Spaniel Journal

over the top of a rock wall. Busting out of the tangle to make the retrieve, Rowan appears to be running through the surf, the spray of snow glistening in the air before her. She disappears from view and then returns carrying a beautiful red phase hen. She's a big bird and her crop is packed with shiny red barberries.

Rowan quickly checks out the other clumps of barberry and roses then we head towards a finger of large fir and juniper that runs between swale grass and a field planted in Christmas trees. We come upon a cluster of apples trees surrounded by blackberry and raspberry briars. This is tough cover that usually has the dog coming out the other end bloodied. Rowan knows these covers well. She knows exactly how to hunt them in a way that pushes the birds out to me. This particular cover usually holds at least a half dozen birds. We have already taken one bird out of this cover this season and I will allow myself to take one more - if the opportunity presents itself.

This is Rowan's and my sixth season hunting together. She has become the kind of dog who is a true partner. I can hunt her all day and never use a whistle, never even speak to her - except to thank her for her retrieves. Early in the season she will wear a tiny bell, but once the leaves are gone we hunt silently, communicating only by the mutual understanding of each other.

She works the point thoroughly but there are no birds today. A little further on is a small grove of tall larch and spruce in the middle of an expanse of swale grass and willow. Rowan gets birdy, but I don't pay full attention... and sure enough, in this unlikely cover, a grouse flushes from under one tree while two others exit from the tree tops. Unprepared, I fire twice and miss. The grouse head straight across the road to another field full of young balsam fir. Over on the far side of the field, along a brushy edge that the grouse like, I figure we'll hit that after we check out a draw between two more fields behind a couple of stone foundations.

The bottom of the draw has an intermittent brook, now running musically with the melting snow. A number of large white oak hover over the steep slope and rocky outcrops. They are interspersed with juniper and roses. We cross the brook, heading up into a patch of Christmas trees that have been allowed to mature to their full height. Usually this spot holds a grouse or two. Today I'm not disappointed. A bird flushes out the far side. Because of the distance, I almost hold off shooting - but then the bird swings to my left, across a field of fir tagged blue for cutting. An open shot like this comes rarely so I fire. The bird tumbles. Rowan heads after it, returning with some difficulty. A wing across the face is obscuring her vision so I call to let her know where I am. I take the young male gray phase from her, adding it to the red one. We head back to the truck. Rowan has just flushed five birds in under half an hour and I still have two more dogs to hunt.

"...grouse hunting is alive and well in central Maine."

With four more miles of discontinued road and perhaps 10,000 or more acres of abandoned farm land of mixed age and species woods to hunt, I want my other dogs to have a chance at a retrieve.

Throughout the three month Maine grouse season we will hunt at least four days a week. Perhaps we may see a total of half dozen people, most of whom cruise the roads in their trucks looking for grouse on the walls that line the road.

I feel like an anomaly, like someone out of the time of Burton Spiller and before, to be out here hunting birds with dogs. But to those who mourn the days when dozens of grouse could be flushed in a few hours, when woodcock flights came through like clockwork, I'll let you in on a little secret: grouse hunting is alive and well in central Maine.

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