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have a strange affinity for dogwood
thickets. They have a power over me
that is hard to resist. You see, dogwood
thickets of the red osier variety
contain and harbor grouse. That fact
withstanding, there are other reasons
why I daydream about dogwood.
makes one feel as intensely alive
as the searing whip of a dogwood sapling
across a cheek on a cold windy day.
As my eyes stream and I swear bitterly
I can’t help but smile to myself
because of exactly where I am. I am
grouse hunting on a cold and windy
day in a place where no other humans
dare to tread.
are beautiful in their density and
the chaotic uniformity of their stalks,
or is it trunks? Or maybe they are
stems. From a distance they look like
a leafy throw pillow speckled with
miniature pearls. The waxy gray white
berries are everywhere and grouse
seem to love them. When I see the
patches running across abandoned fields
like brick colored clouds, I stare
into them wondering . . . where would
I find birds?
thicket is not for the light of step
or body. It is only possible if one
can dowse out the secret paths and
maintain a forward leaning that parts
the dense stems. The key is to keep
moving and maintain forward motion
without poking your eyes out. Holding
a shotgun vertically with forearms
at a rigid 90 degrees seems to work
the best. It’s really impossible
to shoot at birds in these thickets,
the idea is to bull through in search
of the small islands of light in between
stands. The constant sound of flushing
grouse is an excellent motivator to
find these havens.
really hard to get ones hands around
the whole practice of grouse hunting
in terms of defining its essences.
There is the tradition to be learned,
absorbed, and loved. The history and
literature of pa’tridge hunting
that allows one to feel a part of
a continuum. There are aesthetics
and values that and they are the flagstones
on which we tread as we scramble through
our own thickets. There is also the
departure from tradition, knowing
the rules and breaking from them in
a way that personalizes the experience.
I do it by hunting grouse behind a
Labrador Retriever. Following a Labrador
Retriever in search of Ruffed Grouse
through Red Osier Dogwood? To be honest,
I don’t recommend it. Few can
take the punishment and fewer learn
to appreciate the subtler values.
in and around dogwood thickets with
a flushing dog, one must strive to
maintain a heightened sense of awareness.
It’s like walking meditation
but with pointy sticks, spider webs,
tangled footing, and a shotgun. The
communication with the dog must be
clear for only brief glimpses are
caught of each other. Body attitude,
hand signals, whistles, and telling
glances are exchanged with altered
gaits, tail motion, and expressive
roll-eyed glances. When it comes together
I know just when I need to be focused
before the blur made of sound causes
my gun to leap towards it. Once years
ago this happened. I knew by the dog
that the bird was near. I took steps
to clear the thicket and place the
sun behind me. The late afternoon
light was golden and it drenched the
remaining early November leaves. From
my left I heard the deep drumming
whir of a rising grouse. My gun leapt
and as I saw the briefest blur it
I cried out
when I saw the fall, surprised, shocked,
elated! I found the fallen grouse
before the dog dead next to a clump
of leafy grass. It was large and perfect
in brown and gray paisley. I stroked
its crest and beak. I fanned its tail.
I said a prayer of thanks. And then
the dog found us and bowled me over
with un-checked excitement. She licked
the bird and my face as we rolled
on the ground on the edge of a dogwood
thicket laughing and whooping. It
was our first ever grouse and it was
So, if you
happen to be out deer hunting and
hear something large crashing through
the dogwood thickets, please don’t
shoot it to put it out of its misery.
It could be me, and I am probably
already bleeding. If you see a large
haggard man in stained brown rags
stumble out of the woods with a shotgun,
please don’t call the sheriff.
