It’s been some time now since Garrett and I found ourselves in the midst of a week-long road trip back in October, but the memory of my first double is still fresh in my mind. I can still relive it in my mind from the moment the dog picked up bird scent to the high-fives among friends once it was all said and done. While grouse season is not officially over in Minnesota, ’tis still the season to take a look back on another memorable season in the grouse woods.
The moment came three days into our trip after a long day of hunting unfamiliar territory near Ely Minnesota. Luckily we had our new friend Steve showing us around and putting us into some quality cover. It had been one of those days where the birds seemed to be few and far between but we pressed on as conditions were favorable and the three of us, along with the three dogs, were all enjoying ourselves. It was the time of day when the sun was low and we had only enough time left to squeeze in one more walk before darkness ended our hunt for the day. The pups had already received plenty of work and Stella, Garrett’s four and a half-year old GSP seemed to be feeling a bit neglected. She hit the ground running and made it her mission to make sure we wouldn’t forget the last hunt of the day.
It wasn’t long before we found some action, unfortunately for us and Stella, a couple of Ruffs had wandered out near the trail for the evening and they were on high alert as Stella crested the hill in front of them. This quickly resulted in two wild flushes and no shots fired. We made it a bit further down the trail when Stella dove into a thick patch of briars. She clearly had a nose full of scent. When Stella locked up on point, Steve and I watched from the trail in a perfectly elevated position, we eagerly prepared for a fantastic open shooting opportunity. However when the game broke from its position there was no whir of wings or fantastic shooting opportunities to be found. What we heard was an uncharacteristic charge and bark from Stella. As the situation played out in front of us our attention quickly shifted to the ball of fur rocketing out from underneath the dog back towards us. “It’s a rabbit,” I shouted as a shot simultaneously rang out from the barrel to my left. It was the first shot Steve had let fly all day and it was true! I don’t know that the gun made it all the way to Steve’s shoulder and I don’t know that I’d challenge him to a duel anytime soon after seeing that quick-draw hip-shot! Stella retrieved the rabbit and we all celebrated the unusual but memorable event. Fortunately for me that would not be the end of the skillful shooting on display for the evening.
A little further down the trail we found the end of the road at which point the light was getting low and we decided to head for the truck. On the way back we decided to make a small loop off the trail to push a nice looking piece of cover and see if we could put another bird or two in the air. The three of us formed a wall and pressed into the cover. I wasn’t fifteen yards in when Stella made a pass in front of me and dropped her head to the ground, tail wagging furiously. We’d noticed in the days prior to this that Stella had seemed to slow her pace at the slightest hint of scent, she would then slowly creep up on the birds with mixed results. We thought she may be attempting to change her style a bit after a few bumps earlier in the trip, regardless it was fun to watch and another example of the additional experience and enjoyment a dog brings to the hunt.
This time however I knew there was a bird somewhere ahead of her and I was determined to reward her efforts for us at the end of a long day. I slowly followed Stella as I fought the brush and attempted to keep my gun as close to the ready position as possible. I followed her for what seemed like minutes, but was more like fifteen seconds, my pulse was pounding. Finally Stella stretched into a rigid point that could only mean one thing, a bird was just in front of her. I was free from the brush and ready to go, a rush of adrenaline flowed through me, I was on edge, my mind completely focused on the scene in front of me. It’s a good thing I was because I needed all of that focus for what happened next. Even now I can put myself in that moment, time frozen, a dull gray sky, Stella on point in front of me, my body tense with excitement. Then the flush and a few seconds of chaos. There were no decisions made or calculations considered, just focused unconscious action directed by every experience contained within my mind leading up to that point in time, my first double!
So what actually happened?! With Stella on point so intensely I figured she was on a woodcock, I was right. The bird got up about five feet in front of her offering a nice shot slightly to my left. As my gun rose to meet my line of sight on the woodcock, a familiar sound filled my ears, the unmistakable thundering of wings that can only be produced by a Ruffed Grouse. Within my peripheral vision I noticed a grouse taking off from a limb about fifteen feet above the dog and shooting out into an open patch of gray sky. Somehow, my mind managed to track all of this activity whilst continuing the direct action it had started. I completed a shot towards the woodcock and with zero hesitation swung my body, hands and gun towards the grouse which I promptly fired on. Immediately I saw a trail of feathers fly from the grouse as his wings ceased to beat and he fell from the sky, a clean hit! The woodcock on the other hand was a question mark. I didn’t know if I had it and I actually had a second to think to myself, “shoot, I just had a perfect chance at a double, I hope I didn’t blow it!” Meanwhile Stella was busy following up on my first shot. When she popped out of the brush with a timberdoodle in her mouth I then knew I had my double and I yelled out something like “grouse and a woodcock, I got them both!” Stella quickly located the grouse and the four of us joined up to celebrate again. For the second time on the final hunt of our day, high-fives went all around and cameras came out for pictures.
What coincidence and set of circumstances aligned for me on this particular day to place a woodcock on the ground just below a grouse feeding up in a tree, I will never know! Regardless, this was certainly one of the most memorable moments of the trip for me and to share it with two friends made it even better. It’s a memory that I’ll put into the highlight category for sure. It’s one of those moments that other hunters will surely relate to. When the mind-body connection is so powerful that you are almost a witness to its work rather than the person directing the action. There’s nothing quite like experiencing those moments when you’re operating on edge in complete focus.
In the end it was a wonderful cap to an even better day. After that we all headed back to the cabin for a celebratory beer (or two) and hearty dinner of birds and Brussels sprouts.