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870 Wingmaster in Miramichi: A Thanksgiving Grouse Hunt

On Thanksgiving Sunday this year my girlfriend Maggie and I were preparing for a trip up into the Miramichi woodlands. For the second year in a row our plan was supper Sunday, hunt Monday – a pretty good tradition we’re starting. It made me reminisce about Thanksgiving last year.

At the outset of Thanksgiving Monday 2013, I had lofty expectations for my first hunting experience in the woodlands surrounding New Brunswick’s fabled Miramichi River. Stories of the game-filled woods of the north abound throughout the province, but I learned very quickly that hunting in the Miramichi isn’t that easy. The people in this region are a persistent group; most do a variety of things to survive. Strong survival instincts have shaped some of the finest outdoorsmen that this province has ever known. The knowledge passed between generations has cultivated a woodland proficiency that is rivaled in few other places in Canada.

I was reflecting on this when I noticed a grouse sneak off the trail and into some tall grass on the edge of a balsam fir stand. Maggie and I were somewhere north of the fabled Northwest Miramichi River, bumping along the Mullin Stream Rd. in my truck — deep in the woods. I stopped the truck, grabbed my 870 Wingmaster, and started quietly stalking up the road. When I was within 30 yards, I stopped and listened intently — not a sound. Just as I started to inch forward the bird exploded into flight, right in my direction. I shouldered my gun, aimed ahead of the bird, and pulled the trigger. “Not even close” I muttered to myself, as I watched the bird continue its flight unabated.

I watched as the bird landed in the top of a tall aspen tree 100 or so yards away, finally a break. The tree had shed all of its foliage already, providing a clear view through the canopy. The setting sun was only illuminating the treetops; the low-angled light gave the yellow and red October foliage a glowing golden tone. Again, I quietly stalked toward the bird. When I was within 20 yards I took aim. The grouse instinctively knew it was being watched, it crouched and launched itself off its perch just as I fired through the branches — another miss. I watched as the bird disappeared into the fading sunlight. We were returning empty handed.

I sullenly made my way back to the truck. I told myself that I clearly just had a run-in with New Brunswick’s smartest grouse, or perhaps it was just a hallucination after a day of failure? I put my gun away, jumped in the truck cab, and looked at Maggie and said, “don’t tell your Dad about this.

Flash-forward to 2014, spending a little time in the area over the course of the summer had given me a positive feeling heading into this year’s hunt. I told myself as the truck rattled up Highway 420, this year was going to be different.

The sun was shining and the air was crisp on Monday morning – a beautiful day for a hunt. Unfortunately, Maggie had a little too much turkey the previous evening and was not feeling up for it, so it was going to be a solo effort.

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A crater lake on a beautiful fall day off of the Mullin Stream Rd.

I hit the Mullin Stream Rd. around 9:30 a.m. The plan was to walk trails or bushwack through good-looking habitat. Successful habitat identification isn’t difficult. Over-grown trails lined with alders, tall grass, or immature balsam fir generally in upland stands with lots of cover in the understory are a good place to start.

Things were quiet early on; the woods were a crowded place on this holiday. Dozens of like-minded groups were out participating in a traditional Thanksgiving Monday birdhunt. Fortunately for me, most of these groups didn’t appear to venture off of the road. They merely crept along in their pick-ups looking for birds on the roadside.

While you don’t cover as much ground on foot, you get a better feel for the land, and for me personally, the hunt is more rewarding. This method also tests your patience, senses, and stalking ability — skills that are transferrable to other hunts.

The clear blue sky and vibrant Fall foliage made up for the fact that it was a slow day. I was walking down a grassy road between two cut blocks. The edges of the cuts were lined with rows of tall large-toothed aspens. Gusts of wind caused green and gold leaves to rain down from the canopies — a photo-worthy moment. I grabbed my camera-phone out of my pocket and noticed that I had reception. I wasn’t quite ready to head home yet so I thought I’d send home an update. I tossed my gun over my shoulder, and kept walking as I texted – you can probably guess what happens next.

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Don’t look at your phone while grouse hunting!

