Winslow had tracked a deer to a known location on a training run before, but he got his first bona fide recovery call this evening, as my buddy Matt shot a buck with a bow. The deer ran across a big field and stopped at a fenceline not far from Matt’s truck. When he returned to the truck, the deer stood up and jumped over the fence into a patch of moderately dense woods. The track was four hours old when we got there.
We started Winslow at the bed spot at the fence line, handed him over the fence and he started on a line more or less perpendicular to the fence. Pretty thick stuff. After a while he seemed to lose it and doubled back to where we started. Then he almost ran parallel to the fence until we reached a stone wall and another fence. Jumped that and he took off parallel to that fence, so he’s now literally going in 180 degree the opposite direction that he started in, but he seems on a mission so I go with it. For like 500 yards. By the way I’ve only seen a little blood at the fence line bed spot, nothing since. I think maybe I see some deer tracks in a cow pie but at this point I think maybe he thinks we’re just going for a cool walk.
We start getting near a herd of cows and the whole thing doesn’t seem right to me, so we turn back. Matt has to go trick or treating but I really want to find this deer so I stay, and start over, this time from an earlier known spot where Matt had left his arrow, bloodied, where he saw the deer cross a path cut through the field.
Winslow smells the arrow and takes off in the opposite direction from the known fence line spot, and I think, well maybe he’s tracking it backwards to the hit spot. Which would be cool too, at least I’d know he was on the trail. Still, mind you, I have seen no blood but for the known bed.
He accelerates, excited, as we enter the woods. He’s now traveling parallel to the cow pasture track he was on earlier, only about 30 feet away on the other side of the fence/wall. But he’s not really sniffing or tracking. I’m starting to wonder again if he’s just on a walk. I ask him, “Buddy, does this seem right? This doesn’t seem right.” But then he says, “Hold my beer,” cuts left, thirty yards, then left again and kicks up a vulture feeding on the deer he’s been after the whole time.
It’s not the deer we were after, I’m afraid. And maybe it’s not such a grand accomplishment to scent track a deer in the woods that a vulture probably found from two miles away. But I feel vindicated that he was so far off track for a reason. Vultures and flies already had a good start on this poor boy, who was either poached or ran a good distance from wherever else he was shot. But he is not our deer. Still, it’s the first deer Winslow has ever found on his own, and I thank Matt for letting me take these antlers as a little trophy for him.
We’ve really walked a long way already, but I really wanted that deer. So we went back to the arrow and I pointed Winslow in the right direction. Again, he moved with purpose, confidence and speed, on a path of suspiciously, conveniently short grass to be our deer. I mean, wounded deer don’t want to trudge through four foot tall grass, but dachshunds sure as hell don’t want to either. As we approached the original fence line bed, he turned right and had tracked, with 100% accuracy, directly to my truck.
We watered down and thought about leaving, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I brought him back to the fence bed and found a specific leaf with a specific spot of blood on it and pointed to it. He seemed utterly uninterested, either because he was already aware of that bloody leaf, or he was just done. But I put him over the fence and crawl over myself, and try again.
He takes off, more methodically this time, but along the same line he originally tracked. I don’t know if he’s smelling his own track, or me, or Matt, or the deer, but I put all those in descending order of likelihood.
Low branches, brambles, thorns of course, every yard takes half a minute. We had gone maybe twenty yards and I’m about to call it and I’ll be damned if he didn’t track directly over the first bright red blood spot I’ve seen all day. But that’s it. Just one drop.
Then he just starts walking up a tree. I’m like, “Well now you’re just fucking with me.” But blood trackers do say “Trust your dog” a lot, so I do actually look into the tree for the deer. He is not there.
So for the severalth time, I declare we are done searching. Then he puts his nose down and goes again. Ten more minutes, twenty more yards, I’m pulling him back and about to text Matt that we’re done and he finds another spot. It’s on again. He’s speeding up now, and blood is visible in larger quantities and more frequently.
He moves faster and faster and now I’m starting to think, maybe we’re going to find this thing! We get to another fence with a smear of blood and what looks like a small tuft of white fur on the barbed wire. He definitely passed through this space. It’s a cool thing, to have no idea where this deer went, and then work really hard to get to one very specific place where he absolutely has been.
But we cross over and all traces vanish. Not a single drop on the far side of the fence. We really looked, but unfortunately finally had to call the search.
But I’m thankful to my friend who gave us a chance. And I’m proud of my boy who found a deer we didn’t know was missing, and after walking four miles on short little legs, and after having lost interest long since, continued to find traces of blood along this track that were very few and far between.
If you give me a week in late October, a few tanks of gas and a friend (and his dog) to pass the drive time with, I will point the truck North every time. On this occasion, the passengers were my friend Douglas Dear and his pointer, Vic, and our destination was the north woods of upper New Hampshire, not far from Maine. We met our dear friend Ed Nicholson and his pointers Stella and Ruby for a few days of hunting the odd and challenging American Woodcock, known in some circles as the Timberdoodle. I’m told that people also hunt grouse, but while we did see or hear several in two days of hunting, I can’t imagine how it’s possible to shoot one. In any event, to follow are my favorite photos from my trip, which took a detour after bird hunting to do a little fly fishing in the Adirondacks before I headed south, leaving Douglas and Ed to more birds in Maine…
Douglas gearing Vic up for his first shift afield.
This custom Aya side-by-side Douglas shoots was a favorite photographic subject of the week. Absolutely stunning.
The first reports echoing through the dense New Hampshire cover were intended for a woodcock who escaped this volley, and gave me a look at just how challenging these birds, and this cover, would prove to be.
