by Lynn Dee Galey
Jungle shooting is not a bad description for early season grouse and woodcock hunting here in Michigan. Ferns are still tall and green and foliage is thick and lush. Add to that temps that shoot up quickly once the sun burns off the morning fog and yep, it's tough shooting.
This morning's season opener was no different. Finding dogs on point was a challenge.
"I see him now" is what the dogs heard each time we came crashing in and attempted to find a shooting lane. Grouse were just a flushing noise up in front of the dogs, nary a feather seen. Woodcock however, with their twittering upward to the treetops offered a good look.
My hunting buddy took a shot just as one topped the trees and yelled, "I think I got it." But a thorough search by the 3 dogs failed to produce the bird so we sighed regret and we moved on.
But wait. Almost 100 yards ahead and to the left, there comes Sally with the dead woodcock. Best guess is that it was hit just as it leveled off it's ascent and had begun moving forward and momentum carried it that far before it fell to be retrieved by the same dog who had pointed it.
As I thought about this my mind drifted back to several years ago on an early season day in Kansas. It was my friend's first time hunting Kansas and as we crested a grassy hill we spotted Tweed, my light orange setter, on point up ahead. But just as we saw, we were seen, and a group of prairie chickens lifted in front of her out of gun range. I yelled to my friend one of the lessons that I myself had learned the hard way out there, "Heads up, watch for stragglers!" Sure enough, three more birds lifted right in front of him and dang if he didn't drop two of them.
A double. On Prairie Chickens. The first time ever hunting them. Handled by the dog. "Alright!!" The dogs swooped in and my friend's setter retrieved the lightly hit bird that had dropped to the left.
The other had dropped like a stone a little further out and we headed over to pick it up. But it wasn't there.
This is another one of those moments when you check with your buddy to make sure that your mind isn't playing tricks on you. "That bird folded and dropped right here, didn't it?" We agreed and proceeded with a rigorous and methodical search. Two of us, two veteran dogs with solid retrieve skills and the goofy puppy who had finally returned from chasing the fly offs, walked, kicked and sniffed a widening circle over and over to no avail.
Sportsman's ethics require a thorough search for all shot game. But a once in a lifetime scenario like this kept us searching for nearly an hour without reward. Our excitement dampened by this loss, we agreed to quit for the day and head straight back to the truck, a long, silent walk as we cut across a couple of fields.
I realized I didn't see Tweed and stopped to call her around. I spied her a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction down the field, and wondered what she was picking up. We stood with mouths agape as she proudly carried that prairie chicken and gently gave it to us.
That setter was Sally's mother. There must have been a thread of scent that pulled her down the field to that bird, just as a drift of scent (and the thread of her inheritance) tolled Sally today with the woodcock.
We have all had a bird that we know we hit but could not find. Like most good hunters, I was raised that is not to be taken lightly. So today I am reminded to not just search thoroughly where we believe the bird fell, but also to believe in dogs with the will and tenacity and breeding to take up even the hint of scent and push until the bird is found.