Retrieving Upland Game

November 7, 2011 by  

By Nick Simonson

While finishing up a walk for ruffed grouse along the Saint Louis River in northeastern Minnesota this weekend, I decided to skirt the edge of a stand of young aspen trees which came right up to a stretch of sixty-year-old red pines. I weaved in and out of the last row of the conifers and watched Gunnar as he wandered through them, working scent between me and my brother-in-law on the trail some 30 yards away.
Article on retrieving upland game. As we approached a ravine where the popples gave way to alder bushes and swamp grasses, something on the forest floor caught my attention. It was the bird I was after, but unfortunately the sound of its beating wings was not to be. The body of the young-of-the-year ruffie was cold and lifeless, but rigor mortis had not yet set in. I inspected the breast and the wing then peeled back a row of feathers and found the entry point of two small pellets. It became clear what had happened. In this clearing around the drain, a hunter, most likely on the road, took a shot at the bird and hit it, but was unable to locate it after it fell.
I know I am lucky to have a four-legged friend like Gunnar, who particularly in his early days rarely let a wounded bird escape. In fact, he remains perfect on finding all the ruffies I’ve ever shot, and rarely loses more than two pheasants each season. For hunters without dogs (and sometimes even for those with dogs), putting birds up might be considered less of a challenge than finding them once they’ve been downed. For the bird, undoubtedly survival instincts take over, resulting in several outcomes. The bird lays still, or buries itself in cover, or alternatively, particularly with pheasants, takes off running, if able, providing added challenges to the hunt.
Over the years, I’ve learned a number of ways to increase the odds of finding a downed bird and to help my canine companion locate our quarry. A combination of marking the spot, performing a search, and re-visiting the area have helped find birds that might otherwise have been lost.
On Your Mark
The number one way to keep from losing a bird is to watch it fall and pick out something at or near its point of impact. The human mind is great at quickly picking out landmarks and differences in surroundings, despite a large area of grass that looks starkly similar from front to back or an expanse of aspen trees against a gray sky that provides a monotone background. Try to find one or two markers – say a clump of thistle plants in the switch grass – that are at or near where the bird fell and make your way to that spot as quickly as possible.
Get Set
Once you are in the place where you think the bird fell, if you do not have a dog to assist you, begin a visual survey of the site. Take your time and be thorough, as the protective coloration of most upland birds is designed to help them blend in with their surroundings. If you are hunting with a dog, call it over to the spot and let it begin its search, while you survey, try not to move much as you may spook a bird into running, or mess up the scent profile in the area. If you are not hunting with a dog, you can work the area in a spiral searching pattern a few steps at a time. I like to give Gunnar a good five minutes to pick up scent, and follow any moving bird. Generally, if it is a downed bird that is not on the run, he doesn’t need that long to locate it. When hunting alone, like in those days before I had a dog, I gave a spot at least 10 minutes of good searching before abandoning my efforts. Watch for movement in the grasses on the ground and listen for the noise of kicking legs or wings which might give away the bird’s location.
Go Back
If your initial efforts are not successful and you are able to return to the spot where the bird went down, revisit it after your walk. This allows time for a wounded bird to expire, or for a live bird to generate more scent as it hunkers down in the area. Play the wind if you have a dog to pick that scent up or make one last visual search if you are on your own.
If you’re quick to get to the place where you think the bird fell, using either obvious or subtle landmarks to guide you, you’ll have a better chance of retrieving upland game. A situation involving a wounded bird is where the benefit of a good dog shines through. Take the time to find downed game, look carefully and thoroughly and pay the each bird you hunt the respect it deserves. Taking these steps will help you find success, and make each outing more fulfilling…in our outdoors.


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