A year ago, bird hunters returning from trips into the North Maine Woods shared (somewhat annoying) good news with their pals who had chosen not to invest the time to head into the state’s huge expanse of commercial forestland.
OK. I may have been one of those pals who had stayed home.
“You should have been there,” they all said. “You wouldn’t believe how many partridge we saw.”
Today, as the state’s upland bird season looms — opening day is Monday — I’ve got some well-sourced advice, courtesy of the biologists charged with keeping track of the ruffed grouse and woodcock that hunters covet.
In a nutshell, it’s this: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
“Our grouse season is going to be very, very good,” said Rich Hoppe, northern Maine regional wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “All indications are that there are going to be plenty of birds out there for everyone to enjoy and hunt.”
That’s all well and good. But exactly how good will the northern grouse (or, as locals often call the speedy birds, “partridge”) hunting be?
“Once every 10 or 12 years we get a very good year like last year,” Hoppe said. “But I think this year is going to be better.”
Time to gas up the truck.
Brad Allen, a biologist who serves as the DIF&W’s bird group leader, admitted that avid local bird hunters or those who had already planned trips north might be a bit miffed to read such glowing preseason predictions for their home territory.
Some of those hunters might even be his co-workers.
“The wardens, the fish biologists and the wildlife biologists up there like to keep that kind of under their hats, but when birds are in really good numbers, they’re like kids waiting for Christmas,” Allen said with a chuckle. “I know that people that work up there — the guides and the store owners — like that the information gets out that there’s good numbers of birds in the big woods because they like the economy it generates, and the revenue.”
And let’s face it: The North Maine Woods is a huge tract of land — 3.5 million acres, in fact — and there’s plenty of territory for everyone to enjoy.
Luckily, we all get to enjoy it, with only nominal fees charged at gates.
Without being accused of ruining the hunting in anyone’s favorite spots, here are some tips to keep in mind:
According to Allen, areas around Greenville, Millinocket and off the Golden Road will have birds. Want to find more? Head north. Or northwest. Anything north of American Realty Road ought to do. Pick a road. Ride it. Keep your eyes peeled. And (here’s an important consideration) SLOW DOWN.
“Somebody will travel for 68 miles and won’t see one [bird]. The next guy will get his four birds in three miles,” Allen said. “It takes a special eye to see the birds back in the woods. People tend to drive too fast and they drive right by them.”
Other hunters think of bird hunting differently, and wouldn’t consider driving around in search of birds, then hopping out and shooting them off the roadside. Many of those hunters prefer hunting behind a well-trained dog, and shoot at birds only when they’re “on the wing.”
To each his own; there’s plenty of room for all in the Maine woods.
Allen pointed out that the roads in the North Maine Woods (and elsewhere around the state) often offer perfect habitat for grouse.
“[Finding warmth and grit] is part of the reason they’re out there on the side of the roads, but another reason is there’s a lot of alders, there’s a lot of clover on the sides of the roads,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of really good food items right there on the side of the road. The grit is good. There’s usually some water in the ditch. All their food and water needs are met on the side of the road.”
Thus the success of “road hunters” when grouse numbers are high.
Allen said he spent much of the summer a bit concerned about grouse (and wild turkey) prospects around Bangor, after a very wet May made for poor nesting conditions.
Lately, though, he said he’s been hearing reports of broods of both birds, apparently the result of later re-nesting efforts.
“People are seeing birds [near Bangor]. The turkeys are small. I would translate that [situation] to be similar for grouse, that they pulled off a re-nest in this part of the world, but they probably pulled off a good [first] nesting attempt in northern Maine because of drier conditions,” Allen said.
That dry-weather spring paid off up north, but this year’s second-straight bumper crop of birds has still been surpassed in recent memory.
“This is not a highest-of-high year, I don’t believe, like 1995 was,” Allen said. “That was the perfect storm for perfect hunting.”
But hordes of hunters won’t let a pursuit of perfection stand in their way when the season begins.
“They’re going to be out in droves on Oct. 1,” Allen said. “When rumor has it that there’s a lot of good partridge in the woods, a lot of people will hit it next Monday. And if that’s a nice, bright, sunny day, there’s going to be excellent hunting.”