I am not a hillbilly whose still blew
up. I just look that way. It has something
to do with this strange affinity I
Jeff Combs, also known as “Briarscratch”,
is an obsessed grouse and upland bird
hunter. Jeff grew up on an overgrown
dairy farm in central New Jersey at
a time when wild pheasants, ruffed
grouse and migrating Woodcock were
in relative abundance. Although things
have changed in his native New Jersey,
the desire to be afield with dog and
gun has never faded. During fall and
winter Jeff and his brown lab Ginger
spend as much time as they can in
pursuit of upland birds and waterfowl
across several states. Jeff has been
a supporter of Upland Journal and
an active participant on the Upland
Talk bulletin board since its inception.
a brief time every year, beyond the
edge of progress, a perfect place
The arrival of October
brings a host of changes to the North
Country uplands. The heat and humidity
of the past few months have vanished,
and stray leaves skitter along the
ground on brisk, scented winds. Shiny,
crisp apples from the local orchard
bounce in jacket pockets, while the
sweet fragrance of the season’s
first cider fills the air. The everyday
sight of children waiting for the
morning school bus has comfortably
returned to the land, and luminous
Jack-O-Lanterns begin to establish
their fleeting sentinel in the gloaming.
Faint honking from southbound travelers
following ancient sky routes whispers
to the earthbound what the coming
frosts will soon mark as unmistakable;
October is here.
To North Country
bird hunters, however, this time of
year means much more than leaf piles
and fresh cider donuts. For, as the
coming of the Autumnal Equinox initiated
the primeval cycle, October’s
magical transformation of the common
green of Summer into a palette of
brilliant colors completes the process.
With October’s lengthening shadows,
primal urges stir the blood of both
bird dogs and their owners in a way
little experienced, or understood,
by most of modern society. Sadly,
the majority of people, insulated
and cosseted by today’s urban
cocoons, have largely lost touch with
the seasons. Yet, clinging to a genre
that has nearly vanished, upland bird
hunters remain aware that October
is unique, and glorious.
For most North Country
sportsmen, October is the month that
epitomizes classic upland bird hunting.
The heat and thick, green foliage
that plague September disappear, competition
from November deer hunting has not
yet begun, and the cold rains, deep
snows, and frigid temperatures of
the late season remain a distant prophecy.
Pleasant weather and a backdrop of
dazzling colors are October’s
gifts. And while those vivid colors
are fleeting, few things in life are
as hauntingly perfect as a mid-October
stroll through a sun-dappled upland
forest after the first hard frost.
Surrounded by a multicolored cascade
of gently falling leaves, the October
bird hunter searches out his quarry
swathed in an ephemeral Impressionist
us of the fleeting nature of our existence.
It is certainly no stretch of the
imagination, and is in fact a commonly
made analogy, to view the natural
seasons as corresponding to the cycle
of all life. Spring and Winter are
the obvious equivalence of birth and
death. Summer and Autumn represent
the prime of life, and the onset of
middle-age. Above all others, as the
season when the long awaited hunt
begins, bird hunters cherish Autumn
in all its stages. But it is during
that brief October span when the vibrancy
of Summer fades and the tincture of
Nature’s finale appears that
those who walk the forest are perhaps
most gently, and movingly, reminded
of the mortality of all things. October
prompts us to savor every moment.
Upland bird hunting
in October is both venerable and reverent.
Against the backdrop of brilliant
foliage splashed across the landscape
the sight of a working dog, the smell
of gun smoke, and the whirring flush
of a bird kindle memories of long
past hunts. Reminiscences of hunting
partners who have passed away are
fondly called to mind, and cherished
bird dogs of bygone days are mourned.
In October, the ghosts of our past
walk with us.
October is also
a time of new beginnings and discovery.
For many, new equipment is brought
afield for the first time and new
coverts are explored. The time for
training and practice has ended, and
energy filled puppies are coaxed into
performance for expectant hunters.
Perhaps most importantly, every October
a small number of neophyte hunters
walk into the uplands for the first
bird season of their lives. Some of
these new bird hunters are self taught,
others enter the forest with an experienced
friend, mentor, or family member.
Of the whole, some, a very lucky few,
will find their soul captivated by
the essence of the October uplands
and forever seek out its untamed charms
and the wild birds that are its incarnation.
We each have only
a few precious Octobers. In fact,
there’s one waiting in the uplands
right now. Whatever you do, don’t
Shaun P. O’Connell has been
rambling the uplands of the Berkshires
and Green Mountains in search of pa’tridge,
woodcock, and brook trout since he
was a boy. Much to the chagrin of
his wife, he shows no sign of ever
©2004 Shaun O’Connell
|Countryside Rambles by Shaun O'Connell
|BRING OUT YOUR DEAD. . .