With my head down and mind back in civilization, I entered an immature birch-fir stand, and sure enough, a grouse exploded into flight 10 yards from me. I muttered an expletive and watched as the bird disappeared into the distance. I put my phone away and paused for a moment. Often, I get so caught up in the grouse in flight that I forget that they are frequently found in groups. As if on cue, I heard shuffling leaves in the opposite direction.

I quietly slipped amongst the trees and I set myself up behind a fir tree, watching for movement. I could see an outline carefully walking through a thicket of 2-3inch birch stems. I resolved to wait and get closer. My heart was pounding. I tried to outpace the bird to get a clear shot. As I closed in the bird jumped up onto a log — it was a beautiful ruffed grouse. I was within 20-yards, so I aimed and fired. The bird disappeared off the log, which I assumed indicated a successful hit. However when I approached it was nowhere to be found – man these Miramichi grouse are tough.

I quick stepped in the same direction and eventually caught up with the grouse as it shuffled through some fir seedlings. When it emerged, I stepped out and fired. The sound of wings flapping against the forest floor indicated a hit – my first Miramichi grouse!

I put the bird in the game-pouch of my vest and quickly hiked back out to the trail. I didn’t want pass up the opportunity to pursue the bird that flew in the other direction. I stepped across the trail and bushwhacked through dense birch forest at a steady pace for about 200yards. As I was sliding between two stems with my head down, I heard a familiar shuffle to my right. I glanced up and another grouse was skimming across the fall-yellow forest floor. I raised my 870 Wingmaster and fired. A good clean shot gave me my second ruffed grouse of the day!

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Two beautiful ruffed grouse taken from the Miramichi watershed

I put the second grouse in the game pouch and started the trek out to the truck. Two birds was enough for me for the day, it was time to head home. Another great day in the woods of New Brunswick, a place where hunting traditions are alive and well.

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One Last Hunt

Last Saturday morning I got up, checked the weather, checked my hunting calendar and remembered that it was the second last weekend of the 2013 grouse season in New Brunswick – likely the last without a major snowfall. Outside it was a beautiful, brittle November day. The thermometer read -9°C, there was little-to-no wind, and the forecast called for sun all day — perfect grouse hunting conditions. I knew there would be a thick frost; we’d had 100mm of rain on Wednesday.  My girlfriend, Maggie and I had planned to go hiking however – with a little convincing – I was able to persuade her into combining the two activities. Who wouldn’t want a nice grouse for supper?

We hit the road around 9:30am – heading for some public land about 20 minutes south of Fredericton.  I was looking for a nice softwood (coniferous) forest, preferably with some pine. This late in the year – in the absence of herbaceous vegetation – grouse introduce pine needles and/or buds into their diet. This dietary change impacts the taste of the meat – it’s supposed to become gamier – but this doesn’t bother me.

After arriving at the hunting grounds and topping off our clothing layers with some hunter’s orange, we set out on foot down an old ATV trail. I was carrying my faithful Remington 870 Wingmaster, and Maggie was unarmed – which was probably for the best. Our objectives were to hike up a hardwood ridge into my deer stand – a story for another day – and check my game camera. After which we planned to head back down to find some softwood and maybe some running water. Thankfully, back in September, a friend and I had forged a nice little trail that provided direct access – up a major slope – to my blind. So up we went.

I tried to be a gentleman. I tried to break every branch at face level in order to protect Maggie from being whipped in the face.  But I realized I couldn’t get them all. I think Maggie was starting to question my decision to turn this into a hunting expedition. “I thought you said this was a trail,” she uttered while feeling her face for scratches.

Things were inexplicably quiet, the magic hour — 10:00am — had come and gone and we hadn’t seen or heard a thing. We were content with not seeing anything; it really was a beautiful day to be in the woods — the chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers were out in full force. I think it was a hike more akin to what Maggie had in mind. We approached a frozen beaver pond chatting away – not paying attention to the trail ahead – when a grouse fluttered up and across the trail and landed in a thicket of tall, dense balsam fir.

