The maples begin to flaunt their bright red leaves, and the birch and poplars reveal their yellow and orange hues. The early morning air is crisp and a mist rolls off the lakes and on to the highway as we make our way north, out of the city limits and into the wild outdoors of Northeastern Ontario.
It’s opening weekend in Wildlife Management Unit 39, northwest of Sudbury. With our two German Shorthaired Pointers in the backseat of the truck, my partner, Steve, and I are driving down Highway 144 and into grouse territory, trying to beat the inevitable sunrise.
Layla and Bruce (our bird hunting dogs) have been anticipating the hunt. It’s funny to think how they’ve known for days this was coming and have reminded us at every opportunity with a bored sigh, an antsy whine, and their unsettled pacing. Perhaps it’s a knowledge deeply embedded in the breed to sense the birds stirring miles away, even before they see us unpack our orange from storage or oil our shotguns.
Now in the backseat, they’re thrumming with anticipation, but the whining has subsided. Instead, they are peering out the windows and scanning the skies ahead for their prey. And so am I.
I first acquired my hunting license five years ago with a friend. Even though I grew up around hunters in my family, it was a sport dominated by men, a fact confirmed to me as we were the only two women in the class. And yet, we were never made to feel unaccepted into what I once deemed as "their world."
I was the first woman in my family to hunt and own a gun, but I have only dabbled in grouse hunting, so far. It’s not as important to me to get a bird when we go out, although I do reap the rewards at dinner when we do. What I enjoy is watching my furry companions bounding through the forest, or my partner expertly weaving through trees after them. I also like the feeling of driving down a road that we discover has a hidden story, or following a lone trail that you know is never lonely.
Today, we experience just that as we pull off the highway and on to a side road. At first, the dogs are too excited – they take off like a shot out of the truck and we let them burn off that pent up energy. Our trail ends at a rail bed and a faded plaque that claims an abandoned town once existed here, but one I can’t locate any remnants of. No birds on this trail, either.
We make our way back to the truck and move on down the highway until we find another inviting side road to pull into. We do this a couple of times but to only succeed in having two frustrated dogs.
Occasionally, we hear the echoes of shots ring out in the distance as some lucky hunters come across their prize. Each time, Steve and I look at each other with the unspoken words hanging in the air between us, “we’re in the wrong place.” And then we turn back to the forest ground, our searching a little more strained. I pierce the forest with a willful glare, as if I could summon a bird to appear, but to no avail.
We also keep an eye on the dogs for any sign of them catching the scent of a nearby bird. They are great at alerting us, instincts kicking in as they turn to stone, body pointed forward, ears perked, and one foreleg tucked under their chests into classic pointer stance. This gives us time to ready our guns, and the four of us slowly creep forward until we can line up a shot. But once the gun goes off, so do the dogs, retrieving the bird and burying their noses into its body, taking big rewarding whiffs.
But today isn’t that day. It’s now mid-morning, so we turn around and head back for the roads we know will produce a bird or two near Onaping. We come across more hunters in gear, slowly scanning the sides of the road in their vehicles and my hope of a pan-fried dinner diminishes.
We’re driving along down the gravel road, but I’m no longer seeing the trees and the rocks. My thoughts have turned to lunch and I’m mentally flipping through our options, stomach protesting at any delay. Suddenly, Steve is slamming on the brake, hard enough that I’m ripped from my daydreaming and I throw out my hands to the dash to avoid colliding with it. We skid to a halt and he whips the truck into reverse, but stops short of a side trail across from us. Any protest from me is cut short as Steve puts the truck in park and says, “Grab your gun” in a hushed tone, signaling me to silently close the truck door behind me, leaving the dogs inside this time.
We can't fool them. As we stealthily make our way across the road, I begin to hear their muted whines as they see us, and the gun in my hand. But I ignore them, for now. We sidle up to the ditch and stop short of the trail, peering around the corner. And there it is. Ahead of us, on the other side, a partridge has emerged from the underbrush. I step out and creep forward just enough to get a clear shot. But as I line it up, another bird pops up behind the first one, and then two more.
I’m momentarily stunned, and in that moment they spook; feathers ruffle and they turn back to the safety of the bushes. Beside me, I hear Steve say, “You’ve got to shoot now!” so I quickly line up my shot again and fire. And commotion erupts.
I see a bird fluttering on the ground, the others gone. Steve grabs the gun from me, rushing forward to quickly confirm my kill before taking off after the others. Behind me, the dogs’ disapproval has turned to ballistic screams at the sound of the gun firing. With the smell of gunpowder still in the air, I turn back to the truck to let them loose. It’s their time to join the hunt.
Like their owner, they stop to confirm the kill of the now still bird before barreling after Steve. I stay behind to guard my prize and track their sounds, waiting for more shots fired, or some sign that my help is needed. But I don't hear either. I hold my ground and eventually the dogs return with Steve behind them, a scowl on his face. “I hear them chattering above me, but I can't see them!” he exclaims.
After letting the dogs get a few more sniffs in, we secure the bird in the bed of the truck and head into the bush. As I’m led back to the spot Steve heard the birds earlier, the only sounds we hear now are that of the rustling and snapping branches of the dogs circling around us. I can't spot anything resembling a bird in the branches above. After walking around a little more with no luck, we pack it in.
What started as a disappointing day ended with BIG smiles on our faces as I got my first bird of the season, and our first partridge dinner! I was a little bummed I didn't get all four, but one bird was better than nothing! And as every hunter knows, not every outing brings home a prize, but there is always a story to tell.