It’s been a busy three days. Tommy and I hunted on Friday as the temperatures climbed into the low 70s which is very unusual for October in Northern New Hampshire. We started off with Wild Apple Jack in a cover that we hadn’t been to this season and it showed just how different this year is. In a normal year this cover is good for double digit grouse numbers as it has been managed and is just loaded with food sources. But like most of the Norther Forest grouse habitat there is very little mast crop this year — very few apples, almost no high-bush cranberries, no beechnuts, no mountain ash berries, there’s acorns but this the very end of the oaks range and there are only isolated pockets of oak. So, the cover we ran first thing Friday morning is not easy to get to. It’s behind a locked gate on a road that is starting to grow in. We moved about a half dozen grouse and two woodcock and Tommy got one of each and we didn’t get much in the way of shots at the other birds. Jack will be nine this winter and showed on Friday that he is still the penultimate grouse dog. He had all the birds accurately pointed and held them for us sometimes having to move up as we were going to him to stay in contact with running birds and ultimately pinning them. He did the same exact thing on Sunday morning when I was hunting with Tony and Big Thudd. The cover I ran him in on Sunday had been hit a couple of times by Tony with limited results but it is a cover where Jack always seems to dig out some birds. He found seven grouse and a woodcock with one grouse flushing on its own. On Friday we also ran Veronica, LJ, and Trip. Veronica and Trip got the short end of the draw with covers that looked good but didn’t hold any birds. LJ drew one of our few oak covers and had a stop to flush on a grouse before we even had shells in our guns. He then went on to dig out two grouse in tough conditions. The oak stand showed the signs of bears feeding heavily on the acorns.
Friday afternoon Thudd and his friends Dave and Sherry from Michigan showed up for the evening hunt on the Home Cover. They had been out with Tony for the day and moved a lot of grouse and shot a few. Thudd cut Rigby loose and then a couple of the house grouse were in the cranberries and they blew out before she could get them pointed. She went on to have four woodcock and a couple more grouse finds and we had to cut back through the woods to the house as it was getting late and none of us brought a headlamp — although there may be one somewhere in the twenty pounds of gear Thudd has stuffed into his hunting vest. After the hunt it was steaks and libations. Saturday morning Dave wanted to hunt till noon and then head home for Michigan. We did a hunt with Thuddy where we moved 8 grouse and a woodcock. Then we took Dave’s Brittany across the river to a cover that has been fairly productive but we only moved two grouse and three woodcock. It was getting warm and time was short so I ran LJ in cover along the power line and he went birdless in tough scenting conditions. After seeing Dave and Sherry off, Thuddy and I head north for lunch and a little cover scouting. About 3:30 it had cooled down into the mid-60s and we ran Trip and Rigby in one of the spots we had scouted. We walked up a grouse with Trip and like the cover we saw. We then cut Rigby loose and moved a half dozen grouse and a woodcock.
Sunday it was Tony, Thudd, and I with a whole truck load of dogs. We each had two — Tony had Frankie and Trash, Thudd had Rigby and the Little Thudd, and I had Jack and LJ. Running six dogs one at a time, and all of them except Frankie ran for at least an hour, makes for a very full day. It also means that we are hopefully move a lot of birds. As it turned out we moved about 30 grouse and a few woodcock.
But here’s the point I wanted to make. On various message boards you often see threads about “what makes a grouse dog?” In my mind they are genetics, shoe leather, and most important grouse. Four of the dogs on the truck yesterday are under two years of age — fall derbies — Little Thuddy, Trash and LJ all had multiple opportunities on grouse yesterday. Frankie is still on limited duty and got a short run in cover that didn’t have any birds yesterday. But the other three all had 6 or more grouse contacts each and LJ dug out a couple of woodcock as well. Some they pointed, some ran away from them, some got bumped but it was all invaluable experience for these young dogs. All three have seen hundreds of wild birds in their short lives and they are learning. The most important thing they have learned is where to find them. All of these dogs are allowed to range out to the front in search of birds. Some want a grouse dog that stays close — within gun range — what they really should have is a spaniel. Dogs that are allowed to range out are likely to find more grouse and get to them before the grouse spooks from the human noise. It is not unusual for these young dogs to find birds at over 100 yards away and hold them until we get there. Every bird is a learning experience and they have the great luck of having been born when we’ve had two good grouse years in a row. The lack of mast crop this fall may have an impact on next spring’s brood size. However, with the number of birds around at the end of October we should still have a good population of nesting birds next spring and we will be able to finish this crop of derbies and get the new puppies we’re expecting a jump start on becoming great grouse dogs.