Upland-bird hunting for central and mid-coast Maine woodcock and grouse once appealed to me in a huge way, and one allure began with lots and lots of action. It was unbelievable at times.

…Like a sun-splashed, cloudless Saturday circa 34 years ago. My hard-running orange-Belton setter made 53 points in Windsor, Somerville, Appleton and Searsmont, mostly woodcock with bonus grouse. The following Saturday, the same dog pointed 52 game birds in that four to one ratio.

That day, peak foliage had ridges ablaze, beautiful beyond words, but leaves hung thickly enough to limit shooting opportunities, and besides, the daily grouse and woodcock limit numbered nine per person in those days .

When hunting with the setter back then, I only shot over points and with the Lab over clean flushes. My companions and I also avoided shooting at bumped birds. I also never followed a woodcock or grouse after missing a shot and kept my daily bag to four woodcock instead of the then five limit.

My covers were filthy with woodcock early in the season, but later, they thinned out plenty when open covers offered much easier wing shots.

One consequence of so much action was this: Weird incidents happened when a dog averaged 25 points a day. In those years, a 10-point outing was disastrous.

And here’s what I mean by weird:

Once after backing into a pull-off on the edge of a classic, upland-bird cover, I opened the camper-shell door and tailgate to let out the setter, and she pointed before jumping to the ground — a classic point with lifted paw.

A woodcock sat 20 feet away under an alder bough, flushed predictably when pushed and fell into a puff off feathers on the shot. How many points and successful shots do we make with a truck-body point?

Another time with my chocolate Lab, we were pushing down a hedge between two fields. When I came to the end of the long strip of ash, poplar and cherry, a woodcock flushed at my feet, flew up between the shotgun and chest and stung my face with its wings before flying straight away. Beating my face had rattled me, so I shot both barrels without dislodging a feather.

I glanced down at the Lab, and she was looking up at me with derision bordering on hateful scorn.

Another time at the exact same spot, my setter pointed on the field-edge with lifted paw, high tail and intense face. I pushed into poplar saplings, flushed a female woodcock and dumped it with stone-like certainty 20 yards away.

“Dead bird,” I said loudly enough as if someone were listening.

The setter would point downed birds if they lay still, and she pinned them to the ground if they tried to run. She never retrieved game, because some old-timer had told me that fetching birds softened their points. I was young then and believed — so never taught her the skill. (My last setter did retrieve with no ill effects in her statuesque points.)

Anyway, the dog had her nose practically on this timberdoodle, pointing it dead. Immediately after I picked the hen up, she came to life and then flew from my hand. I tightly squeezed the fingers to trap it but only grasped feathers — lots and lots of them.

After the woodcock had flown, I glanced at the little regal setter, and as the Lab did, she was looking at me in complete disgust.

In another cover, my tiny setter once pointed on the edge of a spreading sumac stand, great intensity that this strongly scented game bird usually generated in a dog. Her mannerism silently shouted, “Grouse.”

The bird was indeed a grouse and flew straight into a blinding sun, but my shot knocked it down anyway. It fell behind a knoll out of sight, and when I got there, the setter was getting the worst of it but resolutely held on.

She had locked her jaws on the breast and pinned the head with a paw, but its wings were free. The grouse was beating one wing hard on the side of her face on a closed eye, fanning it so hard that it made a percussion noise like a male grouse on a drumming log. The setter’s other eye was looking at me with a pleading look that said, “Do something!”

These days, the mid-coast and central Maine don’t match the upland-bird hunting of yesteryear, mostly because development has eaten up classic covers at an alarmingly fast rate. A trip to the north country resembles the sport that the bottom third of Maine produced a half-century ago.

Serious upland-bird-hunting friends now head north in October and avoid Kennebec, Lincoln, Waldo and Knox counties as well as southern Maine, where they once hunted counties that offered world-class hunting.

In the 1970s, it took me five full days to hunt from Augusta to Belfast. I went the exact same route in the mid-1990s and ate lunch at Darby’s in Belfast. Most of my old covers were gone — either developed or grown into primary forests.

Stuff like that really hurts, and folks my age no that pain well.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: