The outings I remember best aren’t the ones with the heaviest game bags. This is because hunting is as much about challenge as getting game. One hunt in which I really cleaned up has all but faded from my memory except for the basic facts. It’s odd to say this but there were too many birds for good hunting.
My dog and I had stumbled into a flight of migrating woodcock. Birds jumped up like popcorn every twenty steps. The poor dog had so much scent to puzzle out she was frazzled and didn’t know which way to point her sniffer. After missing my first shot that day, I connected on my next eight shots and bagged a limit of woodcock in short order. Good hunting, I suppose, but that’s all I can remember about that day. I’m not a particularly good wing shot and have never made eight shots in a row before or since. What I had that day was a freakish string of easy shots where everything went right.
It was FLUSH BANG RETRIEVE. FLUSH BANG RETRIEVE. Eight times. FLUSH BANG RETRIEVE. Finished. Go home. It felt hollow. It’s what other writers have called the triviality of limiting out. If this ever happens to me again, I’ll handle it better by taking only difficult shots crossing left to right which, grouse in particular seem to know I can’t hit.
Contrast this to another hunt where I nearly got skunked but the memory lives on as though it were this morning. The dog had scoured all of our known grouse hideouts for most of the day and had only struck scent once. That bird flushed out of range and with it disappeared my hopes. My weary arms had been carrying the shotgun in the ready position all day. I lowered it to my side because the shortest distance back to the car was through woods too open to hold grouse.
It was a forlorn trudge back. I’d given up for the day, lost my focus and didn’t pay attention the dog getting birdy as she circled a dead fall. I remember thinking, crazy mutt! There are no grouse in open hardwoods in early December. The dog poked her nose under the branches and out burst a grouse roaring past me so close I felt the wind off its wings.
I snapped into action with snail-like speed. The bird was twenty yards down range with the throttle hammered before I could spin around and shoulder the gun. Thirty yards out, I finally caught up to the speedster with the muzzle and tapped the trigger. Nothing. NUTZ! YOU KLUTZ! Forgot the safety. Forty yards out, I jabbed the muzzle near the bird and fired. The grouse did a stylish barrel roll and glided into the weeds.
The dog was after it in a heartbeat. That bush chicken had no more than a broken wing and tore out on foot for the thickest cover available. The dog trailed the bird’s foot scent for over a hundred yards. The bird was ziggin’ and zaggin’ but mostly zaggin’ and came right back toward me. When the dog finally closed in, the bird sprung into the air but couldn’t get going. The dog leapt and snatched it while they were both in the air, then came trotting back to release the bird unceremoniously in my hand as though she did this every day. She didn’t even sit still long enough for an ear rub.
So, here we have a memorable hunt with a single bird in the bag and no glory for me. I had handled the whole thing like a ham fisted clown. I wasn’t ready because I failed to watch my instrument, the dog, which always gets birdy long before the flush. Then, I forgot the safety and when I finally managed a clumsy shot, it was a single lucky pellet on a tiny wing bone and a determined dog that brought the bird to hand. Nothing to brag about, but a sweet memory just the same.
I’ve had a day when everything went right and it was all too easy. The normal hunting experience of hard work and a little luck make a richer memory than a heavy game bag. And it’s the memories that keep us going through the long months of the off season.