The biologists had told us what to expect. Other hunters had told us what to expect. Still, there we were — Hunting Buddy and I — driving out the Stud Mill Road, hoping to find a few roadside grouse.
In this neck of the woods, all reports indicated an extremely wet June would wreak havoc on the ruffed grouse population, and that we’d have better luck looking for black bears in downtown Bangor than we would seeking birds south of Aroostook County.
But there we were, well south of Aroostook County, burning gas and driving up every single-track logging road we could find, expecting the best.
To paraphrase one of my dad’s old favorite expressions, our best was none too good.
Each road looked great. Each corner promised a fat, oblivious grouse. Or so we thought.
We thought wrong. So, so wrong.
Finally, when we arrived at a particularly birdy looking spot — heck, we’d even found a fat, oblivious grouse here a year earlier, and marked it on our GPS — we decided to get serious.
We stopped driving.
We hopped out of the truck.
And we became our own bird dogs.
I know what you’re saying: “Hey, dummy! Did you forget that you’ve got a perfectly good bird dog at home?”
To that, I say this: Through no fault of his own, my perfectly good bird dog does not realize he’s a bird dog.
Pudge, my 6-year-old English springer spaniel, is a person. Just ask him.
That identity crisis began … oh, I don’t know … about six years ago, I suppose, when people told me I should train him to hunt birds. There was, however, a simple problem: I didn’t know how to hunt birds myself, and knew less than nothing about training a bird dog.
Now, however, after several years of following others and learning about the upland hunting game, I love to get out and chase woodcock and grouse.
Unfortunately, Pudge has never heard a shotgun blast (I think it might scare him) and is perfectly content to sit at home and watch DVR recordings of Glee and Monday Night Football while I go into the woods and wrestle with brambles and puckerbrush.
In the bird dog world, there are plenty of different breeds, each with their own genetic gifts. Pointers do as their name suggests, and will stand at attention, nose jutting jauntily at the bird they’ve found. Flushing dogs — like Pudge (theoretically) — will make birds fly.
Many Mainers regularly hunt birds without dogs, however. Some ride the roads (like we were), hoping for a shot at a roadside bird. Some shoot birds on the ground. Others (like us, had we ever seen any birds) prefer to shoot them on the wing.
Or perhaps I should say, “shoot at” the birds on the wing.
When even that tactic didn’t pan out, we had to change our approach, and decided to take turns … well … being the dog.
Before I explain, I ought to point out that our tactic is not new. It’s not original. People have been using the method of hunting for years, I imagine.
But on this day, the method became ours.
One the surface, becoming a bird dog sounds like an impossible task, no matter how large your snout or how droopy your jowls. As soon as Hunting Buddy and I realized we weren’t fit to be pointers, and that we likely had a few solid flushing talents of our own, things got much easier.
All we had to do, we figured out, was the exact same thing we seem to do when we try to hunt deer during November: Tromp around, make a lot of noise, and scare all the critters away.
Armed with a game plan, I bounded into the covert and began to work. OK. Perhaps “bounded” is a bit of a stretch. Let’s say I walked. Or plodded. Or waddled. Your choice.
Twenty seconds into my first covert, a woodcock exploded from particularly thick bushes not 10 feet in front of me.
“Mark,” I yelled, hoping one of us would get off a shot as the bird flew away.
And it didn’t really matter.
A funny thing happened after that, you see.
You might say we began getting in touch with our inner dog. You might say we finally figured out how much we’d been missing during our infrequent “heater hunting” forays. You might say we finally stopped being lazy and started to a little more work.
All of those are true. And so is this: We both had a ball.
I’d flush for a bit, and Hunting Buddy would walk the road. Then we’d switch.
No matter who was bird-dogging, the birds kept flying. Pointers, we’re not. But we proved quite adept at flushing (Insert your own bathroom joke here).
Each of us got off a shot or two.
And by the time we loaded up and headed back to Bangor, each of us agreed that it had been a day well spent.
We also agreed to get together and try our luck again, soon.
There are plenty more dog days of autumn left, after all.