I attempted to make chase, but the wall of fir stems was nearly impenetrable. Eventually I found an opening and slid in amongst the slender trees.  I quietly stalked in the direction I thought the bird would have gone hoping for a second glance. Sure enough I caught up to the bird as it was walking through a thicket about 15 yards away. I pressed myself up against a tree and waited for a clear shot.  Unfortunately, the bird grew wise to my presence when I accidentally broke a branch. I could see that it was about to take off so I stepped out and took aim. I took a shot through the thicket as it flushed, but it wasn’t meant to be. The bird sailed away across the beaver pond, earning its freedom.  I returned to the trail empty handed.

Maggie was ready to head back – we’d already walked several kilometers – but I convinced her that we needed to investigate what was around the next corner first. Several corners later – in a red pine stand – we heard the familiar sound of rapid shuffling on the forest floor. I wheeled to the left and sure enough a ruffed grouse was running through the understory. I quickly raised my Remington 870 Wingmaster, aimed about eight inches in front of the bird, and pulled the trigger. With the sound of the wings flapping against the ground, I looked over at Maggie, and knew it was time to go. After a couple staged photos.

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As I cleaned the bird back at the trailhead, I thought it might be interesting to open up the crop and look for a little evidence of the dietary change.  Sure enough the crop was full of pine needles and unidentifiable buds – my guess was birch. I reflected upon the season that was. It was a memorable year, with some near misses and – of course – some complete misses.

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Another memorable season in the beautiful province of New Brunswick

Wingmaster, not so much

The ruffed grouse holds a special place in my memory; it was the first thing I ever hunted. I shot my first grouse in October of 2011, just outside of Chipman, New Brunswick. It was the first weekend in my life that I was a gun owner. I had gone through all the testing, courses, and paperwork in the fall of 2010 and was ready to purchase my first firearm. I called Matt earlier during the magical week and informed him of my intention to purchase a firearm, and we both agreed that given his interest in guns, his presence was required.

Every pump action shotgun in the store found its way up to my eye. I considered how they felt, how they looked, and, most importantly, their cost. Just as I was beginning to think a black Remington 870 Express 12 gauge was the gun for me, a local legend pointed to a used Remington 870 Wingmaster.

“I’d buy that used one right there over the Express,” he said. “The new ones use plastic parts, not steel, and they don’t make’em like they used to.” In my mind I like to think that I replied, “well you can’t beat American steel!” but in reality I just stared blankly until Matt stepped in and struck up a conversation. I walked away from this excursion with a brand new — in 1979 — Remington 870 Wingmaster 12-gauge shotgun, with a fully choked, smooth 28” barrel.  I was now officially a hunter — or so I thought.

On the drive home I kept wondering when and where I was I going to get a chance to try out my purchase. That’s one thing about hunting and shooting: you need a place to do it, and finding one isn’t always easy or cheap. Fortunately, New Brunswick is 48 per cent public land (3.4 million hectares). I was hoping to try some skeet shooting first to feel things out before shooting at a live target. But, before I could say ‘pull,’ Matt invited me to his camp for the weekend to participate in his annual bird hunt with one of his buddies. The camp was located on the banks of the Gaspereau River, in the heart of grouse country.

After a long two days, Friday finally came and we were off to Chipman. Roughly three quarters of the way there, we pulled onto a logging road engulfed by grey speckled alders on both sides. Matt grabbed an empty plastic pop bottle from the bed of his truck and said, “lets see if you can kill this first”. I anxiously removed my firearm from its case, removed the trigger lock, and grabbed a #6 shell. Matt had set up the bottle about 10-15 yards away. I loaded the weapon, removed the safety, took aim and awkwardly squeezed the trigger, maybe closing my eyes in the process. When the dust settled and my ears stopped ringing, the bottle was full of tiny holes. I was now officially a hunter. Of bottles.

With the firearm christened and everything packed up, it was time to get back on the road, but not before a little omen. Just as we were pulling away, a spruce grouse wandered out onto the road for a gravel snack and a dust bath, a sign of things to come.

