IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA – Bill Marchel and I hadn’t been in the woods together for some time, as I was reminded Tuesday when we stepped into a patch of young aspen. The old days seem not so long ago, and back then we each had pointing dogs, he a Deutsch Drahthaar, and I an English setter. Following these charges, over many autumns we shot our share of grouse and woodcock, often ending long days with wet boots and tired legs. Times change, and Bill now finds himself temporarily dogless, and I have been without a setter for some years. Nonetheless our enthusiasm in October for weaving among mixed-age hardwoods, clustered here and there with hazel and willow, and bordered randomly by lowlands, hasn’t waned. So it was last week that we renewed an old game with a new twist: Rather than pointers, we followed two of my Labradors, Mick and Millie, into birdy-looking thickets about an hour north of Brainerd.
“This is a first for these dogs, hunting grouse and woodcock,’’ I said to Bill, who lives near Brainerd. “We’ll see what happens.’’
Those unfamiliar with Minnesota’s most celebrated winged forest inhabitants should know that, while mixed bags of grouse and woodcock are common among upland hunters plying the North Woods, the two birds are very different.
Grouse, for example — the reference here is to ruffed grouse — are white-meated birds with finely honed survival instincts. Tough to pin down even by experienced pointing dogs, these fowl, also known as ruffies, are quick to take wing when walking no longer suits their purposes, and by instinct will fly among trees large and small to evade the chilled 7- or 8-shot that wingshooters discharge in pursuit.
For these reasons, a grouse in hand, taken by a foot-walking hunter, is a trophy, and one that, not incidentally, provides unparalleled table fare.
Generally speaking, air-scenting canines such as setters and English pointers make the best grouse dogs. These pooches travel the woods with their heads up and thus have optimum chances to detect grouse from the longest distances, thereby not spooking them into flight before their gun-toting partners arrive, hoping to flush the pinned-down birds and shoot.
By contrast, the continental breeds, such as Brittanies and German shorthairs, among other pointers, more commonly are ground-sniffers, and as such sometimes (though not always) are better at finding and pointing woodcock, a dark-meated bird that remains relatively more stationary in the woods than grouse and therefore confines its scent to a smaller area.
Consider finally flushing dogs, the truest form of which are the spaniels, cockers and springers. These dogs scour the ground ahead of hunters. But instead of freezing (“pointing’’) when they scent a grouse or woodcock, they rush in to put it to wing.
Hunters following flushers (Labradors and other retrievers among them) often therefore are at shot-preparation disadvantages to pointer owners and so must be evermore alert for unexpected flushes, and also quicker with the gun.
Separated by about 50 yards, Bill and I followed Millie and Mick into the wooded unknown. This was Oct. 25, a little late for woodcock to still be in northern Minnesota. But we hoped we might find a few of these migrants, while also flushing a grouse or two.
Bill touched the trigger first, felling a woodcock about five minutes into the quest. He had foot-flushed the bird, which helicoptered skyward, as woodcock do, rising from the muddy perimeter of a water-filled lowland before hitting the afterburners, or attempting to.
Ground-probers, woodcock employ their long beaks to find worms and other delicacies in moist soil, and the loam from which Bill flushed his bird was textbook in that regard.
To the uninitiated, the woods we hiked might have appeared impenetrable, clustered as they were with young aspens. But such are the preferred habitats of woodcock, and, as a bonus, adjacent coverts of older trees and brushy lowlands might, Bill and I hoped, be home to a few grouse.
A woodcock soon arose in front of me, and I whiffed on it. Yet two rounds triggered through my 20-gauge double-barrel invigorated Millie and Mick, and they Hoovered the ground ahead still more enthusiastically, eager to find whatever had earned my attention with the gun.
Cool, with an overcast sky, the day unfolded as we would have ordered it. Overhead, a crow occasionally took shape against gray clouds, and a small flock of geese vectored south.
Otherwise for a few hours, it was just the woods, the dogs, and Bill and me.
“I wasn’t sure if we would find any woodcock or not,’’ Bill said when we took a breather. “Last night in particular was clear, with no wind, and I suspect a lot of birds — not only woodcock, but songbirds — headed south.’’
The second and third woodcock we downed somersaulted into buff-colored woodlands and proved tricky retrieves for the dogs. Yet each bird was found and returned to hand.
This was a couple of hours into our hike, and about that time we finally flushed a grouse — two, actually, neither of which provided a clear shot.
The next ruffie that arose wasn’t as lucky, and Mick found the gray-phase bird piled up 20 yards downrange.
We emerged from the woods at exactly sunset, having seen a dozen or so woodcock flushes and about half that many grouse flushes.
Their tails wagging, Mick and Millie seemed proud of themselves.
With the temperature sliding toward the low 40s, and four hours from home, I had a choice.
The dogs could ride in their crates in the back of the truck. Or I could invite them into the crew-cab’s warm back seat, where they could dream of birds while I drove.
“Hop in,’’ I said, and the dogs did so quickly, falling soon fast asleep.