Since pod-auger days, Maine’s upland-bird hunting has thrilled folks with bird dogs and pricey side-by-side or over-and-under shotguns with open chokes, but the sport also enraptures folks without dogs or with less-expensive smoothbores.

In my 20s and early 30s, I ran bird dogs for woodcock, grouse and pheasant. My job as a school teacher allowed me to hunt each weekday afternoon for two or three hours, and all day on Saturdays. In those years, many of my Sundays were passed bird hunting in New Hampshire, so the season was a seven-days-a-week affair.

Hunting season for these three upland birds began Oct. 1, but in at least two years, woodcock hunting kicked off during September’s last week, a real bonus for a guy like me who owned two bird dogs – an orange-belton English setter and a chocolate Labrador retriever. Grouse and pheasant still opened Oct. 1, and more than once in September the dog would flush old thunder-wings before Oct. 1 and give me a puzzled look when the feathered rocket roared off without my shooting.

Before daylight on opening day back then, I parked on the east side of Windsor at the junction of Wingood and Erskine roads – dirt byways through a tunnel of alders and poplars – superb upland-bird habitat. The owners posted the land and I was one of the few with permission to hunt there. In those dawns I’d drink tea until legal shooting time and then let the setter loose. Many years her bell went still within two minutes, a statue-like point on a small poplar knoll, always on a woodcock.

What a way for bird-hunting season to start – let the setter out and a quick point, often in goldenrods beneath a poplar canopy. If the shot folded the woodcock in a puff of feathers I’d say, “This will be a fine season.”

If the pellets missed I’d say, “I’ll get the next one.”

From my teens through my early 30s, myriad working dairy farms from the 1940s and ’50s had gone out of business, and pastures and hay fields reverted to alders, poplar, rubus and scrubby hardwoods – grouse and woodcock paradise. Covers were everywhere in the mid-20th century.

Development took off in the late 1970s and as years passed, secondary growth turned into primary forests, ruining many bird covers. These days, folks who love the uplands have headed to northern Maine clear-cuts and stream bottoms, which has worked well for them. Stanley F. Foye of Pittston and Dave Sherwood of Bowdoinham go north, as do other friends, and some of them spend October in big-forest uplands.

Years ago I noticed this trend of heading to north country clear-cuts and contacted “Wing and Shot,” a slick upland-game-bird publication, about writing a piece that concentrated on hunting secondary growth in clear-cuts rather than in classic farm-country habitat. The editor rejected my idea and wanted an article about classic covers around abandoned farms. In Maine, then, I was ahead of that new habitat direction in upland-bird hunting.

One year in the 1970s I was preaching in articles that central and midcoast Maine offered world-class grouse and woodcock hunting over dogs. An acquaintance was hunting with a single-shot shotgun in abandoned apple orchards and shot an impressive 20-plus grouse that year. He sat with his back against a tree and waited for grouse to sneak into the orchard, where he shot them, often on the ground. (After giving up bird hunting, I bow hunted deer from tree stands and watched many a grouse walk into an orchard rather than flying.)

Snobbish bird hunters with dogs (like me then) disliked folks ground-sleuthing game birds, but it’s legal. Also, shooting birds on the wing evolved for two reasons: wing-shooting pleases skilled shotgunners, and it’s dangerous to shoot birds on the ground when hunting with a dog. A fast bird dog takes but seconds to get from here to there, instigating the blue-sky rule.

Surely, Mainers with bird dogs harvest lots of ruffed grouse each season, but I’ll wager that road hunters without dogs shoot more “pa’tridge” on the ground or from tree limbs. And not only is it legal, but it offers a higher-percentage opportunity for a kill.

But I grew up with hunting dogs and love the wing-shooting part of the sport. I’m no longer snooty about it, although in my 20s I suspect folks found me intolerable whenever the topic of ground-sleuthing came up.

Here’s a quick anecdote from the old days, showing how effete fops behaved. Circa 1975, I wrote an article about killing woodcock in the first minutes of dawn as they flew from open fields to worm-feeding spots in alders or poplars. I’d stand on the edge of a cover and shoot them in open fields – swerving, dipping, turning birds. These targets brought out the best in a wing-shooter, but a bird-hunting guide from Farmington read the piece and castigated me for years for not shooting woodcock over points – puzzling. Pass-shooting in low light requires skill. If you don’t believe it, please give that tactic a try this month.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

[email protected]

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