In previous editions of the newsletter I have shared stories of Kaia’s hunting success. In order to provide some realism I can now share some of the highlights from our recent trip to eastern Washington which was, well… not quite as successful.
We left for Republic right after dinner on Thanksgiving day. The trip was uneventful with the exception of Snoqaulmie Pass, where we witnessed some moderately heavy snow combined with some spectacularly bad driving. It never ceases to amaze me that some people will head over a mountain pass in the winter without making the proper preparations, like bringing some tire chains, flashlight, flares, etc. You would think that a twenty foot wide sign with flashing lights and caution warnings would get their attention but apparently the concept, “Extreme Caution” just doesn’t register with some motorists. By the time we reached Snoqualmie Summit we had passed at least 10 vehicles that were stalled, spun out, or otherwise unable to proceed through the 3 or 4 inches of snow and slush that covered the roadway.
We also encountered snowy conditions, on Highway 21 from Keller to Republic, where the road was covered with compact snow and ice. This stretch of road is relatively isolated with little traffic so the driving was fine, but slow.
We reached Republic just before midnight and went straight to bed with visions of flushing grouse flying through our dreams. Kaia woke me up at dawn with her cold, wet nose nudging my face. We had a quick breakfast and headed for the hills.
Our first stop was along a creek where we had much success earlier in the season. There were three or four inches of snow on the ground and we saw deer tracks everywhere. We headed up the creek bottom hoping to find a Ruffed Grouse. Kaia quartered in front of me, at close range which she tends to do in heavy cover. Somehow she’s learned that it’s important to work close when we’re in the thick brush. The landscape had changed since our last visit. The leaves were off the trees and visibility was improved. I was excited by the prospect of better shooting that comes with better visibility.
After about an hour of hunting this drainage I began to suspect what had become of all the birds we had found earlier in the season. It’s common to find more difficult hunting in the winter. During a cold snap the grouse, which roost in evergreen trees, will sometimes remain on the roost for several days before moving to search for more food. Blue Grouse can remain in the trees all winter because their winter diet consists mostly of conifer needles. Ruffed Grouse, on the other hand, prefer catkins, clover seed and other foliage that they can scratch up. That’s why we were looking for Ruffs, because the chance of finding these birds in the winter is so much better than finding the tree-dwelling Blues.
Unfortunately for us, even the Ruffed Grouse appeared to be holding tight in the trees. Over the course of 2 full days of hunting we never found a single bird. Not a single track, no feathers, no droppings, nuthin’! There’s an old saying that is often misinterpreted, “grouse are where you find them”. This is commonly taken to mean that grouse can be found almost anywhere. Not so! The birds hold in certain kinds of habitat and their patterns are predictable to a point. I have no doubt that there were birds in the areas where we were hunting, but the grouse were hunkered in the branches of evergreen trees where they could avoid the cold wind and be safe from coyotes and hawks while conserving energy until hunger forced them to search for food again. But, like the tree that falls in the forest when no one is there to hear it, the grouse sequestered themselves in the trees and were invisible to us. Sometimes there are grouse where you can’t find them!
Kaia, of course, never became discouraged. Each time we climbed out of the truck and hit a new drainage she rocketed through the frozen woods with the same enthusiasm as if she was certain that there was a bird just behind the next bush. She has had the better part of this season to prove herself; so I never entertained the notion that our lack of success had anything to do with her abilities. In fact, there were a few trails that would have gone unexplored if it were not for her hard charging desire to hunt. More than once I was headed back to the truck when she coaxed me to check one more game trail or push our way through one more snow covered creek bottom.
Our 2 solid days of grouse hunting produced not a single bird, but I would still do it over again, knowing that we would leave empty handed. At first I was a bit disappointed that we were not finding birds, but Kaia’s relentless desire to hunt kept me focused. As I watched her coursing through the brush, across the snow covered ground, I discovered that I was learning new things about my dog and her method of hunting. Since the ground was covered with snow; I could see the tracks of every animal that had passed before us in recent days. There were deer tracks, coyote tracks, bobcat, squirrel and rabbit tracks crisscrossing the forest floor everywhere we hunted. As I watched Kaia, I was able to see her reaction to each of these tracks and study her responses to tracks and trails that had been invisible before the carpet of snow revealed them to my eyes. Kaia had always “seen” these tracks, but not with her eyes. Kaia had seen all this stuff with her sense of smell. I realized that I was witnessing her reactions to scents that I could not have identified if it were not for the snow.
Now I know the signs she exhibits when she’s checking out a rabbit trail. It’s entirely different from the body language she shows when she’s on a bird. The same is true for deer tracks and most of the other tracks we came across. She has a distinctly different response to each of the scents she encounters, The way she holds her tail, the intensity of her sniffing, the speed of her progress along the trail, the height at which she holds her head as she follows the scent… all these things communicate subtle messages to anyone who takes the time to observe. Given the amount of learning I did during those two days, this may prove to have been our most productive hunting trip to date!
On Sunday morning, before dawn, we finished preparing our cabin for winter. I packed up my clothes, loaded Kaia in the truck and headed for home. On our way south through the Columbia basin I decided to make a short stop and do a little pheasant hunting. Kaia was overjoyed at the prospect of breaking up the 7 hour drive with a little hunting. Within 45 minutes she had flushed two nice fat roosters, one of which was banded! I carefully removed the “jewelry” from the bird and installed it on my whistle lanyard to remind me of our hunt. That evening, after a long drive, Kaia enjoyed a nice supper of boiled pheasant breast. Of course we shared with the other dogs, but you can probably guess who got the biggest piece!