"How was the bird hunting last season?"
This has been a common question for me from Tall Timber guests and bird hunters alike. My response has been that we seemed to have two different seasons last fall. The first one wasn't great - it was warm, with lots of foliage on the trees for the first couple weeks of October. Not that the bird hunting was bad … in fact, we had a few phenomenal days on grouse, and the woodcock seemed to be everywhere at times. But it was mighty tough getting a good view (and shot) on those birds, due to the screen of foliage we had to try to shoot through.
The "second season" last year was very good for my clients and I. This seemed to occur right after Columbus Day, as colder and more blustery weather blew in and took many of the leaves down. The colder weather got the grouse moving in search of food sources, and the leaf drop made the shooting chances better. This resulted in our second best year of harvesting birds in my nine years of guiding, and it would have been even better if the snow didn't come so early. Unfortunately, my season was totally over by Thanksgiving, as the snow depths in some of my favorite places made navigating them nearly impossible, and no, I'm not a big fan of wearing snowshoes while hunting.
The best aspect of last hunting season for me (and a few of my clients) was discovering some new covers - I think there are four new additions to our lineup. Some are in New Hampshire and some are in Vermont, but they all have what is needed for grouse and woodcock. All of them will require more investigation, which is my favorite part of getting ready for a new season - we can't wait.
The development of the dogs was great to see as well. Monty was his usual steady self, working closer as he gets older (7 years old), and pointing birds seemingly like a machine at times. Bode (3 years old) really came along well as the season progressed, and he was at his best as the weather turned colder - out of all of the dogs, he's most dependent on good conditions for a good day of bird finding. Both dogs got a lot of work last year, as well as lots of practice retrieving birds (my hunters had a good season of shooting as well), and they both have become adept at making sure no birds go to waste out there.
Rudy (10 years old) has settled in to semi-retirement, but we're keeping him in good shape just in case he needs to strap the vest on again. He did hunt four or five times last fall, and while he's definitely slowing down some, he still shows great desire when we hit the woods. Rosie (now 4 months old) is the newest addition to the lineup, and we're hoping she'll be on her way this fall. She has typical intelligence for a female (she's bright, almost scary at times), and great lineage - she's Bode's daughter, and her mother is Dixie, another great grouse hunter, so hopefully she doesn't fall too far from the mountain ash. Guiding will be in her future, but maybe not this year - stay tuned …
We have been seeing a few grouse around our neighborhood this winter - one day after a fresh snowfall, I counted four different tracks at various points along the trail as we were snowshoeing. It has not been a terribly cold winter, but it has been snowy. Hopefully this spring's weather is good for them. I have heard recently from a contact of mine in central New Hampshire that there's a couple of woodcock already back down there - early returners with all of last week's warm weather I suppose. Hopefully they stay down there for a little while, as we still have plenty of snow in the north. When they come back, we'll be anxious to get the puppy out for her first experience with timberdoodles.
The last tidbit that I have is an advisory issued in Maine for sporting dog owners passed on to me by Rich Johnson. For those that use the Garmin Alpha or Astro GPS systems to know what's happening out there with their dogs while hunting (I'm one of them), they recommend that you check the channel that the collar is set on to communicate with your dog. It appears as though the collars use the same MURS (Multi Use Radio Service) frequencies as those of truckers and loggers, unless you manually change the frequency channel of the collars. It might be a good idea to check the frequency that your dog's collar is set at and change it to MURS channel 5 (this one is not used by truckers or loggers), as an additional safeguard for all of those involved. If they're doing it in Maine, we might as well do it here too - there is still active logging operations ongoing here in the north country. It's easy to do and instructions can be found on … where else? Google!
The grouse hunting was pretty good this past week, with a few tight sitting birds at times and others that ran out of points before we could get there. They are still up to their old tricks, but due to the lack of foliage, we are sometimes able to see exactly what is happening instead of merely wondering what went wrong.
Here is a list of how last week went, and the birds taken in our sessions:
- Monday, 10/31 (AM only): 10 grouse & 3 woodcock (1 grouse & 2 woodcock taken)
- Tuesday, 11/1 (full day): 9 grouse & 5 woodcock (3 grouse taken)
- Wednesday, 11/2 (PM only): 8 grouse & 1 woodcock (1 grouse taken)
- Thursday, 11/3 (AM only): 6 grouse & 4 woodcock (1 woodcock taken)
- Friday, 11/4 (full day): 21 grouse & 1 woodcock (lots of action, but we took the bagel)
The first four days were spent in New Hampshire, in a few areas where we have hunted several times this year. Some of the birds were cooperative, but most were not, perhaps reflecting some of the pressure that the grouse have been under in these areas.
Our New Hampshire days were highlighted by some great "sticking" points on grouse and woodcock by Monty and Bode, as well as some great work by my client Lou's young GSP named Emma. In limited action, she pointed two grouse for Lou, and Lou was happy to take one of them over her.
Our day in Vermont (last Friday) yielded a lot of grouse contacts behind the solid work of Monty (at least 21, and it may have been a few more than that), and chances at shooting a few of them for each of my three clients. Unfortunately, none of the shots connected with the birds, and we had to tip our hats to the amazing difficulty that these birds sometimes present. We hunted a couple of new spots that day, and based on the numbers of birds we saw in these places, they will become a part of the Vermont "rotation" going forward.
