The Christmas hare
Christmas morning 2015 was certainly a gift. The unseasonable temps made it feel like we were back in Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful, bright morning and the air was clean and crisp. When I first met the day, the thermometer on the front porch read 32 degrees. A far cry from the norms of single digits expected this time of year.
I stoked the wood stove, then added a few logs. Moira brought her tea and a cup of coffee for me, and we settled by the tree. Our dogs Chuck and CJ were already settled, having the experience of Christmas past and knowing what was wrapped in some of those packages. You see, our dogs open their gifts themselves, with the term “open” used liberally.
After the exchanging of gifts and the calls made to family and friends wishing all a Merry Christmas, I cast an eye toward Moira and asked, “We still on?”
“You betcha!” came the reply. With only a week left, my grouse season wasn’t over just yet.
Moira grabbed her gear and ushered CJ, our Beagle, out to the Jeep. When I grabbed the 20 gauge from the gun cabinet and my vest, our Yellow Labrador Chuck needed no ushering of any sort. He knew what that meant.
We had only recently started bringing Chuck out into the woods to flush ruffed grouse for me. His enthusiasm certainly made up for his lack of experience, as I had three times more flushes in a day than I had hunting alone. These hunts were intended to be an introduction for Chuck and just to have fun. We all could get out, get some fresh air, exercise and hopefully put some grouse in the freezer as a bonus.
We parked at the head of a logging road I had some luck at previously and got geared up. CJ on the leash because when that ‘ol girl gets her nose down, she suddenly becomes deaf and gets out too far. Moira isn’t having that.
We moved down the trail with the sun in our eyes, Chuck working the edges like he knows what he’s doing. I suspect he does somewhat, he hails from hunting bloodlines. We just never put him under the gun back in Pennsylvania. Limited opportunities as they were.
As we climbed a hill, approaching the entrance to a clear cut on my right, I asked Moira to hold back with CJ. I knew this was prime habitat and had flushed birds there before. Chuck and I moved up into the clear cut and I put him to the right side of me, ahead about 5 yards.
“Where the birds at?” I asked him. He bee-lined to the edge of some bramble near a log and the air exploded with the unmistakable beat of “Thunder Chicken” wings.
A big male grouse was airborne and moving from my right to left, flying low. I brought the gun up, but didn’t have a shot. Remember my inexperienced bird dog? He was jumping through the air nipping after that bird. We’ll have to work on that.
The bird cleared Chuck then did what ruffed grouse do. He hit the afterburners and like a fighter jet, made a hard right turn toward the safety of the tree line. I snapped a shot off, but knew I was behind him. Those are some fast birds.
Moira and CJ joined us in the clear cut and we formed a plan. Knowing grouse fly to safety in about a hundred yards or so, we decided to move up through the cut the rest of the way, check for any more hanging tight, then try to flush the bird again. I saw where he went and knew another skidder trail was behind the treeline.
We reached the skidder trail and once again Moira held CJ back while Chuck and I advanced. “Where the birds at Chuck?” I asked him. Once again, he turned right into the edge of the treeline off the trail and flushed that bird a second time! This time I got a shot off quickly, but that bird got into the thick stuff in the blink of an eye. I knew I was ahead of him this time, but it was pretty thick in there. Chuck and I went in to investigate.
“Find the bird. Find the bird, Chuck.” We quartered the area, but didn’t find a bird. I wasn’t too surprised, I didn’t hear the tell tale sound of the bird down “Whump” when they hit the deck. Nevertheless, I was proud of Chuck. He had a great morning. He was getting bored standing still in the woods while I marked the spot for future reference, so I sent him back out to Moira on the trail.
As I put my phone back in my vest, I saw a flash to my right front. Was that the belly of my grouse? Was it just some snow falling from an overloaded spruce?
Nope! It was a fast moving snowshoe hare that decided it was “Go time”. I brought up the gun, got in front and touched it off. The hare disappeared and I walked in after it.
I came out to the trail grinning. Moira asked, “Did you get that grouse?” I replied, “I got something!”
“You got a snowshoe? It’s beautiful!” said Moira. And it was. A big beautiful male. The dogs were excited and so were we. What a way to cap off a great morning hunt.
I learned something new that Christmas morning. Always be prepared for an unexpected gift in the Maine woods.