms with their long beaks.
The Michigan DNR believes we might be just over the peak of the 10-year cycle that nobody truly understands. The season opened last month and early reports from the Upper Peninsula said lots of birds, especially in the Western U.P. in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties. Enjoy the fall woods and have some good shooting.
First image by Dave Mull, second image by Tom Lounsbury