Sanford, Me. — Last Saturday the sun came roaring up to meet Bob and Steve on opening day of the bird season in Maine. It was hot. The temperature had already risen to at least 75 degrees by the time the tailgate dropped and Magic scampered out of his box. This nine year old son of my Belle dog was raring to go. His whole body just trembled as Steve slipped on the electronic collar and bell.
The Ithaca 20-gauge double trigger side-by-side felt light to the hand. The soft, skin-tight leather gloves, the hunting vest, and hunter orange hat all fitted perfectly from years of use, but it would take a few minutes for them to feel comfortable again.
Steve had been training Magic hard on quail for the past few weeks in the Parker River Wildlife Management area near the house to get him ready for opening day. This long-legged, hard-running Llewellyn English Setter wanted to be away, to get his nose to the ground and find the birds he just knew would be there.
Crossing the low grey stone wall that has slowly disassembled over the years, Steve reached down and unclipped the leash from his dog. Magic bounded off to the right and disappeared into the thick foliage. All that could be heard from him was the tinkling of the bell that dangled from his collar.
Bob worked off to the left and Steve drifted right keeping the dog somewhat between them. The bell went silent. Instantly everyone was on alert. It is amazing how intensely aware you become of your surroundings. Eyes looking for the staunchly pointing dog, ears picking up every vibration, colors seeming to brighten, smells just that much more pungent....
Then without being seen for a moment, the pounding of beating wings as the startled woodcock struggles up straight up through the dense underbrush at the foot of the alders not yet beaten down by frost or snow, helicoptering to about fifteen feet and then darting forward like his tail was on fire.
The rise of the first bird of the season is always unexpected. I mean, you know it is going to happen, you anticipate it happening, you go over in your mind what you will do when it happens, but it still catches you by surprise. The eyes always widen, the body freezes for a minute as your brain tries to assemble all the information that is pouring in and then you react. All the while the bird is trying to put distance between you and it.
Bob came to shoulder first. He followed the woodcock with his barrel, swinging on through the flight path, hoping that his lead matched the speed of the fleeing bird. Like a swarm of angry bees, the 71/2 shot flew through the leaf cover and caught up with the startled bird.
The setter watched from his frozen point, his head swiveling to the spot where the bird came down. Steve sent Magic forward to find the bird. In heavy cover it can be very difficult to find the camouflaged woodcock. After all, that is what nature intended. With scent all around, it took the big dog a few seconds to sort out the smells, but soon his headed darted down and he softly mouthed the long-beaked bird.
Head up, eyes sparkling he brought the bird back to his master and waited for the signal to open his mouth. Steve took the bird and dropped him into the game pouch. The season was on.
The flighting birds have not yet begun their migration south. The warm temperatures and still-long days have kept the birds in the north country. What is being hunted in southern Maine now are resident birds that have spent the summer here. Although there are not a lot of them in around Wells and Sanford right now, there are enough to fill out a day.
The Merriland River is only about 12 miles long, flowing out of Sanford, through Wells and into the Little River. Although it is called a river, it is really quite small. However, it runs through country that is ideal for woodcock and grouse. The same is true of the Alewife Brook and Carlisle Brook watersheds. They provide some pretty outstanding covers. If you ask permission, most folks will let you hunt, but you also should show up after the season with a box of chocolates or some maple syrup to be sure the welcome mat stays out.
The problem here, like in a lot of places, is that new houses continue to sprout up in some of the best covers. Woodcock and grouse love knolls and sidehills that have sunshine and water. Abandoned farms and cellar holes where there are apple and cherry trees and beery bushes of all kinds make for great hunting. These are also places that folks like to build homes.
Our favorite spot of all time is a beautiful flat along a creek that has apples, beeches, and tight stands of alders. The woodcock and grouse get in here in the fall to dig for worms and eat bugs and fruit. The soft earth in the alders allows the woodcock to stick their long beaks down into the dirt, open the very end, clamp it around a worm and pull it from the ground.
This year Mort, who has always given us permission to hunt his farm, has let his son build a house right on the edge of the flat. Another spot gone.
Magic worked hard all day. There were not a lot of birds. But bird dogs are fun to work. They are always sure that right around the next bush there is going to be a bird for them to point. As long as you keep them on the ground, they will hunt.
The leaves are still on the trees, the underbrush is high and it is too darned hot. Still, you are outdoors, the sandwiches taste good, and the dog keeps coming by with a lolling tongue and a happy grin. What more could you ask?