2017 Bird Hunting Odyssey
In the fall of 2017 I set out to realize a long-time dream of taking an entire bird season off to travel around the country with my dogs in pursuit of upland birds where ever the weather and the birds might take me. After kicking off the season with blue grouse, sharptails, and Hungarian partridge in my home state of Wyoming, I hooked up Gypsy (a 23 foot airstream), loaded equipment, provisions, and the dogs, and on October 5th, headed east to Minnesota to chase ruffed grouse and woodcock in the Northwoods. I would spend three months hunting birds from Minnesota to Arizona. Truly a dream come true. My wife Ann accompanied for the first leg of the trip in Minnesota, and during the ensuing weeks I would meet up with a number of my bird hunting buddies to hunt in various locales. Over the course of the trip, I kept a journal and sent updates from the road to friends and family. I certainly enjoyed writing them, and to my surprise, most of the folks who read them seemed to find them entertaining. So - inasmuch as we're in the doldrums between hunting and fishing seasons (at least here in the west), I plan to post those Odyssey Updates in this blog over the coming weeks. Hopefully you may also find them interesting and perhaps they might serve as a nudge to get you thinking about next fall and perhaps do a little planning of your own!
Here we go...
Dateline October 12: We’re into Day 6 of the Odyssey and it has been great so far. Ann and I are encamped at a State Wildlife Management Area northcentral Minnesota. The drive out was uneventful and we arrived the evening of our second day of travel and set up Gypsy near the lake shore with great views of the sunset over the water. The first couple of days were quite warm, if a bit windy at the lake, but the past two nights have been pretty chilly – in the mid 20’s with hard frost in the morning. We’re testing out Gypsy’s heating system and so far it is up to the task.
I came to MN with great expectations for the grouse numbers since DNR reported drumming counts up 60% over 2016 and predicted populations would be at or near the high of the 10-year cycle. After 2 ½ days of hunting and conversations with half dozen other hunters and a couple of game wardens, the consensus is that actual grouse numbers are about the same as last year. Now that’s not bad – this is MN after all. But we’ve been moving maybe 15 or 20 birds a day rather than numbers typical of a boom which would be more like twice that based on the one year I experienced it. Nor have I seen a family group although I have shot some young birds for sure.
The short story on woodcock is that we are not seeing any serious flight birds yet. I’ve seen enough to kill a limit each day, but not many more than that and the coverts are pretty much lacking in sign that birds have been around. My hope at this point is that the cold snap we’re experiencing will bring some birds down from up north.
Monday night our good friend Jim showed up at our campsite which was a very pleasant surprise. He was in the general area hunting with some other friends and is adding a couple of days to his trip to hunt with me. So I showed him some coverts down near Cass Lake yesterday and as I mentioned above, we found enough birds to make the day pretty damn enjoyable. Jim came back to camp with me last night and shared a couple of beers and dinner of dirty rice with a main attraction of bacon wrapped woodcock with garlic and black pepper and maple and spice grilled partridge (that’s Ruffed Grouse to you westerners!). The key to these birds, as with most wild game, is to not overcook them. And with woodcock, that means no more than medium rare. So if you need your bacon crisp, you’ll have to precook it some, or just let those who can’t stand bacon that’s less than crisp peel it off and eat the bird undressed as it were.
So thus far, all is going well. Ann is very much enjoying her time camping in the North Woods. She has been out for a few walks with the dogs and I, and has also been exploring the trail system around the lake. She has logged sightings of bald eagles, muskrat, an otter, and various ducks, geese, and swans.
The one true bit of a trial we’ve experienced since our arrival was when we managed to lock ourselves out of Gypsy Tuesday afternoon. We’re not entirely sure how it happened, but somehow the locking mechanism on the door engaged when it was slammed shut. In order to fully appreciate the implications of our situation you must know that both sets of truck keys and both sets of camper keys were inside. Oh – and did I mention that both our cell phones were on the table inside as well? Can you say Holy Sh-t? We did some brainstorming and soul searching (we’re an hour drive from the closest town) and finally pulled a true McGiver and broke into our own trailer. I am not going to publish how that was accomplished as that information could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands… But we did get in, and the relief was palpable! Suffice it to say that we have modified our key management plan going forward!
Dateline Dixon Lake Minnesota, October 18
I stayed at our Morph Meadows camp until yesterday when I moved Gypsy to a nearby Resort" to avail myself of power and water hookups for a few days. The weather has been great – cool to cold nights and mild days in the 50’s for a high. There are a couple of downsides to the warm, sunny afternoons. The obvious one is that it’s a bit tough on the dogs. The one I didn’t see coming is that this area of Minnesota suffers from a plague in the form of invasive Asian beetles – an insect that looks a lot like a lady bug, but behaves much like our box elder bugs at home. That is to say they swarm in the thousands on warm sunny afternoons and try to crawl into every crack and crevice they can. In the camper, in the truck, up your nose… Oh – and if you kill them, they leave a malodorous, orange stain on whatever surface you whack them on, which apparently serves as a chemical sex attractant to all their kith and kin… I guess no place is perfect.
My good friend Mark Shively was with me for the past 3 days and we were on a bit of a quest to get Sam, his pointer, to figure out grouse and woodcock, and to get Mark his first ruffed grouse. Mark headed west back to Laramie this morning and by day’s end yesterday Sam had pointed a grouse with plenty of style but alas, Mark had failed to connect on a grouse over Sam’s or any of my dog’s points. But as Mark so rightly stated – that just gives him a reason to come back!
I haven’t seen much to change my perception of grouse numbers or the woodcock flight. Grouse numbers are at best average and the woodcock have not arrived. In terms of the latter, a dearth of birds or sign in the coverts tells the tale to date, and the unseasonably warm days and winds out of the south do not offer much hope of the birds coming down from the north anytime soon. But hope springs eternal! Tomorrow could be The Day! As for the grouse, I’ve occasionally found good concentrations in individual coverts, but on average, we’re finding maybe ten birds per full day of hunting. And most birds I’ve shot have been adults, which tells me that chick survival was not good.
A side effect of the lack of young birds (at least this is my theory) is that we are hunting very savvy birds who have “been there, done that,” and don’t stick around to see how things might turn out once the dog points them. I say this because despite the fact that both Dory and Timber have been pointing like champs, we’re getting very few shots as the birds are typically running like pheasants and then flushing well ahead of the gun. Exciting stuff, but frustrating as well to be sure!
We’ve been managing to collect some birds for the table nonetheless. We have eaten a fair number of woodcock, all prepared wrapped in bacon and cooked medium rare over coals. I tend to vary the seasonings but my mainstay is dried basil and fresh black pepper. Garlic is always a welcome addition. The best grouse dish so far was simply grilled breast filets that were first rubbed with McCormick’s Smokehouse Maple seasoning and then brushed with olive oil before cooked till just done over a hot fire. Awesome!