Every winter when the snow drifts are high enough to block my doorway and I am sick of putting chains on my boots to run the dogs I pull out my topographical maps. My fireside search for new coverts takes me a month or so of daily due diligence. In the process I drain a fifth or two of bourbon, and it’s one of my favorite pastimes.
There are two parts to my endeavor. The first is to identify places that are likely to hold grouse and woodcock, and then to chart out a plan to hunt them. The second is that a flip through the map’s pages is like a walk through the past, one which gives me hope that the snow will someday melt and I will be back in the woods where I belong.
Sometimes I bask in the remembrance of seasons with birds galore. Points were all staunch and the quality of shooting would cause Lord Ripon to squirm. With those halcyon days are the times when the birds were sparse and my dogs broke point. The shooting left a lot to be desired. Those are memories, too. Without them the great days wouldn’t be as grand, and to enjoy a sunny day we must endure the rain; there is no other way.
A lot of my buddies have successfully shifted to electronic research. Some of them are quite adept at finding complete information to secure a new covert online. I admire them but do not use electronics to find coverts. I find it rejuvenating to study maps and logging charts and to consider how a potential new covert will fit into my overall plan. When enough of the snow has melted and some of the woodcock population has returned I’ll load up the dogs and go for a drive. It’s time to knock on doors and run some dogs.
I get a variety of answers after I knock on a door. In the past, younger folks offered a quick “Yes” or “No,” followed by the quick closing of the door. Now it’s more of a “I don’t know, come back when my parents are home” program.
Older folks are decisive, and they always want to spend some time together. Their first move, though, is to look over my shoulder to see the origin of my license plate. If that passes muster then they’ll look me up and down and sit down to talk. Once permitted to hunt I’ll drop off a bottle of bourbon, a few birds for the table, or bail hay in August. These exchanges become part of the process, and they are a sweet part at that.
Of all the doors I’ve knocked on, my favorite encounter was meeting Mr. Woodstock. He lived in a rambling old farmhouse built in the 1800s. The roof was made from cedar shakes, he had copper downspouts shrouded in patina, and a wide front porch with warped boards that creaked with every step. An enormous barn connected to the house by a breeze way, and there was an old Willy’s jeep in between the rows of empty cattle stanchions. License plates with only three or four numbers and no letters hung on the walls, along with pitchforks, milk cans, and crates of glass milk bottles bearing the name Woodstock’s Dairy. A barn cat prowled the perimeter, and if there were any mice I did not see a one.
Woodstock would have been about 5’10” when he was straight but a bad back had him bent over a bit. He was still wiry, with a crew cut of thick, gray hair and broken blood vessels on his cheeks. It took several minutes for him to answer the door after I knocked.
“I assume you want permission to hunt my land?” Woodstock asked.
“If you don’t mind,” I said.
“What are you hunting?”
“Birds. Grouse and woodcock mainly, but also ducks later on and turkey in the spring.”
“Well, no one comes around anymore so I don’t mind,” he said. “But you don’t look much like a bird hunter. No sir, you don’t look like you know what you’re doing. I might have to drive around with you to be sure. Alice!” he yelled, “I’m going out.”
He grabbed his wool jacket and hat from the hook, and hobbled down the steps. I had to help him get into my truck.
He snickered. “Good thing you came along, boy. Alice won’t let me make a move. She’s held me hostage for a week. Thinks it’s too whatever outside. Cold, hot, windy, rainy — you name it. Cabin Fever is what I’ve got, and it ain’t even winter! See that gate? Drive through the middle of the pasture right towards it.”
We drove down to the area I saw on the topo map and got out and belled a dog. It was a lowland cover with a river splitting the land in half. There was a whopperjawled bridge built from two fallen pines, and some scrap clapboard connected the two sides. The bridge gave me easy access to both parts of the covert and so I went.
A stone wall marked the entrance which is where Woodstock took a seat.
“I’ll wait here.”
I went through the covert and found bird after bird after bird. Most of them were woodcock in the alders but there were a few grouse on the edges, too. It was a wonderful new covert, and when I emerged I was smiling. Woodstock was frowning.
“What did you think of that place?” he asked.
“It’s loaded with birds.”
“Put that dog in the box and let’s head back to the main road.”
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“It’s just as I figured,” he said. “You wouldn’t know a good bird covert if it hit you in the face. Get in and drive.”
We drove back through the field, went past the barn, and up to the road. He told me about his elementary school buddy named Bobby McKey and that he kept inviting Bobby to go hunting “’cause he couldn’t hit squat.” He told me about his neighbor Ralph Morrison, and that Ralph was one of the first in the area to run an English pointer. He told me about things I should do and things that I shouldn’t do, and he told me about each setter he ever owned.
“Pull over here,” he said, “and back the truck way in. We’ll be hidden for sure. Walk straight in until you find the hillside. It’ll take you about 45 minutes, so keep your dog on a lead. You’ll come to an apple orchard that runs for about as far as you can see. Don’t go in here until opening day, and be sure to pack lots of shells. Now let’s get outta here.”
We spent the next six hours driving from place to place, running some coverts, passing on others that Woodstock said weren’t very good. I saw others along the way that I wanted to check out, so I grabbed my map.
“Why do you need a map?”
“Keep track of current coverts and scout out others.”
He grabbed a pen, opened the book to pages 28 and 29, and started circling away.
“These are all the places we’ve visited. I threw in a few more for you to check out later on. Now I’ve got to get home. It’s nearly supper time.”
It was quiet on the ride back to the farm, and when we pulled into his drive he thanked me.
“For what?” I asked.
“Permission to hunt,” he said. “I’m obliged.”
Before he closed the truck door, Woodstock said, “Alice is going to kill me. And you have fun this fall. I’ll be listening for gunshots wherever I am.”
He grinned and trotted up the porch stairs like a halfback doing high-knees. Woodstock turned, waived, and walked through the door.