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.
I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?
Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.
Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:
1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.
In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.
My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.
Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.
Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.
Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:
Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.
2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.
I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.
Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:
3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.
4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.
5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.
6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.
7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.
8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.
Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.
Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.
9. Bring a dog.
Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)
As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.
But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!
10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!
I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.
I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.
But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.