It’s that time of year again. The leaves are dropping, the bird season is in full swing, and many hunters have been afield often enough to form an educated opinion on the state of the state’s upland flock.
Here, then, are a couple of field reports from two of the state’s more avid and knowledgeable bird-hunting guides.
For the past 68 autumns, Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson has been a bird hunter.
This fall, the 84-year-old master Maine guide says, hunting has been about average. Near his home in Millinocket, woodcock are predictably present. Grouse – “partridge,” in the vernacular of many locals – have been more spotty.
“In the coverts in Medway, Chester, Lincoln, Springfield, Macwahoc, I’m going to say the grouse are very scarce,” Robinson said Wednesday, as he awaited the arrival of a hunting party from the Boston area. “But we are finding flight birds, woodcock, that are just loaded with fat.”
Robinson explained the migrating woodcock bulk up before heading south, while the native birds tend to be thinner.
Robinson has been keeping track of other bird-hunting enthusiasts, and said the reports vary by region.
“I got an e-mail from a retired warden in Zone 1 [in extreme northern Maine] who said they were finding a fair amount of grouse,” Robinson said. “My kid brother out in Holden says he’s had some good days [where he has seen[ more grouse than woodcock.”
In contrast, some other hunters he has spoken with have had little luck finding ruffed grouse.
“I’ve talked to people who’ve gone road hunting off the Golden Road [northwest of Millinocket] and the side roads and put on 300 or 400 miles and come home with three grouse,” Robinson said.
Anecdotal reports from hunters seem to bear out Robinson’s observations: One hunter I spoke with this week said his party had returned from northern Maine after a fantastic week, others Down East have said bird hunting is fair, and still others have complained they haven’t seen much at all.
Robinson said spring rain is one factor that can reduce the number of grouse, and the fact he never had to water the garden at his camp on the West Branch of the Penobscot indicates wet weather dominated this year.
Robinson also said hunting pressure in certain areas may make grouse harder to find as the season progresses.
“I’m sure there are pockets where the grouse are plentiful,” he said. “Up north, they have a better opportunity because they’re hunting coverts that aren’t being hit every day. Down here we’re hunting coverts that might get hit three times in a day.”
Robinson said gaining access to prime bird-hunting property is a problem that spreads farther into Maine’s rural areas each year.
“[Something] I’ve come across is more posted land,” he said. “One of my best woodcock coverts, 120 acres, was posted [this year].”
Plenty has changed, he admits, since he began hunting with a local dentist back in -1938.
“Some of the roads that are paved now, we got stuck in the mud,” Robinson said. “You could go into [one] area around Winn or Chester and not move out of there all day long [because the birds were so plentiful].”
In Washington County’s Forest City, where guide Lance Wheaton and his wife, Georgie, own The Village Camps, things aren’t much different than they are in Millinocket.
Lance Wheaton said the early grouse hunting mirrors what he has seen over the past few seasons.
“I think the last three [years] have been down because of cold, wet springs,” he said.
That means grouse are far outnumbered by woodcock.
“Down East we’re still seeing a few flight birds, but I don’t think the real flights are hear yet,” Lance Wheaton said of the woodcock. “Partridge, I think the numbers are low. You’ll see a couple a day, but the numbers are real low.”
With that said, Wheaton is still out there each day, trying to put his clients in the proximity of birds.
“[Grouse-hunting success] depends on who you are and where you are,” Lance Wheaton said with a chuckle. “You might be in the truck and in a little pocket and bang, you’ve got two or three. Or you might be in the right spot and see [some].”
Or you might not.
Lance Wheaton said the visitors coming to tiny Forest City have told him that in most parts of Maine, the grouse hunting hasn’t been great.
“Statewide, in talking with people who stay here, numbers are down for partridge all over,” he said. “I did notice way up in northern Aroostook, Zone 1, there were a few more birds.”
Of course, if you don’t get out there, you’ll never find any birds. And that’s as good a reason as any to forget all about the reports and predictions and spend a day on the roads or behind a dog.
Deer season, after all, is just around the corner.
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 990-8214 or 1-800-310-8600.