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I always start opening day with a bit of trepidation; like shouldering that new shotgun on the first bird; a hit or miss proposition. You never know just what to expect on the first day of bird hunting season. It can be too hot, it’s always too thick, the birds are there and sometimes not. You enter the first cover with the sluggish burden of a ten month wait on your shoulders. You need that first flush to get the blood pumping and the adrenaline to kick in. It might be a woodcock but will most likely be a grouse, probably this years bird, a little naive, maybe even suicidal. It might even land in a tree nearby and look down at the dog thinking its the strangest looking fox it’s ever seen. But most likely you’ll get only a fleeting glimpse as it rockets through the thick late summer ground cover and fully leafed trees. The bark of your shotgun will salute its departure with twin loads of light 8’s. Feel it? That sweet, intense buzz that only happens when wingshooting upland birds.

If I had any sense I’d wait for at least a week to start chasing these brown bombers. I’ll scratch a few birds down through the foliage more from luck than good shooting and thank God for a good retriever because the chances of finding a downed bird are practically nil. But I’ve gotta be out there—the season is open! It’s warm and you’re down to your T-shirt by late morning and the dog is lagging behind wallowing in every mud hole it can find. The thin layer of frost that crunched under foot at first light is now melted and your "waterproof boots" are slogging and despite the chaps, your soaked to the crotch. By the end of the day even the six pound double feels like lead and there’s a stitch in your side and a cramp in your arm. Hopefully, there’s also a bird or two in your vest. Things will improve quickly and before you know it the season will be over or in these parts the deer season will begin and put a temporary damper on the birding. So you have to hunt as much as you can regardless of the heat, the impenetrable jungle or the lack of woodcock flights.

Most of the grouse you’ll find on opening day are young birds unwise in the ways of the woods during bird hunting season. They have a healthy wildness and sense of self preservation about them but none of the full-blown paranoia of their parents. Occasionally you’ll shoot a real small bird with a short undeveloped tail— a late brood bird, but most will be about the size of an adult grouse. It’s only when you feel the heft of a two or three year old cock grouse does the difference in size become apparent. These older birds can be huge in comparison. Every once in a while you’ll collect a trophy bird with a 15-16 inch fan. The majority of birds in Central Maine are of the gray phase variety, some with a steely gun metal hue to their tail. The brown, chestnut or red phase birds are less common but turn up now and then to spice up the game bag.

Woodcock of the year are almost indistinguishable from their parents. The hens always being noticeably larger than the males. A reliable way to sex a woodcock is to hold a dollar bill widthwise against it’s beak. If the beak is slightly shorter than the width of the bill it’s a male, slightly longer a female. A woodcock’s abbreviated flight as it folds at the shot is one of the sweetest things for a wing shooter. Rarely do you get a wide open shot on a grouse and usually everything happens so fast the point when the shot swarm meets the bird is a blur. A woodcock seems to hang in mid-air like Michael Jordan over the net before a dunk—then drops softly to the ground at the shot. I always focus on the spot that the woodcock landed-never taking my eyes off it even if I have a reliable retriever. I’ll walk to the spot picking out a landmark as I approach. Unless the dog has found the bird I’ll hang my hat on a branch over the spot (there’s always a branch over the spot) and begin the search.


I’ve spent close to a half hour looking for a woodcock only to find it right under my hat. It’s remarkable how much difficulty even the most reliable retrieving dog can have finding an air-washed woodcock. I’ve watched them literally step on a dead ‘cock without scenting it. I hate to loose a dead or wounded bird and experience the same relief when I spot it on the ground or the dog scoops it up as I get when finding lost car keys or a wallet.

My dogs revel in finding and chasing down winged grouse. Unlike a woodcock that sits perfectly still with their coal black eyes looking right at you, a grouse uses every ounce of it’s life to escape. On the rare occasion that neither I or my dogs can find a downed grouse I’ll leave the area for an hour or so. By the time I return the grouse has crawled out of the stone wall or hopped off its perch and left some grousey scent around. It’s usually not long before the dog is onto the bird and tackles it—feathers flying. A season rarely passes that my dogs don’t attest for a bunch of grouse and woodcock left by other hunters who didn’t take the time to search for the bird or whose dog wouldn’t or couldn’t retrieve it. Unfortunately some of these birds are a little too ripe for the freezer but some are still alive and need to be put out of their misery. I hate having to dispatch winged birds particularly woodcock. It’s made all the harder when you didn’t even shoot the bird to begin with but are administering the coup de grace for a negligent hunter. The woodcock is innocent and noble as they calmly wait for the end. And those eyes. There will come a time when I will have looked into those eyes one too many times and won’t shoot another woodcock. A live grouse comes to hand kicking and fighting and if the dog hasn’t chomped it out of annoyance the job is left to you. Do it quickly and thoroughly because grouse have a will to live that boggles the mind. It’s very disturbing to feel their ticker going full throttle as you try to finish what you started. I’ve had supposedly dead grouse come to life in my vest or my truck on more than one occasion.

The season has to start sometime if only to prompt you to check how many shells you have left over or to buy that cylinder choke tube that you’re sure will improve your average. As summer comes to a close you’ll wish you had conditioned yourself and the dog a little more and had bought a few quail to sharpen her up with. The garden will be neglected until the Spring and you’ll leave the corn stalks standing for the winter grouse. You’ll have a pit in your stomach when you visit your covers for the first time in mortal fear of seeing Posted signs or even worse a house or trailer. Woodcutting in your covers might mean better habitat later on but often precede the selling off and subdividing of the land. Chances are you will lose a cover or two every year and a little bit of your soul will go with them. You’ll get in the woods a little early just in case another hunter has discovered your secret opening day cover and maybe hide your truck just to be safe. Your wife, kids, relatives and friends know better than to plan a trip, a wedding or anything during the Fall. If you live to hunt grouse and woodcock like me you will be stepping into a gnarly, wet, bug infested cover early on opening day hoping for yourself and the dog a safe and productive season and waving him or her on to find the first bird.

Brad Eden


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