Scouting for Grouse

Here it is July and it won’t be long before we’ll be bear hunting, and trapping, then it won’t be long before we’re bowhunting for deer and hunting for some grouse.

Bird hunting, which is what I call grouse hunting, is one of those things that never seems to be consistent from year to year. There have been many years that we literally rode for hours to see two or three birds only to have them fly off or have me miss under pressure.

Some say get out and walk….well we don’t get out and walk the woods just because there are so many other people riding around and they’re never particularly happy if you’re walking the road. There’s a compelling reason to not  be a jerk and go around you, but then it prevents others from traveling  and hunting the road. 

Thinking back of over the season, I thought, there has to be a better way to find birds. After all, we scout for everything else we hunt, so why not grouse?

Since I don’t own a bird dog, the only thing I do have is a lot of time in the woods, riding roads to and from great fishing spots, and when searching for mushrooms. In doing so, I’ve also found myself finding lots of sign from grouse, and that’s when my mind began to really focus on scouting for them now so that when the season arrives, we’ll have a better idea where to begin.

Spotting grouse begins in the spring, just when the poplar trees and birch trees begin to bud. At the end of the day, just before dusk, we’re usually riding home, and all we have to do is look up to the top of the trees. We’ll sometimes spot as many as five birds in one tree. We’ll watch them eat the buds and just enjoy seeing that there’s a good healthy population of birds.

The last two years have been pretty darned dry, if not drought like, according the weather people, and with dry weather comes the successful brooding and rearing of grouse and turkey chicks.

Even before chick season, I start to keep track of the dusting spots I see on each road we travel. Dusting spots are great indicators of the number of grouse in that area. What’s even more fun is is finding several dusting spots in one area.  And not to my surprise, we’ve driven on roads that we’ve hunted and found literally no dusting spots.

We actually find a lot of partridge scat in our travels. Partridge will roost on the same tree limb nightly, and well, there you have it. The dead give away to where they roost at night.

Dusting spots are used for birds to rid bugs, mites, any type of critter they don’t like from their wings and body. I usually spot them on berms on each side of the road. The dry dirt is bowled out from their digging and dusting. The size of the dusting spot for a grouse is usually the size of a small cereal bowl. Upon inspection, you can sometimes even see their tracks in the dirt. Turkey dusting spots are much bigger and although they do dust, I don’t find nearly as many as I do for grouse.

A good dry spot is ideal for dusting grouse.

Sometimes we’re lucky and we’ll stumble upon a nest. This nest and its eggs ended in a horrible robbery from predator.

Seven grouse eggs

Then comes chick season. This is the fun time when you start seeing grouse in the road, walking slowly, and then either on the opposite side of the road or right behind the grouse as it darts for cover, there will be a clutch of chicks. In one day, we saw 9 clutches.

Chicks will often appear before the hen, but other times, you just see the movement in grass and then a very irritated hen appears.

At one point, I saw chicks, but no hen. I got out of the truck and headed for the edge of the of grass hoping I could get a photo of at least one of the many chicks we had seen. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of brown before I realized it was coming for me. As I reacted with a loud yell and gasp, I was able to compose myself enough to take some photos. There was one very pissed off momma.

Often, we’ll see grouse strutting in the road. In this case, she was trying to distract us from the chicks.
If grouse could growl, this bird would have been roaring. She was hissing and came right at me when I started for the edge of the grass.

So I hope this will give you a little inspiration when you’re out in the woods to look around and maybe just maybe see the signs of grouse. It definitely has helped our success rates in the fall. Happy hunting!

A good limit for two people on a day’s hunt.

How to Find Fiddleheads for Next Year’s Harvest

Now is the time to start searching!

Every year, at the beginning of the fiddlehead season, I see countless people asking, “Is this a fiddlehead?” It seems like a no brainer finding them, but I forget that when I was growing up, my mother would have done anything to know how to find fiddleheads and not have to buy them. Since fiddlehead spots are heavily guarded as sacred, it’s just much easier to find your own spot than to even think of asking someone or possibly contributing to over-harvesting on a popular spot.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can find fiddleheads even now for next year, and perhaps even easier than when the season starts and definitely with less competition.

Best of all, finding fiddleheads out of season means you’ll be well prepared for next year. Chances are, you will find fiddleheads where you least expect to find them, and they’ll be bigger and less picked-over than the popular picked spots on the river.

Yes, fiddleheads do grow on the river banks, but that’s not the only places they grow. In fact, the biggest fiddleheads I’ve ever found weren’t found on the river, but in the woods, along a road, far away from the river. John and I spend a great deal of time driving logging roads all over Maine. This is the time of year when you can easily spot the ostrich a.k.a. fiddlehead fern.