Cabin fever isn't pretty, but the sportsman's plague can be survived.
The fever struck two days into The Blizzard of 2005. Thirty-five inches of fresh snow on the ground, subzero temperatures, howling winds, and closed roadways. Yes siree, a surefire recipe for fever if ever there was one – cabin fever that is. The sportsman could feel it settling into his bones like the plague, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it, and he was afraid.
For you see, New England sportsmen are used to Ol’ Man Winter in all his guises. And they know how deadly cabin fever can be. The afflicted become moody, prowling the house unshaven, coffee cup in hand, staring morosely out of windows, snarling at spouses and children, and generally becoming all around no-fun-to-live-with. Even their dogs don’t want them around once the fever takes hold. So, over the years northern sportsmen have seized upon certain winter activities in an effort to prevent infection. They ski, snowshoe, ice fish, hunt white rabbits, and the like. Anything to get outside and into the forest. Still, a good old fashioned Nor’easter puts a bit of a damper on all outdoor pursuits for its duration, inevitably infecting the sportsman trapped indoors with cabin fever.
In general, at the first sign of symptoms a sportsman takes matters into his own hands and attempts self-medication. Sporting goods catalogues are read, reread, and read again for good measure. Internet sporting bulletin boards are visited, and cabin fever victims exchange stories of symptoms, cures attempted, and sympathies. Old sporting books and magazines are dug out of boxes and reread whilst ensconced in comfortable repose, often accompanied by copious draughts of spirituous liquids (for medicinal purposes of course).
As his attempts to stave off cabin fever inexorably fail, the sportsman may become desperate enough to agree when his spouse suggests “The Cure.” The exact nature of “The Cure” differs from household to household, but it inevitably involves manual labor of some sort, be it shoveling snow in the teeth of the storm, painting the guest bedroom, rewiring the basement, etcetera. Some experts suggest that the sportsman who agrees to submit to “The Cure” is delirious with cabin fever, however, case studies suggest it is the earlier self-administered copious draughts of spirituous liquids that are often to blame. Regardless, while “The Cure” is about as effective a treatment for cabin fever as letting blood or leeches, nevertheless it is often attempted, with no change in the sportsman’s condition resulting. And, while rumor has it that “The Cure” does wonders for the wellbeing of the sportsman’s spouse, medial literature remains inconclusive on that point.
So, with aching back and pounding head, at the end of the day the sportsman shuffles into his study for his final stand against the noxious cabin fever pulsing though his body. Fly tying gear is pulled from closets, and soon the desk is littered with feathers, hooks, and thread. From time to time the sportsman rises from his tying, pacing to the window and back. Pauses are taken to fondle shotguns, and an oily cloth passed across their wood and metal for the 100th time since the season ended. Bamboo fly rods are examined, and the smell of varnish elicits wistful sighs and visions of brook trout. Pockets of hunting vests are emptied, refilled, and emptied again. Loose shotgun shells are sorted by color, gauge, and shot size. As evening progresses and cabin fever ravages the body and mind, self-destructive tendencies rise to the surface of the sportsman’s psyche, and the veracity of shock collar settings are explored firsthand. At length, totally spent and consumed in an orgy of self-loathing and pity, our tragic upland hero winds up head in hands on the desk, passed out from snorting fly cement and Hoppe’s No. 9.
Finally, after what seems an eternity, the sportsman raises his weary head and notices something; it’s quiet. The howling winds have stopped. He springs to his feet and rushes to the windows. Sashes are thrown open, and with great joy the realization dawns that the storm is over! Purpose has been restored and the fever breaks. Miracle of miracles, it appears the plague has passed and our protagonist will live to see Spring! Like the Phoenix rising from the flames, the sportsman dashes to his pile of gear and frantically begins planning the morrow’s ice fishing expedition. Wives, children, and dogs breath easier, and life settles back into its normal routine.
It should be noted that the preceding is in no way autobiographical. How could it be? I don’t ice fish, and I’m plumb out of fly cement….
