A unique achievement
It is winter right now, temperatures are frigid and snow is coming down burying all cover, bird season – the wild kind – is over for all practical purpose, and to cope with that I mind travel to times and places where I had the opportunity to ruffle some feathers and these are the top birds and places that I visit while daydreaming.
I cannot say that I am an accomplished shooter since I never experienced the gentlemen’s circuit of grouse in Scotland or driven pheasant in England or red-legged partridge in Spain, and considering the cost associated with driven game it is unlikely that I ever will. But although not an accomplished shooter, I am an enthusiastic bird hunter and have done my fair share, again probably much less than many, of rough shooting after great, and many times not so great, bird dogs. And although I will not be talking much about dogs today I am the first to recognize that the heart and hopes of passionate bird hunters ride on the nose a bird dog.
It is just fair that the first bird that I revisit should be the South American perdiz or codorna. Some of my earliest memories send me back to some pasture or stubble field in northern São Paulo state in Brazil following my father’s footsteps and occasionally being censored by Diana, the English pointer, by making too much noise while she held one or more perdiz under her nose. After the shot and while Diana retrieved I would collect the fired 28 gauge waxed paper hulls and bring it to my nose with its inebriant fragrance.
Sugar cane, soybeans and other changes in agricultural practices along with “liberal laws” that outlawed hunting decimated the perdiz population where I grew up, but I would finally reconnect with them in Uruguay where I have been going to Uruguay since 2008. In Uruguay I hunted in all kinds of weather, from a balmy windless day where a T-shirt is more than adequate to gale force winds that provide a good excuse for missing easy shots (the shot pattern was disrupted by the wind), to deep killing frosts and a day after a veritable deluge that sent some of the local rivers up over twelve feet and left the fields half submerged for several days.
The perdiz and the grassland of South America are made for pointers, English, shorthaired, setters or my personal favorites Épagneul Bretons. Early in the season you will find mostly singles, but birds start to form couples there are the opportunity for memorable doublés. As the right barrel folds the first bird there is a smooth swing towards the second, and this one also crumbles under the left barrel before the first perdiz touches the ground.
Next in line is probably the most beautiful of all upland birds in what is for me probably the most emotionally charged place in the world. The first time I went pheasant hunting in North Dakota I was taken by surprise by the landscape, at the same rough and delicate, settled by somewhat unconquered. The vision of my first tumbleweed drove me back to my childhood as I watched cowboy movies with my grandfather. And I was absolutely unprepared for the savageness of the pheasants. They may or may not be related to preserve birds, but their soul is wild and free, and their flashy colors and tormenting cackle mock the naïve hunter.
Tupã, my black lab, flushed and retrieved the first wild pheasants that I shot. We were exploring PLOTS and this one was removed from the road, maybe an acre of unkept prairie grasses and vines crawling upon the once upon a time fence that surrounded a decaying homestead. I could only but imagine which dreams could have led people to the desolated and unwelcoming Dakotas and what they may have endured. But eventually perseverance failed their bloodline and the homestead was abandoned, left for their ghosts and pheasants. A hen flushed under Tupã’s nose, I called him back and he continued to push the brushy fence line and at the very end, from under a thorny apple tree came the thundering cock, and down he came like a rock. The second bird came out of the other end of the fence with nothing but the cold blue sky to disguise him and I botched it. I shot his landing gear out and he flew a good quarter of mile before collapsing.
Then one morning we stopped our trucks near a marsh, maybe to eat a snack, maybe to find out where we were (not lost, of course. We knew we were in North Dakota!), and at the slamming of a door pheasants started flushing in droves, blackening the sky. They did not flush at once, but in groups, large and small, almost as if flushing and cackling of a group would energize the others. We watched all that mesmerized, guns cased as we did not have permission to invade pheasant heaven.
A rather short time ago I experienced the most frantic bird hunting so far. I took a break from a week of bow hunting in the Limpopo and spent a day shooting. Waterfowl in the early morning, then decoyed pigeons and doves, followed by upland birds with point dogs after lunch and again waterfowl in the evening. Well, I thought I had seen everything and was I wrong!
We had four dogs and six guns on the field and we just could not circle the guinea fowl in any way, shape or form. No matter what we tried they would run and flush out of range, so we did the unthinkable. We run, and run, until we barely got into shotgun range when the huge polka-dotted birds would take to wing. This may not be the most orthodox way to hunt birds, but it worked.
The thorns took their share of the action. My chaps took a beating, my shell bag was almost ripped apart, I was bleeding from both arms and just this weekend I noticed that the shirt I was using that day is well ventilated in the chest. I hate exercise, but I will sign up for another guinea fowl hunt anytime. I just need a ticket to fly 8,571 miles!
And from all those faraway places we end up back at home, hunting the forests of northeastern lower Michigan during the greatest month of the year, October for two birds that are so different and that cannot be hunted apart – Ruffed Grouse, the darling of my palate, and the darling of my heart, Woodcock.
After I moved to Traverse City it is almost impossible for me to go anywhere else during October. The days may be balmy or may be frosty, sunny or rainy, still or blowing, still fall is in the air, the grouse are doing what they do, making us believe that they only exist in our imagination and then exploding from under our very feet or from a branch where they should never be allowed to be, and the woodcock, local or migrating, fill our days with joy zigging when they should be zagging or the other way around.
No matter what year it is, it appears that grouse are always at the bottom of their cycle, and every bird is a true trophy, at the field and at the table. Last fall was even worth as there was little or no fruit to gather the birds, but I can replay the shots of each of the three birds I shot.
Oh, but talk about a fall of woodcock! The lite, delicate and brave birds abounded. For me nothing compares to hunt woodcocks where the trees give way to the ferns, and when the ferns are just starting to die and the trees are bursting with colors.
I will never forget a woodcock that I never shot but that almost impaled me after it flushed coming within inches of my face before it veered away. And I will never forget the true double that I shot on 9th October. The right barrel of my old Laurona hit the first bird going straight away and then I swung on the second bird that took to my right and dropped it with the left barrel. And yes, I had witnesses: Mr. Bill Berghuis and Mr. Del Whitman, Jr. Now, whether or not you consider them reliable, that is your call.