Our annual pilgrimage to western Maine is over once again. Sadly. And while weather would have prevented Momo + Jozsi from really consolidating all the knowledge they were picking up, I would have surely loved to have stayed longer or had multiple opportunities to get up there this season. Last year was the first year we had been able to get up there in opening week -- and I was curious to see if the upswing in bird numbers we saw last year was the start of a trend or not. I can't tell from my blog notes whether the 34 bird contacts I reported last year included the ones Dudley had seen on his own or not -- but I was really pleased with the 29 bird contacts I had with Momo + Jozsi this year. Here's a picture of Jozsi all kitted out with his skidplate, e-collar, and Astro collar -- and I don't care how hard it is to hunt wild chukar in the mountains of Utah and Idaho, but trying to keep your feet on piles of wet, snowy slash on old skidder trails while carrying a shotgun is a whole other ball of wax.
As ever, we stayed with our old friends from Ellsworth days, Dudley and Susan, at their beautiful home overlooking Mooselookmeguntic Lake. And as ever, Momo's girlfriend, Lida, ran out to the truck mewing like a kitty cat, so happy to see her old friend again. Momo really does play with Lida differently than almost any other dog -- and she is clearly fond of him. It's quite charming. This was the view from their dock one brisk morning, as the fog moved across Toothaker Island midway across the lake and hid the far shore. The drive up had been relatively uneventful and I was lucky to be able to stop off for a quick lunch at Mike & Kim's in Northfield, MA, on the way. The drive up I91 is really nice even with the leaves clearly past their prime, but still in fading russets and browns, but after getting off I91 around St. Johnsbury, it's the drive east towards Oquossoc that seems strangely familiar -- the big red Locust Grove Farm barn in East Johnsbury, VT, the snow cap on the hills behind Lancaster, NH, and the LL Cote gas-station in Errol, NH, before turning on Route 16 into Maine -- and with it the increasing likelihood of seeing our favorite car-wrecking ungulate, the moose. This phone-camera picture doesn't really show anything, but it was a mother and her two calves who decided to amble across the road in front of me. (I was really bummed the camera failed on the way home and didn't get the two year-old buck who was grazing by the side of the road in broad daylight.)
The two-and-a-half days was great for both the boys. We spend a fair amount of time training, but there is nothing like a wild bird to get them recalibrated. This is only Momo's fourth season hunting grouse and, in all honesty, if we've had more than two weeks of actual bird contacts in that time, I'd be pleasantly surprised. For Jozsi, this is only his second excursion on grouse and he's still now had less than an actual week of bird contacts. But it only takes a few birds popping off unexpectedly in front of them to teach them that this is not your average planted quail. It was so great to see both boys not only get lessons in stop-to-flush, but on the other end of the spectrum also get gradually 'stickier' and even stick some unproductive points close by -- and all in spots you'd be expecting to find grouse huddled up out of the weather. Again, I don't know if I combined my and Dudley's numbers from last year, but I know that this year I saw or heard a lot more birds flush in front of a dog working scent or already on point (as opposed to flushing wild off in the woods at an indeterminate distance) -- which tells me that my dogs are getting better at locating the forest kings even if they're still working out the distances. The other unusual detail was that we seemed to be finding more multiple bird coveys than in the past -- a fair number of pairs, but several threes, and even a couple of fours.
For Jozsi, especially, this was great. However, to go back slightly, the two things I loved about working with him this trip (and admittedly I have an Astro to make this a lot more relaxing) were his handle and his obvious internalization of the work that I, and especially Bill, put into him this summer. Of the 29 definite bird contacts, he had seven stops-to-flush. It might be uncharitable to classify them as such, but I'm calling them stops-to-flush because by the time I got to him, birds were gone. (I'm also counting these as single bird flushes, when they might have been multiples.) But my point is this: I want my dog to run and hunt and when I talk about a handle, it's not because I'm hacking him into constant close range, and so the Astro would beep that he was on point -- and then I'd bushwack 80yds through heavy cover to get to him. I'd get to him, he'd still be standing still, maybe looking up into a tree, maybe tail a little soft, but with all my crashing I may have flushed a bird that was in sitting in front of him and never even heard it. But to have a young dog understand that a bird long-gone is not an excuse to break is awesome -- especially if he knows you can't see him. His final hunt, though, he had got a great reminder of why this is a necessary skill. We were hunting a skidder trail and he cut into a line of cedars about 70yds ahead of me. A bird popped in front of him, and he stood. And as I got closer to him, cursing my way up over the wet slash, two more birds boiled up -- one of which flew across the opening but I was too busy trying to stay upright to take a shot. I fired my blank gun, congratulated him and sent him on. After the initial flush, whether he knew there were two more birds or not doesn't in some sense matter. Standing still has its rewards, too. And as I moved on, too, a fourth bird flushed off my right shoulder. How I was able to swing on that bird and knock it down, I still don't really know.
One of the highlights of the trip was meeting up with Chris Mathan of Strideaway fame who made the three-hour drive to come chase some birds, watch some dogs, and give her young dog, Kit, some exercise. I need to hunt with Chris more often. We set off towards our first set of covers and within 15mins Momo was on point at some cedars. I walked in, a bird flushed, and I released Momo. Spoiler Alert: HANDLER ERROR! And so, of course, he goes off to track the flushed bird, two more pop in the same spot, and I manage to shoot one -- even though I would swear there was a tree in the way. I then holler Momo to retrieve the bird (and hear another pop off in the woods nearby). I was so pleased him with him.
I can't hold my dogs to a higher standard than myself -- especially when I talk about learning curves on wild birds. I had never encountered more than a pair of birds in a single spot -- and never experienced one grouse flush as a decoy for the others -- and it took me one more screw-up to learn this lesson. Another 20mins later, Momo again pointed into a small cedar patch -- and as I walked in, a bird popped. Why I didn't then stop and try to stealth in further with the shotgun ready, who knows! I was still obviously sufficiently jacked up that adrenaline was blocking rational thought. And so, I released Momo again onto a second bird that neither of us was in a position to shoot. But two productive points, six birds, and a bird in hand was still a great start to the day -- especially with a borrowed gun. As you can see from the picture, this is no Birmingham-made side-by-side but a Browning A-5 Light Twenty. I remembered all kinds of things for the trip, but forgot that I'd put all my trigger lock keys on a separate keychain for my trip to Oregon. Happily, Dudley has other guns and I've always had a fascination with the ugly duckling that is the A-5.
It was also a learning experience to be out with Chris + Kit and see how someone handles an FDSB-bred pointer already educated in the world of grouse and woodcock. I don't hunt my dogs with bells because I'm concerned (and have seen proof with Bob and Dennis's dogs) that the birds will spook well in front of a jangling bell. But Astros are illegal in trialing for anything other than locating a dog no longer in contention. And so, a bell is it -- and acute hearing a must, especially when there might be a brace of dogs on the ground. Even with an Astro on, it is still a little nerve-wracking to turn a dog loose in close cover and encourage it to run. And despite being hunted hard for the previous few days, it was great to watch our respective Garmins and see Kit tow Jozsi out to almost 200yards in dense hardwoods and evergreens. The only downside was that we had no bird contacts that we know of for either of them that afternoon. It was great to meet Chris, too, and hear some of her stories about her own life with birddogs. Hope we'll get to do it again soon.