Conditions have been very warm and dry for many weeks in this area, making for tough scenting conditions for the dogs.
Ed bagged the first woodcock here, and the biggest of the week.
Here Vic is on point on a bird I shot first with my Nikon, then with my Winchester.
Douglas also shot at this bird, and if you’ve ever been around hunters before, you can imagine how much discussion there was about whose pellets brought the bird down. I have shipped the bird and ammunition samples to a forensics lab to settle the matter decisively, but since it’s my blog I’m going to call this my first woodcock.
I love my 1950s Winchester Model 12 16-gauge, but the juxtaposition alongside the masterpiece Douglas shoots is almost comical. Still, they both will kill birds, plus I get a third shot with mine!
The next morning I rushed outside the Mahoosuc Inn where we stayed to try to capture this sky.
Our guide, Craig Doherty of Wild Apple Kennel, brought some of his fine pointers as well. With unseasonably warm temperatures, it was important to keep the dogs fresh.
Ed, Douglas and Craig heading back to a nice tailgate lunch.
Douglas picked up a hitchhiker along the way.
Another look at this gorgeous shotgun. That is his boy Vic depicted in the engraving.
As with any other type of hunting, gathering around a tailgate recounting the day with a beverage is always a highlight. Even if you’re just drinking cough syrup, like Ed is here.
We enjoyed cold beer, hot food and warm hospitality at the home of Craig and his wife on the evening of our second day of hunting. Ed fried up some of his famous breaded woodcock breasts as an appetizer, and they were cooked to perfection and just delicious.
Tim, another guide and dog trainer, demonstrates that just because you have very serious bird dogs, doesn’t mean they have to work all the time. At one point in the evening there were six or seven dogs in the kitchen.
The next day I left my friends and their dogs behind for some relaxation in the Adirondacks. Many years ago I drove through Lake Placid up to Saranac Lake in the peak of fall and just fell in love with the area. Getting there and finding a decent meal were the only things on my agenda for the whole day, so I took my time and stopped at interesting spots along the way. I toured the Cabot cheese factory, photographed a couple of covered bridges, and stopped at a fish hatchery on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. It’s fun being a tourist with a whole day to burn.
The moose population has been decimated in recent years, our bird guide told us, largely from tick infestations. While we saw plenty of moose sign in the woods, and even some fairly recent scat, we didn’t spot any actual moose. I did stop at a house near our Inn that had a sign in the driveway advertising moose antlers for sale. The man selling the shed antlers (yes, I bought a small one) told me the same story of drastically reduced numbers of moose in the region.
I got to the Wilmington/Lake Placid area in time to scout the West Branch of the Ausable River a bit before dark, and returned to this spot the next morning. What struck me most about this place the first time I passed through it was the black water reflecting autumn scenery like a mirror. Standing in this river for the first time I can tell you it is strikingly beautiful. And a huge pain in the ass to wade. What it lacks in accessibility, it makes up for in treacherous footing once you get there. But I spent the day exploring, slipping, turning various ankles and knees, and going back and forth between cursing the place and standing in awe at its raw, rugged beauty. Those who have fished with me know that while I prefer to catch at least one fish, I am content to be in a pretty place, watching things like this cloud plume hugging the contour of a mountain on the horizon.
Another place I found while looking for trout that morning seemed a perfect spot to return to with lunch. I found a gourmet sandwich shop in Lake Placid and did just that. As delightful a nonproductive fishing morning as I’ve ever had.
Late that afternoon the skunk was extracted, kicking and screaming, from the boat, as they say. Nymphing from a steep bank into a deep hole, this pretty little brown fell for my antics. Anxious to secure photographic proof of the thing, I scrambled down and almost slipped into the chilly Ausable. This fish, by the way, was the only one I got to the net. Whenever I work hard for a long time and catch a single fish, I always feel kind of sorry for it. The future can’t be bright for the only trout dumb enough to be caught by me when I am so obviously doing all the wrong things.
The next morning was beautiful but windy. Fly fishermen: Ever have one of these days? Wanting to get a fresh start, I stood at my tailgate and painstakingly re-rigged everything, making sure knots were secure. I decided to go with a double nymph setup to give me a better chance at attracting another idiot trout or two. The first nymph is tied on, then I cut another length of tippet for the second nymph, tied that to the first, then tied the second, smaller nymph to the end. I picked up my rod and somehow while I was doing all that, with my rod lying on the tailgate, the first nymph had become irrevocably tangled around the rod. Hopeless. I struggled for a while and then had to cut both of them free and start over. I should have quit right then, but I subjected myself to several more hours of aggravation before I decided to just do some sightseeing. I went to the Lake Placid ski jumps and saw them up close, but this view from the golf course just at the edge of town was by far my favorite.
Finally, after an absolutely lovely lunch and a couple delicious regional beers at a place called the Pickled Pig, I walked across the street to the Olympic Center, home of the Herb Brooks Arena, where there was a kids hockey tournament going on. I asked at the gate if I could go in and see in person the 1980 rink, where the United States team of amateurs beat the Soviet team in the Miracle on Ice. (Although I wonder why the game was never nicknamed ‘The Cold War.” Just me?) There is a real weight to the place, you can feel it still. I very much appreciated the opportunity to see where the magic happened up close.
So it’s been a great, long week. I drove 1,500 miles, and after stretching six days of clothes into a seven day trip, still got an enthusiastic welcome from my wife and all the dogs. I love trips like this, but I’m always, always, glad to be home.