WALK IN WOODS

Writer Peter Brookes, shown on a recent hunt for grouse and woodcocks, finds that sometimes a hunt turns out to be little more than a walk in the woods with a gun.

After a few successful goes at it, I was pretty much done with the most arduous of Eastern upland hunts: ruffed grouse and American woodcock. But like a sailor to a Siren’s song, it keeps luring me back in.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, grouse and woodcock hunting takes place in the forest and along its edges. This means that you’re shooting at wild, banking birds with a shotgun in the woods — between trees and branches.

And oh yeah, these birds like young forests...places thick with saplings — and if you’re lucky, lots of thorny vegetation. If leaves are still on the trees or bushes, you’ll have to get your shot through the fall foliage to connect.

Not ideal conditions.

I mean, you got to love it when the guide says, “Dog on point at 60 yards!” And not love it when you look at the habitat you need to quickly work your way through to get there while praying the bird holds tight and doesn’t run.

The Northern United States is where you’ll find these birds most plentiful, meaning that on a fall hunt you could easily experience all four seasons – including rain, snow, sunshine, and falling leaves –in a single day.

I know, I have.

This isn’t exactly easy, high-percentage hunting. The upside is that there are plenty of highly plausible excuses for the all-too-common “swing and a miss” as a hard-flying bird flushes from the forest floor.

I’ve come to see dedicated grouse and woodcock hunters as hard-core types – even a bit of a cultish crowd – who are slavishly dedicated to chasing these woodland wonders despite the challenges. And the good chance of coming home empty-handed.

But being originally from New York, I’d always wanted to hunt the Adirondacks for “ruffies” and “woodies,” photoshopping myself into a faded hunting lithograph done by the likes of the 19th-century artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.

Coincidently, I found out that some local Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) chapters were holding an upland hunt in mid-October near Malone, New York – an area otherwise known as the “North Woods.”

I called the organizer, Bruce Bennett, who owns a good stretch of superbly managed grouse and woodcock woods near Malone. His camp also serves as the hunt’s base of operations. He told me that bird numbers looked good this year and that woodcock might be moving through.

He was right – which was just great because I was particularly interested in hunting those wily woodies; I’d only encountered one before while in the Pennsylvania Highlands during another RGS hunt.

That bird sits taxidermied in my study.

Unlike grouse, the woodcock — aka “timberdoodle” — is a migratory bird that flies south in the fall at night. Woodies migrate from Canada, Maine and the Great Lakes states to the Central Atlantic and the Gulf Coast for the winter.

These worm-eating “bog suckers” have been known to migrate as far as 500 miles in a single night, based on tracking transmitters. During the day, they rest and replenish in soggy thickets that provide cover and food.

For the hunt, I was paired with Andy Weik, who served as a hunt master for this fundraising event. He’s also an RGS biologist, covering the New England area. He really knows his stuff and ran some great hunting dogs, too.

We were fortunate in that we got into a flight of woodies (i.e., a concentration of birds that coincidently winds up in the same area) early in the hunt; they’d likely flew in together with a weather front that had moved through the day before.

Not surprisingly, we found and flushed a bunch of birds.

Not knowing much about moist land-loving “mud snipes,” it was really interesting to hear Weik wax on about woodies, so much so that I didn’t really mind my missed shots — or my very light (OK, empty) game bag.

In fact, on days like this, I like to say I did my part for conservation.

First, by not harvesting any birds. And second, by making a “financial contribution” to the 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act for Wildlife Restoration by going through a bunch of boxes of shotgun shells – that are hit with an excise tax to support conservation.

You’re welcome, fellow upland hunters and conservationists.

As we all know, sometimes a hunt turns out to be little more than a walk in the woods with a gun. In fact, sometimes just being in the outdoors and hearing and seeing wild, flushing birds is fine with me.

But that’s only sometimes.

Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning outdoor writer who escapes to the woods, fields, and waters of the Shenandoah Valley—and elsewhere--as often as he can. BrookesOutdoors@aol.com