©2005 Shaun O’Connell
Curse of the upland hunter
I noticed the Real
Estate signs on one of my preseason
bike rides. I wasn’t surprised.
In my younger days I’ve been
guilty of tearing down For Sale signs
that sprung up at particularly good
bird covers and flinging them into
the woods. Childish and illegal, for
sure, but I figured those desperate
acts might stall the end of a cover
for a short time. I knew these signs
were coming. Ridgeway Road is a three-mile
semicircle dirt road that starts a
short ways up the street from my house
and swings back out to the same road.
It’s your typical, dusty, Pick-up
rattling Maine dirt road. Many a grouse
has been dusted by a dose of #6 while
pecking gravel along its bends by
generations of local heater hunters.
When I moved here ten years ago there
were maybe a half dozen houses and
trailers scattered along its length.
Now there are four times that many
with a lot more primed to spring up
very soon. You see, the town folk
have voted to hardtop Ridgeway Road
and soon after the hard top cools
the dirt driveways will be embarrassed
into getting paved themselves and
it will become just another crowded
Truth be told, the
bird covers along the undeveloped
sections aren’t spectacular,
but they are close to home. After
crashing and crawling through other
more productive covers you could always
check out a couple spots at the end
of the day and usually move a few
Woodcock and a grouse or two. Some
areas are better than others, one
of those being the one for sale. This
piece should hold more birds than
it does and I’m always surprised
that it doesn’t. It’s
about twenty acres total with a shallow
three-acre bush-hogged field along
the front with several apple trees
smack in the middle. A miserably thick
marshy area dominates the right side,
bisected by a brook that winds its
way back before petering out behind
the field. An old pine grove hugs
the left side giving way to mixed
hardwoods that end abruptly before
an army of wrist thick poplar and
alder-crisscrossed with overgrown
skidder trails, crowd their way to
the brook. Just to make things interesting
you’ll find small islands of
spruce and hemlock sprinkled throughout
the alders. The place should be stinking
with birds. I work the cover left
to right starting in the pines and
end up alongside the marsh all in
less than an hour. I can step out
of the cover into the field, call
in the dog and be home hanging the
day's birds in the back shed in five
Like any bird cover
it conceals some memories; like the
time my older brother connected on
a Woodcock in the pines (of all places)
that tumbled down bouncing like a
pinball through the branches and simply
disappeared. I can still picture him
as I approached; his double cracked
over his arm searching the ground
like this was the first bird he ever
shot or the last. I called in my golden
and we watched as he circled the area
until zeroing in on a huge overturned
tree stump. After poking around awhile
his head disappeared between some
roots and reappeared with the woodcock.
Needless to say, we never would have
found that bird without the dog.
Upland bird hunters
are considered a strange breed by
most people in the sense that it’s
practically impossible to convince
anyone why you prefer to chase game
birds around in thickets and swamps
rather than let’s say, play
golf. Those same peoples will eye
you suspiciously and slowly back away
like your slightly deranged if you
mention your dismay over the paving
of an old gravel road.
This property will
be sold soon. Even if the new owners
aren’t opposed to hunting (unlikely)
it’s still to small a cover
to hunt comfortably with a house thrown
in. Just not worth the aggravation.
The loss of little bird covers like
this one are cumulative, like the
loss of hearing from gunfire or the
hair you find on your pillow, eventually
they’ll all be gone.
this piece of soggy earth this season
if I can, late in the afternoon with
my Springer and when it’s gone
I probably won’t miss it that
much. I guess I’ve finally come
to accept the curse of the upland
bird hunter; the loss of bird covers
beyond your control. This particular
cover will become just another house
lot that I’ll drive by and remember
the time on a crisp Fall day my long
dead golden retriever made a remarkable
retrieve on a Woodcock my brother
POSTRCRIPT: 6 years
after I wrote this story this bird
cover has indeed been cut-up and developed.
My Golden Barnaby has died and I still
lament the loss of my bird covers.
Owner, Publisher, Editor &
Designer of Upland Journal Online
Still rough shooting grouse and Woodcock
in his Maine covers with two over-sized
Springer Spaniels known as “Woods