NORTH CENTRAL MINNESOTA – While it’s possible to hunt ducks, pheasants and even a grouse without a dog, it’s not as productive to hunt a woodcock or even a Labrador or other red-headed dog without an indicator ahead – although it often is. – because he is unhappy.
I was thinking about this a while ago when Bill Marchel, Rolf Moen and I were wandering the maze of gravel back roads about an hour north of Brainerd.
In similar past adventures, we were accompanied by two, and sometimes three, dogs. But we only had one prizefighter with us today, Rolf’s 5-year-old German Shorthair Sally.
The description is apt, a prize fighter, for a woodchuck to a wingshooter, and yes, as difficult as grouse hunting is, bird pursuit is even more difficult for dogs that must pass through alder thickets—mostly, gray dogwood canopies and wrist-thick aspen standing at ground level.
So now, mid-afternoon, between hunts, Sally was sleeping soundly as we headed to our third hunt of the day.
“Sally is doing great,” said Bill.
A nomadic forest dweller with an upside-down brain, the woodcock, also known as a timberdoodle, is an ideal game bird for a pointing dog to chase.
This is because a woodcock, once scented by a later freeze or “point” dog, often takes a firm hold, the accompanying hunter moves in front of the stationary dog to flush the bird and (with success and skill) shoots it in the air.
Shorthairs, Brittanies, and other so-called continental breeds are said to be lumbering experts, and there is general agreement. Shorthairs, among other similar working dogs, tend to hunt with their noses closer to the ground than setters and other pointer breeds, which work with their heads and noses high, and thus are more likely to find and point out a woodcock.
In contrast, the challenge of the ruffed grouse presented to dogs and hunters puts these birds in a sporting class of their own.
Unlike the woodcock, which is pressured by advancing hunters and their dogs, it often simply walks away or runs and/or flushes and flies away.
This can happen before the arrival of the hunter, and it often happens that the only sign that an archer is on the ground is the flapping of its wings in flight.
This hypersensitivity is why worm hunters and other sniffer dogs sometimes find better chicken. When they hunt with their noses up, they can often smell a hen from long distances. Such “full choked noses”, as they are called, can tell the hunter that a hen is ahead, even at a considerable distance, which allows for a more cautious and sometimes more productive approach.
But whether the bird being chased is a grouse or a guard, regardless of the breed of dog, if it sees a lot of action, it has a better chance of becoming an experienced and productive hunter.
My friend Walt Bruning, who used to be two Brits, often said, “If you want to make a good rabbit and woodpecker, you’ve got to put some caps on them.”
Translation: In order to learn how to pass a bow and grouse (pheasants too, but they are another story), the dogs must be taken on a hunt and shown a large number of birds in various situations during the hunt.
Only through this experience can a dog learn the tricks of the forest-bird hunting trade—for example, stopping as soon as a bird is detected and holding it there until the hunter approaches.
However, finished corn dogs are especially difficult to develop when hairy arches are in the low arc of the population cycle.
At these times, the wooden rooster can and does fill the gap nicely. Not only do they provide excellent table food, but they often provide useful dog training opportunities for these birds during the peak migration period for these birds through Minnesota, such as October 5-25.
As soon as we stopped, Sally was alert and quickly got out of the truck, followed by Bill, Rolf and I.
A healthy mix of timber, maple and a bit of pine dominated this hidden alder and dogwood understory, which we thought offered equal opportunities for grouse and woodcock.
“If you two want to be on either side of me, I’ll take the middle with Sally,” Rolf said.
Such trips are not available to everyone. The dead often litter the forest floor, and the branches pose countless hazards to exposed skin. Among these obstacles, the fast-flying birds must be successfully targeted. Otherwise, it’s just another walk in the woods.
“The place is so dry that I can see why we don’t find more than one woodcock here and there,” said Bill. “They like the soil moist and soft, so they can use their beaks to search for food.” ‘
Wearing a special collar that beeped at intervals as she fell forward, Sally appeared and disappeared in a flash of white, her nose poking forward.
Bill, Rolf and I joined in his direction as the sound of his collar changed rhythms indicating he was in position.
“He’s here,” said Rolf.
This would be Bill’s opportunity, and he crouched under the overhanging branches as he slowly moved toward Sally’s stiff pose, then stepped forward.
No greater expectation is met with in any sport, and when the spiked woodcock finally helicoptered down from the forest floor, climbing vertically after the burns to attempt to escape, Bill chased him with a load of chilled 7½s.
And so it went one fall day in north-central Minnesota. For Sally and for us.