After an evening of cribbage victories the morning had arrived. Outside it was a beautiful crisp fall day; we were surrounded by a deep green and gold forest and accompanied by the rushing sounds of the mighty Gaspereau River.  Matt’s buddy Randy stirred, “Is that rain?” “No man, that’s bacon!” I replied. We were in no rush to get out — grouse don’t get out of bed before 10:00 a.m. — so Matt pulled out a box of skeet. “Pull!” I yelled, and a single skeet was lobbed out in front of me. I pointed the gun, aimed, pulled the trigger and watched the unscathed skeet sail to sweet freedom. I promptly declared, “Must be because it’s a full choke.” “Maybe, let me take a look at that.” Matt replied. “Pull!” he yelled as Randy launched a skeet into the air. And, as a cloud of clay dust rained down upon the ground 20 yards away, he handed the gun back to me and retorted, “There’s nothing wrong with that gun!” Following the liberation of a few more skeet, I finally hit one. After which, I heard from behind a single clap. “It’s about time,” Matt said. I was now officially a hunter. Of clay pigeons. It was time for the real thing.

The three of us piled into Matt’s truck armed with our blaze orange, a few shells, and our shotguns; which were stored in the bed in their respective cases. I remember being pretty excited and anxious. I was able to take some solace in the fact that if we didn’t get anything my freezer wouldn’t be empty; I could fill it with Doritos. There was no way we could eat the 10 bags we brought with us.

As we turned onto a logging road things got more serious. I was informed that since I was riding shotgun, it was my duty to jump out of the truck and make chase if we saw a grouse. Shortly after — as we were driving through a mature jack pine plantation — a grouse appeared about 80 yards up the road. The bird was sunning itself on a log about 5 yards into the woods. I attempted to play it cool — like I’d done this a thousand times. I slowly slid out of the truck and grabbed my gun and a couple shells. I casually lingered beside the truck and gave Matt and Randy my best ‘don’t worry guys this isn’t a big deal’ look — which of course was the opposite of the truth. In exchange, they both provided me with a look that said ‘what the fuck are you doing?’

I casually started to walk up the road  – maybe strutting a little – and loaded two shells into the tube of my Wingmaster. I loudly cycled the action as I continued to stalk up the road. Miraculously the bird was still in place. After getting within about 30-40 yards I shouldered my gun and aimed. At this critical juncture, it dawned on me that the range of my gun was a complete mystery to me. I didn’t want to miss and risk wounding the animal or worse, my fragile ego. So, I turned completely around and yelled the words “am I close enough?” Matt and Randy’s reactions were not difficult to interpret. Their wild hand gestures and inaudible expletives made it obvious — they had never seen anything quite like this before. With their feedback in mind, I resolved to get closer. I turned back to the bird, took two steps, and it provided me with a look that said ‘what the fuck are you doing?’…as it flew away. I didn’t even lift my gun; I just stood there and watched with a newfound case of grouse fever.

The walk back to the truck felt like it was 100 miles. Thankfully, my two dear friends were very supportive. Randy consoled, “Grant, I know this is a bad time to bring this up, but that was literally the biggest partridge I’ve ever seen in my life, how could you miss that?” Thanks Randy. Mercifully, there was plenty of daylight left.

We continued to drive the crown woodlands; regularly stopping to explore overgrown trails with good cover on foot. The sky had clouded over and the wind had picked up –poor conditions for grouse hunting. But, if experiences on this trip and many after have taught me anything, it’s that often your prey will appear when you least expect it — as if out of thin air. This occurred on our next sighting.

We were rolling down a gentle slope, through mixed balsam fir and birch forest, when a grouse appeared in a roadside alder thicket. With the previous incident fresh in my memory, I didn’t waste any time. I jumped out of the truck, grabbed my gun, tossed a shell directly into the chamber, and thrust the action forward — I’d learned that loading them into the tube wastes precious seconds. I stalked up the road to within 25-30 yards, shouldered the gun, set the bead just above the head, slid off the safety, took a deep breath…and pulled the trigger. When I heard the fading sound of feathers flapping against the ground, I knew I had hit it.

