Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By KEN ALLEN
Rainy, cold weather in June raised havoc with ruffed-grouse production in midcoast and central Maine, so partridge hunting in these regions should prove fair to poor this fall, and I'm betting on poor.
Opening day Tuesday will discourage this crowd, but these days serious upland-bird hunters with dogs normally head north to huge, private timberlands anyway, where grouse and woodcock flourish around huge clear-cuts and in stream bottoms. In early winter, hare hunters also go north.
I've said this here before, but grouse can be so scarce in Maine's bottom third that when grouse hunters meet, they often ask, "Have ya' got ya' grouse yet?"
This is a take-off on the question that deer hunters ask in their sport, "Got ya' deer yet?" The bag limit in most of Maine may be one deer, but in many years that limit is difficult to accomplish.
In my youth, abandoned farms reverting to secondary forests created endless bird covers around central and midcoast Maine, ensuring a world-class, upland-bird-hunting experience. Covers from those days have turned into primary forests with stately mast trees, ideal habitat for deer and turkey, but bad news for grouse, woodcock and varying hare.
Upland birders in the north country find shooting reminiscent of central Maine 40 and 50 years ago, and poplar stands in many clear-cuts remind me of poplar runs in abandoned pastures and hay fields from my salad days down here -- except walking in clear-cuts can make a saint swear. Abandoned-farmland bird covers are classic all right, and for good reason.
Before bird season opens, a few trips to a skeet or sporting-clays facility polishes mount and swing. Otherwise the average wing shooter does poorly in the season's first few hunting outings.
In my youth, I shot skeet and hand-traps plenty, great for learning to wing-shoot. Also, and this is no small consideration, deer hunters who still-hunt rather than take a stand get lots of running shots because still hunting results in jumping deer into flight. Without practice, folks can forget consistently hitting a deer fleeing in full panic. Wing shooting helps whitetail hunters, particularly in conjunction with time spent on a rifle range that has moving big-game targets.
Wing shooters often make two mistakes that cause consistent misses.
With a crossing bird, hunters swing on the fast-moving target and stop the shotgun's movement on the trigger squeeze, causing the pellets to fly harmlessly behind the target. Folks should continue swinging the barrel during and after the shot. Skilled wing shots either use a sustained lead or start the swing behind the bird, catch up and go by it on the squeeze.
When mounting the shotgun, shooters forget to put their cheek firmly into the stock because they lift their head to watch the bird in flight. This fault always causes a miss.
Speaking of lifting the head, I notice that grouse and woodcock may flush with a curving, corkscrew path, which gets us to lift our heads to watch each twist and turn. When I miss on a dipsy-doodle flush, it tempts me to lift my head, but don't do it. It results in a miss.
I've said this here before but it warrants repeating. Upland hunters new to woodcock should practice from one shooting station on a skeet range -- the station-one, high-house target.
Here's why: Woodcock often flush straight up like a helicopter, level off and go straight away. After waiting for the bird to level off and head straight away, I hold the bead beneath the woodcock, squeeze and let the bird fly into my pellets. With practice from the station-one, high-house, folks can shoot a high average on these typical woodcock flushes.
In my late teens and early 20s I shot lots of rounds -- 25 and 50 targets at a time -- strictly from the station-one, high-house position, and it made a woodcock shooter out of me. The other tip for woodcock and grouse was for those dipsy-doodle flights, rising at a 30- to 45-degree angle from me -- shooting rounds solely at the station-seven, low-house target.
Hand traps help duplicate bird flushes, as does skeet and clay sports, but folks stuck with shooting clay targets thrown with a hand trap can feel confident that they are getting adequate practice -- particularly with someone who can throw a target at a high velocity with these simple gadgets.
The fruits of upland-bird shooting skills (and scouting) are this: Grouse rank as my favorite of all meats, and woodcock cooked medium rare is reminiscent of venison. They both cry for a French wine -- a flinty Chablis for grouse and a heavier Bordeaux like a St. Emilion for woodcock -- and don't forget the candlelight and china.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: