It was clear from the smudge marks on the windshield that Avery was accustomed to riding shotgun. As it was, Avery crouched in a crate in the cab of the pickup truck panting incessantly, saliva pooling on a lip on the outside of the plastic crate. Avery, a purebred English setter, was ready, his body like a coiled spring.
As soon as New Hampshire Fish and Game’s Mark Beauchesne parked the truck and opened the crate door, Avery rocketed out onto the damp ground, mouth open, tongue bouncing up and down.
Talking to me a few days prior, Beauchesne wanted to paint the picture of upland bird hunting as the consummate fall experience: brightly colored leaves, cool, dry air, maybe even a dusting of snow on the ground. The weather wasn’t really interested in letting that picture come to pass. The constant rain and drizzle at the beginning of last week made the air feel more like early spring than early fall. But that didn’t deter Avery.
“Go find a bird,” Beauchesne told his trusty companion.
The black and mostly white setter lunged into an apple orchard and was quickly out of sight — the only thing signaling his presence the bell hanging around his neck. Soon, even the bell was out of range. After a short whistle, Avery circled back, a blur of soaking wet white, and took off again, deftly navigating through thick cover, layers of briars and swampy “moose muck,” as Beauchesne called it.
At one point Avery failed to respond to Beauchesne’s calls. The bell could still be faintly heard, but Avery refused to come much closer. Beauchesne paused, listening for the bell, ascertaining Avery’s whereabouts. And then the ringing stopped. Beauchesne paused again, for a three-count or so. And then he took off. The bell silence continued. He worked quickly through branches, brushed off thorns, crunched over dead apples, twigs and leaves, all while keeping his right hand on his shotgun.
Turning a corner of thick cover and trees, Beauchesne spotted Avery, standing like a statue, his leg and shoulder muscles locked in place, his tail curved in a C-shape, strands of tail fur quivering in the wind. Avery had his mouth open slightly, his tongue tasting the air.
“Whoa,” Beauchesne said, repeating that command several more times as he approached his dog.
Beauchesne said later that when he approaches his dog when he is “on point,” the animal won’t move a muscle, other than his eyes, which seem to signal, “Hurry up and get over here.”
Beauchesne circled in front of the animal. Suddenly, a quick flutter and then a burst of feathers flew through the branches. He never had a chance to get his shotgun in position for a shot at what was likely a woodcock. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.
The sportsman tradition
Upland bird hunting has a lengthy tradition in New Hampshire. It’s a little more refined, maybe a little more upscale, at least in perception, compared to other types of hunting. There’s no overt need to buy an Italian-made shotgun with an engraved stock costing thousands of dollars, but some do.
“It’s kind of like the fly fishing of hunting,” Beauchesne said.
Hunters can spend $300 on a “special” pair of hunting pants or they can spend $30 on a pair of Carhartt pants. The sky is the limit or hunters can just go simple.
On the surface, there might not seem to be a link between roughing it through the muck on the tail of a muddy dog, and visiting a store that is identifiable by the scent of cologne wafting well outside its mall entrance. But Abercrombie and Fitch, now known as a stylish clothing store for high school and college-aged people, has its roots in bird hunting, Beauchesne said.
Unlike deer hunting, when hunters might part ways in the morning and recap their experiences at the end, upland bird hunting is a social sport. There’s no need to be quiet, at least not until the bell stops ringing. Bird hunters walk and talk through the woods, while their dogs race around in search of scent.
While the wet weather last week didn’t help create that autumn scene, the sport is truly about crisp, fall air and vivid colors. When there is a dusting of snow on the ground, the season is going strong. There’s a mystique to the sport, hunters say.
New Hampshire isn’t the best place in the country to hunt grouse and woodcock, but it is right up there. Michigan is sort of the upland bird hunting capital of the world. But bird hunting has a rich tradition in the Granite State. Depending on location statewide, late October and early November provide great bird hunting opportunities. Hunters can find birds throughout the state, particularly in thick cover, aspen stands, old apple orchards and along the edges of fields. Unless posted otherwise, state-owned lands are open for hunting (call 271-3127 for specifics).
Woodcock and ruffed grouse are the primary birds of choice. There is a pheasant stocking program as well in New Hampshire. And fall is the prime season.
The season for ruffed grouse runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, while the woodcock season runs from Oct. 1 to Nov. 14. The pheasant season runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, though hunters must purchase an additional $26 pheasant license. For those in the mood for wild turkey, there is a fall archery season for turkeys from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15. There is a limited fall shotgun season for turkeys as well. The spring turkey season this year ran from May 3 to May 31.
Dog and man
It’s all about the relationship between the hunter and the dog.
“It’s about the dog, watching the dog work, that communication,” Beauchesne said.
Some hunters opt for pointers, like Beauchesne’s English setter or German short-haired pointers. Pointers find the birds and then stand still, “pointing” out where the birds are. Then it’s up to the hunter to flush out the birds and to shoot the flying grouse, woodcock or pheasant.
A pointer’s tail stands up when it is on point — it helps the hunter see the animal. Pointers are steady to the wing, steady to the shot and then it’s time to go find the fallen bird. Beauchesne always rewards his dog with the grouse’s liver and heart.
Flushing dogs operate a little differently. Instead of pinpointing a location, flushers circle out and back, driving birds toward the hunter. That approach certainly works, but there isn’t necessarily a moment where the dog has pinpointed an exact location of the bird. Hunters use a variety of breeds for flushing, such as English Springer spaniels, cocker spaniels or even Labrador retrievers.
Hunters will follow the dogs all day long, six hours or more. It takes some woods skills, specifically compass skills. Whereas in deer hunting a hunter might sit in a tree stand all day waiting for the shot, with upland bird hunting, hunters are on the move.
“To see the absolute joy on the dog’s face is just remarkable,” Beauchesne said.
While the dogs have a specific task in bird hunting, when the hunting venture is over Avery is a mush, and he’s spoiled rotten, Beauchesne says.
During the hunting season, Avery, who weighs about 50 pounds, might lose several pounds. Beauchesne said he’ll feed the dog six cups of food per day: “I can’t feed him enough,” he laughed. By the end of the season, Avery’s chest will be much thinner in the fur department, as will his legs below the knee.
“They’re amazing to watch,” Beauchesne said. “Just athletes in the woods.”
Sometimes, for whatever reason, varying winds or simply no birds in the vicinity, dogs will have a little trouble locating grouse or woodcock.
“He gets long,” Beauchesne said. “I guess that would be the frustration.”
Beauchesne uses a buzzer on Avery’s collar to locate him, particularly when the dog is on point.
“I’m over here,” Beauchesne yells out, signaling to Avery his location. He said he’s lost Avery for about 20 minutes when he was locked down — silent and still — on a grouse. He won’t respond to Beauchesne’s calls when he is on point.
Woodcock and grouse populations are in good shape in New Hampshire. Wet springs are tough on resident animals, as they can leave chicks vulnerable to disease, such as pneumonia. At this time of year, resident birds, as well as migrants from Canada, make the Granite State home. Grouse populations can vary from year to year, depending on how harsh the spring was. Birds are looking for tight cover. Hunters target grouse right through December.
Woodcock are a migratory species that come in from Canada. This year, the federal government extended the woodcock season by 15 days, making it a 45-day season. Grouse and woodcock do spend time in similar habitat, but they have their preferences.
Pheasants were initially introduced in the United States from China. Pheasant tend to be found in more open fields.
Beauchesne remembers being able to walk in the woods in the mid-1980s without a dog and still find grouse. The days of 50 flushes in a single day are in the past, but 20 flushes in a day is hardly unheard of, he said.
Grouse are bigger than a Cornish game hen. Beauchesne treats the meat as he would chicken, roasting it or even making grouse parmesan. Woodcock is similar to duck meat. The legs are light meat and the breasts are dark. Woodcock is a little gamier, he said.
Either way, you’re eating free-range, natural, organic meat. Grouse have a pleasant, almost sweet smell. Woodcock have a stronger, gamier aroma. Even Avery will hold onto grouse a little tighter than he would woodcock. Grouse feast on ferns, berries, beech nuts and mushrooms, while woodcock go after grubs and earthworms, Beauchesne said.
The state Fish and Game Department has two survey programs targeting small game to help state biologists get information from upland hunters, said Julie Robinson, a biologist with Fish and Game, in an e-mail. The first survey asks hunters about the small game species they are hunting, which provides the department with abundance and distribution data on those species. Surveys are available to any small game hunter (call 271-2462 or visit www.huntnh.com).
The other survey targets ruffed grouse hunters, the New Hampshire Ruffed Grouse Wing and Tail survey. Hunters describe the animal harvested and submit the survey with the tail of the bird and a wing. The samples are analyzed and provide biologists with information on age and sex, distribution, and the ratio of juveniles to adult females, which is important to know recruitment into the population, Robinson said.
