“I wish it was reversed so our dogs lasted forever and we had to get a new shotgun every ten years.”
“New England woodcock hunting over dogs is a unique wing shooting experience,” Bob Rose said.
But I was only half listening. He was uncasing a vintage, sidelever Purdy 16 bore double gun and I was having a hard time focusing. It’s the kind of gun I dream about and I suspected it had to be worth more than my truck.
I ached to be hunting with such a shotgun until I started thinking about the tough life my hunting shotguns experience. I was in mourning for weeks after submerging my Fox double (and myself) in a muddy bog. I am not the most graceful guy and if I fell with this gun I couldn’t afford the penance.
“This is not the high volume shooting you may have experienced in other places,” Bob continued. “If we put 12 birds in the air it’s a good day. If I have 24 birds in the air that’s a great day. Any more than that and they are writing poetry and singing songs.”
“What?” I said, coming out of my stupor. “Who is singing songs? Not me, I am tone deaf and it will just make the dogs howl.”
Bob’s look that told me he was questioning the wisdom of this invite. Then he snugged up his hip boots and started wading through the rain-swollen river. Bob is much taller than I am and with the river at the top of his hip boots, it was about three inches over mine. By the time I stumbled to the far bank and laid on my back to drain my boots, he was off in the alders and the dog was holding a point. I stumbled up behind Zephyr and when the bird flushed it went right over my head. I leaned back like Neo in the Matrix, dusted it with the right barrel and turned smug. I should have known; it was the last good shot I would make that day.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is also called the timberdoodle, but not by anybody I will appear in public with. It’s a robin-sized, goofy looking bird with his eyes on the side of his head and a long bill with a prehensile tip. His nostrils are located high on the bill, close to the skull and the ears are ahead of the eyes, between the base of the bill and the eye sockets. If you weren’t sure, you might think he was designed by a committee using left over parts.
The brain of an American woodcock is unique among birds, because in the course of evolution things got rearranged so that it is upside-down. (No doubt they vote Democrat!)
My friend Bob Rose is the most dedicated woodcock hunter I know. Sometimes I think Bob would be just as happy to leave that elegant shotgun at home and just watch the dogs work. Like a lot of hard core bird hunters, for him, it’s all about the dogs and Bob’s dogs are something special.
They are from the “Old Hemlock” English Setter line that was started by the legendary writer and hunter George “Bird” Evans. Evans was an author, illustrator and dog breeder. He was also a friend of Bob’s father.
In listening to Bob talk about the dogs, he speaks with the passion that I suspect runs throughout the entire Old Hemlock social strata. Theirs is a proud and protective clan. The dogs are monitored to keep the breed pure and true and the people who own Old Hemlock dogs are fiercely loyal to the breed and to the Old Hemlock name. They meet annually to spend a week celebrating their dogs and their passions.
When first hunted with Bob some years back, Zephyr was nearly 10 years old. A few days ago I met Bob in Northern Vermont for our annual woodcock hunt and Zephyr was not in the truck. I knew he had a rocky start to the season, but what I didn’t know was that he had hunted his final cover. Zephyr was truly one of the greatest dogs I have had the pleasure of hunting over and I took the news pretty hard.
Bob had been bringing along another dog, Fionn. I first hunted with Fionn when he was less than a year old. In fact, I shot the first woodcock he pointed and retrieved by himself and no dog could have done it better.
Fionn is three years old now and we hunted in some tough, tangled, alder-infested woodcock cover. Fionn did a fine job and we had a great day. I limited out on woodcock and shot the only grouse I saw, even as the ring rust from inattention shone brightly in my shooting.
Those birds will be my lunch today and I will think about Zephyr while I eat.