There are two things you look for when scouting for fiddleheads; fern fronds (the leaves), and spores. Fiddleheads are the beginnings of the ostrich fern, which are easy to spot now that they are in full display. Another distinguishing attribute is the grooved stem of the fern. There are only 12 ferns in Maine, and most of them don’t look anything like the ostrich fern, so once you learn the twelve, it makes it far easier to finding fiddleheads, but really, just learn what the ostrich fern looks like and you won’t have a problem finding fiddleheads.

Fiddlehead ferns have very distinct foliage with very sharp points and slender leaves. Once the fiddlehead season is over, the ferns unravel and fill the roadsides along with other ferns that are often mistaken as fiddleheads. They are taller than most ferns. They look rather majestic and stand upright like ostrich feathers. If the ferns are large and are around three feet tall, then you most likely have found a mature batch with nice sized fiddleheads to found next spring.

So look carefully and look for sharp edged ferns. I’ve included photos so that you can really see the difference.  The first picture is fiddlehead fern. The others are not fiddlehead ferns, and when you compare them side by side, it’s easier to tell them apart. Fiddleheads will often grow amongst other ferns. In the picture with John picking fiddleheads, there are other ferns already up and open…and they’re not fiddleheads. Look at the photo of the fiddleheads up close; you will see the leaf structure of the fiddlehead fern before it opens up.

Fiddlehead ferns are bright green like a fiddlehead, not lemon green, or blue green…and not glossy like a Christmas fern.
Fiddleheads emerge from a cluster of root ball. You can usually find the dried spore pods as an indicator of where to look for fiddleheads.
John picking fiddleheads. See the other ferns that are not fiddleheads. They are paler green and have rounded leaves. Also note the seed pods from last year’s fiddlehead crop. New fiddleheads are emerging from the base of each bunch of dried fronds.

So the next time you get the chance to ride some roads, bring along your Gazeteer and mark locations that you can return to next spring. You won’t find those beautiful ferns, but you will most likely spot the dried spore pods that are left behind. So if you find yourself still not finding fiddleheads by the ferns, then try concentrating on the spore pods. Ostrich fern spore pods are very distinct, and you’ll know for sure you’ve found your spot. Not only are they neat to discover, but they make great decorations in a simple vase.

Ostrich fern spore pods look like a brown ostrich feather.
Remember that the fiddlehead has to have a grooved stem.

The other important thing to remember is timing. Since most of our fiddleheads are found north of where we live, we find that our mountain fiddleheads can be as much if not more than two weeks later before they’re ready to harvest, so don’t get discouraged if they’re not readily found the first time you check. Patience and persistence will get you the prize!

One other thing to consider if you are foraging on paper company land is to look for herbicide use nearby. Large clear-cuts will get sprayed yearly, so I like to make sure there aren’t any signs of herbicide use before I pick.

Happy Foraging!

All the Noise, Noise, Noise!

Anyone who hunts knows how much noise can make or break a hunt. When I first started hunting, it didn’t take long to figure out that noise could be my best friend or my worst enemy.

There’s noise in the world. You may not even realize just how much noise we are exposed to each day until you find yourself out in the woods at daybreak. The silence can feel as deafening as noisy traffic. To be able to hear every little noise, such as the snap of a twig or the grunt of a buck, creates a memorable moment that makes the whole effort of trying to be quiet that much more satisfying. Being quiet allows you to see a world you otherwise would not see.

I’ve always craved the perfect morning deer hunt scenario where the sky is star-filled, there’s barely a wind, and the temperature hovers at 30 or lower degrees. These types of mornings require every step in to my stand be slow, careful and deliberate so that I can get there undetected. A simple break of a twig can feel like the sound of a tree falling. I’ve been busted more than once because of noise. I like to hunt every day I can, but weather never fully cooperates so I’m left to contend with wind and rustling leaves, and a few squirrels and mice, turkeys, birds, and rain. My biggest irriation is noisy traffic, which if I let it, would ruin my hunt.

This year, I tried to two different techniques to embrace the noise. There is nothing worse than trying to get to a tree stand and having to deal with the sound of crunching leaves with every step shrilling through my brain. This year, we took a hack from another family member, and using our leaf blower, cleared a lovely leaf-free quiet path to the tree stand. Okay, so I didn’t embrace noise; I conquered it! It worked too! The warmer weather and rain kept my trail clear and quiet for most of the season–until it snowed. This method worked so well, I did it for three of my other stands that are notoriously filled with noisy leaves. By the time snow fell, the leaves had blown themselves back into my trail and I was getting hunting fatigue.

My second technique was to use noise to my advantage. I would drive to my spot and park, then I’d wait for a passing car to get close, then open the door to my car and get out. I would shut it using the sound of the passing car to muffle my noise. I’d sneak across the pavement and once on the trail to my stand, I’d use another passing car to my advantage and walk as quietly and quickly as I could. I would continue to use passing cars to make my way to my stand. Once at my stand, I sometimes had to wait to make my way up the ladder. I would start to climb, but then would have to wait for what seemed like forever because I knew that the fourth step up the ladder would creek making what felt like a gong and “I’m here!” warning. I needed the traffic to block that sound, or at least dampen it. Once I got above that step, I’d climb the ladder waiting for another car to pass until I could sit down. Once I started using the traffic noise to my advantage, I tended to get far less annoyed and Grinchy having to deal with to it. For now, I’ll embrace the noise as best I can, but when the wind blows and gusts, that old saying, “Hunt the wind.” will begin to creep into my brain.