Our guiding season is nearly at an end, as our last client for this year will be on Wednesday in Vermont - the dogs are charging up for that day, but I have seen them wear down some as this guiding season has gone on, so a little break will be good for them. The deer hunting rifle season in New Hampshire starts on Wednesday, with the Vermont rifle deer season kicking off this coming Saturday - that will spell plenty of time off for the pups.
The list of reasons is long, and undoubtedly there are some that I am forgetting, but the last one is probably the real reason.
- It's too warm
- The sun was in my eyes
- It's too cold
- There's not enough wind
- It's too breezy
- The birds are running
- I almost stepped on that grouse
- I slipped on an old log
- That tree got in the way
- The cover was so tight that I couldn't swing my gun
- I rushed my shot
- I didn't hear that one flush
- The leaves are too crunchy
- Too much foliage
- Not enough foliage - they're seeing us from a great distance and getting out
- My reflexes are getting slower as I grow older …
Many clients that have hunted with me over the years have heard (probably more than once) the time a few years back how I cooked a woodcock recipe for my soon-to-be-wife and how it took a turn for the worse. Conversely, my hard working German Shorthaired Pointers, unlike my betrothed, appreciated my efforts at preparing a dinner focusing on timberdoodles - yes, they ate well that night.
This recipe comes to us from Mark Ramel, a client of mine, who visits the north country to hunt grouse and woodcock, along with his father and a good family friend. This year, their group took quite a few woodcock, so Mark brought their livery goodness home with him, to be excellently prepared by a friend who just so happens to be a professional chef in New York City - yes, just as in life, it helps to know the right people …
6 woodcock (12 breasts), served with a side of sauerkraut. Sausage, needless to say, is a must whenever sauerkraut is in the picture.
Liberally salt and pepper
the woodcock. This could be the most
important step in the recipe.
Don't be shy and don't mention
this step to your doctor:
use lots of butter.
Dredge the woodcock breasts in
flour and/or corn starch.
Pan fry the woodcock until they are seared on the outside, and not a moment more.
Make sure you do not overcook the woodcock - rare to medium on the inside is what you're shooting for!
Prepare your sides of sauerkraut and spaghetti squash. Chef Kendall uses white wine and seasonings to sautee the squash in.
Birds removed. Leftover juices and butter used to cook down apples and garlic, finished with a Sherry demiglaze.
Mostly cooked birds.
Combined with apples & garlic and cooked until medium - medium well. I assume that this step could be to the reader's taste.
Enjoy! The object of our affections plated, with a recipe truly fit for one of our greatest gamebirds, the American Woodcock.
Thanks to Chef Kendall for his creation and Mark Ramel for documenting it. That's Kendall with Mark's son (and presumable sous chef).
You may ask how my weak attempt at cooking woodcock a few years ago for my bride-to-be affected our relationship going forward. Well, she became my wife, so I must have gotten an "A" for effort.
Since then, she has come to appreciate and love my grouse dinners …
Yesterday was spent in New Hampshire, as we hunted some low elevation coverts, in the hopes of catching some of our late departing woodcock as they migrate south. We had a good morning behind Bode, even in the (at times) pouring rain. He pointed several woodcock and had a nice point on an escaping grouse, and my clients managed to scratch down a grouse and a woodcock.
The afternoon was spent hunting with Monty, and he was simply great yesterday, as he began pointing lots of woodcock in one of our upland coverts. The rain on Friday got rid of most of the snow that was paralyzing us in these areas, so we were able to get back in there. While Monty provided lots of opportunities on the woodcock, only one paid the price. Later on, he would point four or five grouse, and one of them hung around just a bit too long and my client bagged him before escaping.
Yesterday was probably our best day of the year in New Hampshire, as we encountered 15 grouse and 16 woodcock over the course of our travels.
Today was spent in Vermont, in an effort to avoid deer hunters (it's muzzleloading deer season in NH) and explore some new territory as well. The action started right off this morning, with Monty systematically pointing three woodcock and a grouse, and one of the woodcock ended up in the back of my client's vest. We did a lot of walking today, in a walk-in only area, and while it was frustrating at times (yes, even these grouse were acting typically "grousey") as we had trouble getting close to some of them, Monty still managed to point quite a few of them.
Not all of them gave us good chances, but they were there, and so were we - that's grouse hunting at times. He managed to point four or five grouse this morning, and by our lunch break we had moved 13 grouse and 4 woodcock.
Bode did the afternoon duties, and he started out hot right away, making a nice point on a woodcock that my client took. He also had a couple of grouse points and a couple more woodcock points in his time out there, working tirelessly and thoroughly. Unfortunately, none of the grouse were taken, but one more of the woodcock fell to my client's shotgun. We moved 8 grouse and 5 woodcock this afternoon behind Bode, for a day's total of somewhere around 30 birds moved for the day.
That's not bad, and along with yesterday's 31 birds moved, we had quite a weekend. Hopefully our hot streak continues through this week, and it looks as though our weather will not be a hindrance in this. More updates to come …