Ruffed grouse and woodcock are the two most popular, with 64 percent of the hunting effort going to grouse and 17 percent to woodcock. Small game hunters also hunt snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbits and squirrel, Robinson said.
“Ruffed grouse and woodcock populations are fairly healthy in New Hampshire, in fact the Wing and Tail survey has shown an increase in the juvenile-to-adult-female ratio for the past three years, a good indication that the population is on the upward end of the cycle,” Robinson said.
Forestry is part of the equation
The term “clear-cutting” isn’t always met with a positive response, for good reason — people perceive clear cuts as removing huge swaths of land and leaving no life behind. But clear cuts have a place in healthy and sustainable forest management. Sustainable clear cuts also make for fantastic bird habitat, something Fish and Game would like to see more of. The idea of clear-cutting got its bad rap, certainly, from unsustainable practices that happened years ago. That’s changed though, foresters say.
“The number one threat to both ruffed grouse and woodcock, and all small game species, is a loss of habitat,” Robinson said. “There is a dire need for more early successional habitat in New Hampshire. Currently, there is less regenerating habitat across New England than in any other time in recorded history. New Hampshire Fish and Game is working hard to change this trend by creating younger forest habitat.”
Young growth, field edges and apple orchards all make for good grouse habitat.
New England is not an untouched land of forest — far from it. In the 1800s, pretty much all of the region was clear cut to allow for sheep farming, which was exploding at the time. Suddenly deprived of forest, animals left. But as sheep farms were ultimately abandoned, forests grew back at about the same rate. The problem is that wildlife needs varying habitats. Animals need old growth and new growth and everything in between.
“A 10-year-old clear cut is heaven for woodcock,” Beauchesne said.
That’s why now, foresters will often suggest clear cutting certain sections to create meadows that animals like deer or small game thrive in. Jon Martin, a forester for the company Foreco, cut a seven-acre clear cut on his 245-acre wood lot about a year and a half ago. He left a giant pile of stumps within the clear cut.
“It’s a huge critter condo,” Martin said during a tour of his property last year.
“If you stop shaving, you grow a forest,” he added.
The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests works with willing land owners who want to create conservation easements on their property. Those easements don’t prevent landowners from harvesting wood from the property; they just guarantee that when the owner dies, the land will continue to be forested, rather than turned into a development. The government contracts with loggers and landowners to pick out prime spots for clear cuts to help animals.
About 84 percent of the state is forested, with 80 percent of the forested lands owned privately and 20 percent owned by the government. In the 1800s, 30 percent of the state was forested.
If rodents and rabbits don’t have proper habitat then they can’t survive. If there are no small mammals, then bobcats, foxes and coyotes don’t have anything to eat either.
While hunters spend a good chunk of their time working through the woods, when the bell on their dog’s collar stops ringing, things get serious.
Asked to explain what it’s like when the dog is on point, “I can’t describe it,” Beauchesne said. “Your heart stops.”
Hunters have got to believe in their dogs. They’ve got to believe their dog will remain steady even if it takes a few minutes for the hunter to catch up.
And then hunters have to make an educated guess as to where a bird, or birds, will go. Then they have to get themselves in position to flush the birds, while readying for a quick shot.
“There’s no time to aim,” Beauchesne said, that’s why hunters just point, rather than aim, their eye following a bead at the end of the barrel.
Grouse and woodcock go from sitting still to flying at high speeds quickly, so there’s not much of an opportunity to get a shot off, plus, hunters have no real idea what direction birds will take. Still, it doesn’t take much, in the way of firepower, to take a bird down.
Hunters use shotguns, with the perception being that a shotgun is a big gun, but not really in the case of bird hunting. It’s like golf clubs, Beauchesne said. For upland bird hunting, hunters don’t need the driver. They’re using something much closer to the putter. The guns have limited range and they fire multiple pellets, sort of spraying them at their targets. Hunters use 12- to 20-gauge shotguns typically for grouse and woodcock.
A tradition at risk?
New Hampshire landowners do something unlike other landowners nationwide when it comes to marking property lines: nothing. Landowners here don’t post “No Trespassing” signs on their property. They leave their lands open, open for hikers, snowmobilers, hunters and general outdoor recreation enthusiasts. That’s normal in the Granite State. Following a dog and not so much property lines, hunters are inevitably ending up on private property. A recent lawsuit has put that in jeopardy.
“Hunters are right in the middle,” Beauchesne said.
The concern from the lawsuit is that landowners might not be protected sufficiently from litigation if they provide access to their lands for hunting, fishing, hiking or any other recreational activities.
Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said a landowner in Grafton County closed a 1,400-acre parcel of land in response to the lawsuit. Some landowners are closing off their lands to “play it safe” until the issue is resolved in the legislature.
In the lawsuit in question, a Manchester man says he had permission to hunt on an Epsom landowner’s property, but that the landowner asked him to shoot any coyotes he spotted. The hunter fell from a tree stand and seriously injured himself while hunting on the property, reports indicated. At issue is whether shooting the coyotes could be considered payment for using the property. If so, the landowner could be liable.
Stock said in September there isn’t necessarily concern a judge would find for the hunter in this case, but it’s still costing the landowner significant money in legal fees. Reports indicated the lawsuit could be an attempt to get the landowner to settle out of court for an amount less than what it would cost to defend himself in court. Landowners are concerned they could face similar lawsuits.
“Here you have a landowner who has to spend a lot of money to defend himself,” Stock said last month. “He’ll win the case but he’s still out a lot of money. That just doesn’t seem right. You win the case but you still end up losing thousands of dollars to defend yourself.”
Legislators are working on the issue. They understand what is it stake and so they are working to create legislation that ensures landowners are free from liability from lawsuits for allowing access to their property. House Speaker Pro-Tempore Gene Chandler and state Sen. Andy Sanborn are pushing to craft legislation to provide landowner liability protections. Stock said there is expected to be a bill introduced in January. Chandler said lawmakers need to ensure that landowners continue to feel comfortable they’re protected.
Certainly, there is a substantial potential economic impact here. Sanborn said last month snowmobiling and hunting together brought in nearly $1.6 billion to New Hampshire last year. Sanborn asked landowners last month to bear with lawmakers as they write legislation to address landowner liability protections.
It’s New Hampshire’s attitude toward not posting lands that is at risk.
“That’s the thing, New Hampshire is really unique,” Stock said. “Unless it’s posted, you can walk across the property.”
Of course, the vast majority of land in the state is privately owned. If someone is hiking, hunting or snowmobiling, they are probably crossing onto private land at some point. Even if someone is hiking in the White Mountain National Forest, there is a reasonable chance they would cross into private property in their travels, Stock said.
For those who have never been hunting, it may seem like a relatively low-cost activity taking place in some distant outdoor spot. But it carries with it a significant chunk of cash for equipment and expenses related to a hunting trip.
In 2006, hunters spent $74.5 million on hunting in New Hampshire, according to the 2006 National Survey of Hunting, Fishing and Wildlife-associated Recreation. Fish and Game officials do know the majority of hunters are hunting deer, though the survey does not provide specific information on bird hunting.
In 2006, there were 61,000 hunters living in New Hampshire who spent more than one million days hunting, with each hunter averaging 17 days of hunting that year. Hunters spend $17.6 million on trip-related expenditures and $56.8 million on equipment and other items, with the average hunter spending $1,094.
There were 9,000 non-residents who hunted in New Hampshire in 2006. The non-residents spent 88,000 days hunting, with each hunter averaging 10 days hunting. Non-residents spent $15.6 million in total expenditures with the average hunter spending $1,703.
All told, wildlife-associated recreation expenditures in New Hampshire in 2006 exceeded $520 million, with hunting and fishing expenditures supporting 4,000 jobs.
Athletes in the woods
It’s not really about killing birds. It’s about much more than that. Getting a bird is dependent on a person and a dog being on the same page, and then a split-second reaction with the gun. There are no guarantees.
“Really it’s just getting out there,” Beauchesne said. “I’m just following the dog to all these great places.”
Some hunters — ones with the income and flexibility to do so — begin their bird hunting season in New Brunswick in Canada and make their way south through New England and into Pennsylvania, and maybe they make a swing over to Michigan as well.
“It’s perpetual fall for these people,” Beauchesne said.
Back at Avery’s first point last week, Avery holds his position, still pointing. Beauchesne looks around some more but nothing takes off. He releases Avery, who continues to circle the same general area — Avery still appears interested. He crashes into a thicket.
“Bird in here,” Beauchesne rings out. “Where are they, buddy?”
There’s still something close by. And sure enough, a few seconds later, Avery is back on point. Once again, the bird takes off too quickly and there is too much cover for Beauchesne to get a shot off.
But Avery is having a blast, still diving into the brush, wading through streams and springing over rock walls. On the ride back, the bundle of energy finally collapses in the crate. Beauchesne said Avery knows how to kind of shut it down when there is a break in the action. A few minutes later, he’s up again.