So, these noise techniques didn’t guarantee me a deer this year, but it did allow me to experience hunts as I never had. I got to hear grunts from three different deer (I’d like to think bucks), and I literally walked up on a deer totally unprepared to take a shot, so it does work…Now if only I could think faster on my feet, or if my eyes could see what I hear, and if the wind would cooperate, I just may get a big buck some day. I will certainly have earned it by then!

Sharing Fishing Secrets

IMG_20150515_195348036
Salmon caught on a Grey Ghost

As a sportsman, one of the most important things you can do is share your knowledge. We constantly are told to share our knowledge. Take a kid fishing. Keep the traditions and heritage of hunting and fishing alive by getting people involved. Yet there is a paradox to that when it comes to fishing. Fisherman clam up when you ask them for advice. They pride themselves on their secret lures, techniques, lines, and spots. It’s almost a given not to ask a fisherman what he’s using for a fly because he probably won’t tell you. It’s always been my beef, so every chance I get, if someone asks, “what are you using?” I tell them with a smile and honesty.

IMG_pjkb9h

My fly boxes. (c) S. Warren

Sometimes fisherman lie to other fisherman. This happened to us in New Hampshire when we fished Echo Lake a couple years ago. We ran into two old Maine fishermen and we had seen them catch fish after fish. So as they left, we asked them what they were using. They seemed nice enough, but after spending an hour or so using the fly they recommended, we decided we had been had because those fish wouldn’t hit it even once. After we changed to another fly, we had luck.

IMG_20150822_165343521
Up river at my favorite fishing spot. (c) S. Warren

Same thing at our favorite fishing spot. A fisherman came in and nudged me out of my spot. At the time, I hadn’t learned to stand my ground, but in a matter of a minute from taking over my spot, I watched this guy haul in the THE biggest salmon I’ve ever seen. And you guessed it. I didn’t dare ask what he had used. The cardinal rule prevented me from asking. So I didn’t learn anything except that I couldn’t catch what he did.

Grizzly King
Grizzly King by Big Y Fly

So when we run into fisherman that not only want to talk about fishing, but also want to share their “secrets”, it’s refreshing. We had the pleasure of going to a local discount store because they had just gotten in a huge fishing assortment. As we grazed the isles an old man dressed in a red flannel shirt, jeans, and wearing a bear claw necklace approached us. His head held a very old wide-brimmed, woven hat, and he walked with a walking stick as tall as him. His face was covered in a full white beard and his voice soft. As we walked by, the old man started sharing his stories. He was an old Maine guide who used to trap the Allagash in his younger days. He’s 87 now and can’t do much, but he can fish. He asked if we had ever been to Seboomook Campground by Pittston Farms. We had indeed been there. He proceeded to tell us what we need to use in order to catch the BIG salmon. The funny part was that as he got to the part of the story telling us what streamer to use, he stopped. His voice got low, and he said, “I’m waiting for that young man to leave” nodding to the man a few feet down the isle who had apparently been listening intently. After the man left, he looked into my eyes and said, “Grizzly King”.

 

IMG_20160409_093018453

Then he told us about Little Pond and how to catch big trout there.  Turns out Little Pond is well known and our two sons went there last year. When the oldest heard about our conversation with the old Maine Guide, we decided we had to get to Little Pond to try fishing.

IMG_20160409_093026624_HDR
Our two sons in the canoe.

It was cold and windy, but the sun shining on us was nice since it had been about a week since we had seen Old Sol. Little Pond doesn’t allow motorized anything so we hauled our two canoes down the nice trail to the launch area. There we met a fisherman who was also fishing, rowing a boat around the lake with his fancy made fly rods. He even called us over to see his rods. But he wasn’t interested in sharing how he fishes. He was interested in getting compliments for everything he said about himself. We didn’t learn anything from him except that the rod he makes is probably way out of our price range.

We didn’t have any luck catching fish using the old Maine Guide’s technique, but we did get cold. As we were paddling back to the launch area, we met a local man and his Corgi dog. He was just FULL of information and amazingly, he couldn’t wait to share it with us.

After telling us we needed lead core line, big minnows and a lot of patience we found that a lot of what the old Maine Guide told us was similar to what this man shared except the old Maine Guide used a streamer and the local man used an artificial lure.

We’ve learned a lot about fishing in the last two weeks from people who were willing to share their secrets. I hope that if you are a fisherman, you’ll take a moment and share your secret instead of keeping it to yourself. You’ll find it’s much more gratifying .