Hunting birds in 'the now'

Writer Dave Mull holds a woodcock harvested in the Upper Peninsula last Saturday. 

Jimmy Buffet’s song ‘I Love The Now” has these lines:

“I love the now, all the pain and the pleasure, I love the now, all the blood and the treasure.”

It occurred to me a few years ago that loving and living in “the now” is one reason why I like hunting for grouse and woodcock. If you don’t enjoy the pain and the pleasure, the blood and the treasure, this pursuit isn’t for you. And if you don’t focus on “the now” and completely immerse yourself in the present, you likely will miss all of the birds that flush. You could get hurt, too.

I spent last week at our 33rd annual Lady Macbeth Memorial Grouse and Woodcock Camp in the Upper Peninsula and hunted more than usual since a wheel flew off my boat trailer about 50 miles after leaving home (see last week’s column).

With dogs, we pursue birds that live in places neither made for human footsteps nor conducive to shooting shotguns. Aspens spring up after lumber companies clear-cut a parcel of land, removing almost all of the large trees. Aspens grow fast and after a few years, provide the kind of habitat that these gamebirds prefer.

The gamebirds hide under an understory of bracken ferns, and the trees grow so close together that it’s not easy for owls and hawks to fly through them. Rabbits might have a hard time getting through some of these tangles.

The lumber companies clear-cut the land, but don’t come close to clearing it. One must step on and over logs left behind by the lumberjacks.

These logs and sticks are often just decomposed enough that the bark is gone. If they’re wet, they’re slippery. And they are almost always wet. If slipping on those things doesn’t make you fall, a variety of vines and tree branches from fallen trees are there to trip you.

Priority one is simply not falling, although just about everyone does eventually. I was feeling good about falling just three times in five separate hunts last week.

So you must constantly look at the ground in front of you. But you also follow a dog through this stuff so your head is in constant motion. And you’re in this snarl of Ma Nature to try to shoot a bird or two, so your second priority is being ready to shoot.

A bird might be frozen in front of a pointing dog, but more often they’re sneaking away from the point and might erupt 30 feet away. Both grouse and the smaller woodcock seem launched into the air and are at full speed as soon as they leave the ground. You have about one second to shoulder your shotgun, take your safety off, aim and shoot.

To be successful, you look ahead for where you can stand and swing your shotgun as you squeeze your way through the aspen. This means you walk, climb and slide in a zig zag pattern. You look ahead for gaps in the growth where you won’t whack your gun barrel against a small tree if you swing on a bird. I started hunting these birds 32 years ago and have whacked many an aspen and let birds escape unscathed. Another point of pride is I didn’t whack any aspens this year. Most of the birds flushed to freedom because I just didn’t shoot very well. I harvested two woodcocks and one grouse all week and am not a bit disappointed. This activity is truly about the hunt, not the kill.

No other outdoor sport I’ve ever tried requires so much concentration to avoid potentially serious consequences. Sure, you need to concentrate when fishing, but if your mind wanders into a daydream, you’re not likely to fall holding a loaded shotgun. Hunting like this is physically challenging but mentally relaxing. You just don’t have any windows where you can think about anything in the past or the future. If you think about troubles at home, you have immediate troubles in the woods. You have no opportunity to worry. You truly live in the now, and it’s a great place to be.

Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at dave.sportfish.mull@gmail.com.