December Fans

The December breeze, whispering through the seemingly desolate aspen thicket, set a chill down my spine before continuing on through the sagging, snow covered jack pine boughs on my left. Taking a pause on the edge of the pine stand, I stretched my blaze orange cap down tightly over my ears, listening for the high tone of a soft bell carried by the cutting breeze in the company of the now plentiful snowflakes riding the wind.  Being the day after Christmas, the light jingling was not originating from ten reindeer flying above the trees' tops, but instead, emanating from a pair of English Setters dancing among their brush choked bases.

The fresh snowfall indiscriminately blanketed the forest, creating a beautiful winter wonderland, heavy in both winter, and wonder, with both light stepping setters paying no mind to either. Birds, only birds mattered; the lack of which on this wintery trek through the grouse woods almost kindled the desire to be sipping hot coffee in front of the wood stove. Almost. Snowflakes stinging my exposed cheeks and eyes, pulled me forward out of my brief respite, with strange satisfaction through the rapidly accumulating snow, to accompany the ghostly dance of the bird dogs. Weaving in and out through the snow covered thickets, deciphering an array of scent, the setters began a sweep out through the heavy aspen cover on my right. Zipping my seasoned, dark green fleece jacket snug against my chin, I shifted my side by side out of the crook of my left arm, and into ready. Whether prodded by the shadowy instinct of an upland hunter, or the memories of previous successes in the area, I brushed the snow from the cold steel with a sweep of my left hand, and double checked the engaged safety and trigger with my right.  After having faded into the distant cover, the ringing of the bells on the wind grew louder as the setters completed their circuit, circling back from ahead to check in with me as I trailed behind.

Driven by generations of instinct, the setters rounded an outcrop of particularly grousey looking cover on the downwind side at a gliding speed. In the midst of her full stride, Wren's demeanor transformed; the obvious shift, recognizable to any bird dog chasing uplander, had me instantly shifting my stance. In a feat of agility beyond my comprehension, landing at a severe angle with pure intensity piercing through the cloud of powder puffing up all around her, Wren froze, proclaiming undeniably, the presence of the king.  Seeing the proclamation clearly, Sage, the second setter, slid to a snowy stop beyond the standoff from my vantage, honoring Wren off her left flank.

As if knowing he had been beaten at that moment, the bleak December woods in the heart of a snowstorm, became awash with the warmth of autumn by shades of tans, browns, and the rusty orange of a full banded fan trailing behind the strong flying red phase male. Appearing to have been lofted from the snow by the hard hitting setter points, blasting through the young saplings and bouncing short treetops and hanging branches alike in its horizontal flight away from the setters, the thrumming grouse crossed hard from left to right above my streaking 20 gauge barrels. Carving a path through the heavy falling snow, the side by side lashed out with a lethal slice of shot across the flight path of the escaping bird.  With a majority of the pattern likely finding only grey, frozen aspen in the densely covered thicket, the few remaining pellets that found warmth under feathers, wrestled the grouse down from its flight in a tumble of wings and snow.

With my hunting partners closing fast on the felled grouse, I moved through the snow toward the origin of the flight while reloading my spent barrel. A twisting and turning trail of grouse tracks told the tale of the bird's activities, prior to being abruptly discovered by the ranging setters on their hunt. A slashing of wings in the snow marked the divot where the beautiful bird had first appeared to my eyes; eyes that now looked ahead to a pair of english setters standing guard over the king's final resting place.  Dropping my spent shell next to the fallen bird, and setting my gun in the snow, I pulled a setter under each arm to give them the praise they each had earned, yet had no time for, nor intention of receiving. With a kick of snow, a blue and tan ticked setter took off into the thickets, quickly followed by her chestnut marbled shadow in the pursuit of another hunt.  Taking a moment to admire the bird quickly being covered by the falling snowflakes, I brushed the snow from my fleece jacket while tucking my chin into the collar for warmth; gathering my empty shell, gun, and grouse, I nestled the beautiful bird into my game bag, turned into the stinging snow mixed with the sound of bells and resumed the December hunt.

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