With my prey in hand, I triumphantly walked back to the truck. It appeared as though I had made a clean head shot, inflicting minimal damage to the breast. I proudly held in my hand a beautiful Ruffed grouse. “Nice shot, GV” Randy uttered. Having guided me to my first (second?) bird, Matt proclaimed, “Grant, I feel like your dad right now.” Many hours later, after arriving back at the camp it was time to clean our bounty, ‘and now the work begins’ as the hunter often says. Matt motioned me over, “Grant, come over here and let me show you how to clean these things.” Thanks, Dad.

The Lazy Man’s Game…Bird

Hunting Ruffed Grouse (Banasa umbellus) is a favorite pastime of many here in Eastern Canada. Many also consider Ruffies to be the finest table fare of the upland game birds and, I would have to agree. This past weekend I struck out in hopes of bagging a side dish for Thanksgiving supper. The day started out like all others, with the blaze of an alarm, followed by a quick smash of the snooze button — after all, it’s just a bird hunt. However, I was up and out of bed before the next alarm because it isn’t just about the bird hunt, it’s about getting out in the bush with your favourite shotgun and taking in the sights and sounds of the country.

After some breakfast and a healthy dose of TSN (My Flyers lost, Grant’s Leafs won. Argh!) I was out the door. Outside it was a beautiful clear morning with promise of warm afternoon sun. The thermometer read -5°C, and the truck was thick with a heavy frost. After a quick scrape, I was on the road by 8 a.m. heading for Loggers School Road, southwest of Corner Brook.

I joined the many other hunters taking advantage of the season’s first Sunday hunt in NL, but lucky for me most were in search of moose. I traveled in to a road over grown with alders that I had identified on a previous outing and jumped out of the truck to put some miles on my LL Bean boots. I trudged 1.5km down this old road before being forced to turn back it was completely choked off by alders. Along the hike, I enjoyed a brief encounter with a snipe and three ducks which, of course, are migratory birds and require a license I don’t have.

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On the return trip I thought back to other bird hunts I had been on over the years (admittedly, not enough since archery season for whitetail overlaps bird season) and I recalled that I never had much luck before 10 a.m. It was now almost 10, and the sun was reaching a height where it could warm the more open portions of the trail. I knew of another trail back off the main road a little ways that would just be catching the light and I decided it would be my next destination.

As I was driving on this cold morning, I thought grouse would want to find themselves a safe, sunny location to warm up a little. I knew I should be looking for roosting trees with a southeast aspect and places where the sun was poking down onto the forest floor.

I parked at the second trailhead, loaded up my Winchester 1300 20 gauge, slung my pack over my shoulder and crossed the road to the trail. The sun was right at my back, casting my shadow ahead of me. I took two steps down the trail and looked up to see a large, white-breasted grouse on the side of the path sunning himself while snacking on some alder leaves. The bird immediately suspected something was amiss and bolted into the underbrush. I quickly shouldered the gun, pushed off the safety, found the bead on the barrel and swung on the bird. I fired off a shot at the bird’s head and, the #6 shot cut a path through the brush, leaving the bird lying on the forest floor. I quickly checked my watch and it was 10:30 a.m.

I retrieved the bird and was staging a photo when a 4-wheeler emerged from the trail adjacent to me. The operator cursed under his helmet knowing that he was only a left turn and minutes away from flushing his first grouse of the day. After a quick discussion about population numbers, 20 versus 16 gauge, and moose hunting, he was on his way remarking he was just getting started for the day.

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On my next trip, I hope that I remember my personal 10:00 a.m. rule and sleep through my alarm. Just as long as I get there before my new buddy on the 4-wheeler, who evidently learned this lesson years earlier. After all, the wild is controlled by energy expended versus energy gained.I began the steady climb up the hill when I came to a large stream where the road was washed out. I took this opportunity to clean my supper. I checked my watch and realized that I had promised to be home to help with Thanksgiving supper at noon. This meant my day was now over. Returning with a grouse breast for supper made it all worth it, although I think going home empty handed would have been just fine too.

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