Killing Softly

Sharp-nosed dogs, stealthy birds, and the sweet secret of dawn: A neophyte gets a taste of the hunt

At our final stop on the Echo Trail, Al strolls up to an aspen stand and pronounces: "Last time there was a grouse here." As if summoned, a grouse rattles up, nearly brushing our teeth for us. I think I am uneasy around these deaths because I have not earned them.

The late-October day clings damp and clotted, as if the clouds had collapsed. Woodcock season ends in a week; grouse season, which lasts until December 31, is barely a third over. Carol Nyholm backs out the driveway of her Grand Rapids home and dog kennel and points the van toward one of the local woodcock covers she frequents. She's describing the elephants she saw and the kudu antelope she killed on a monthlong African safari three years ago--a gift to herself on her 60th birthday. "I had saved enough money to replace my old van," she says, her voice pinched with the nasal flatness of the Range. "But Africa was the best experience of my life." I look at her--suburban-lady gold-rimmed glasses, neat gray-blond shag, rough red jacket and canvas pants--struggling to fit her pieces together.

Al put me in touch with Carol: Her deep-chested Brittany stud Drifter is Dixie's father. I've asked her to show me how a professional hunts, and I mean both her and her dog. Slight and sharp as a sparrow, Carol has raised Brittanys and golden retrievers for more than 30 years; for half of those, she has made a living as an upland bird-hunting guide--not a popular profession for women. "I know of one out east," she reports flatly. "I read her ads."

Polly Becker

Carol learned to hunt, fish, and trap from her dad in the '40s. What he caught or shot was the family's meat during the Depression and later, when he drew thin wages working at a Cloquet paper mill or in the Duluth shipyards. Trained as a medical-lab technician at the University of Minnesota, Carol eventually quit to start a dog-grooming business. "Thirty years ago wasn't a great time for women," she says. "Even in this small town, the boss thought he had a right to grab your butt." Working at home meant she could stay close to her two girls, whose father Carol had divorced. "My best year I made $15,000," she admits. "That was my choice, though: to make money or to have a good quality of life." When we pull into a small clearing on Blandin Paper Co. land, the sky sludge is already thickening. Forest companies, Carol says, have always allowed hunting in their woods: Between that and plentiful state and national forest land, she seldom needs to bother with individual owners. Lately she has seen more of them posting "no trespassing" signs on their fences, the legal way to keep hunters out. She has also noticed more hunters coming up from Iowa and Illinois, where urban sprawl is fast eating up what used to be wildlife habitat. "Minnesotans don't know how lucky they are," she says.

The Brittany rakes at the kennel bars: "Drifter likes his job," notes Carol, who locates humor in understatement. She collars him with a bell and electronic beeper; then, with a quiet "High on" from her, he's cantering, nose to ground. Nyholm likes the English hunting phrase, she explains, because it seems calmer than "Hunt 'em up!"; there's no need to incite an already agitated dog.

We walk into the soft light on an uneven track paralleling Drifter's circles. This time out I feel less overwhelmed: Maybe because I've figured out how to move through the aspen saplings with my gloved hands out in a flying wedge. Maybe because Carol barely lifts her voice with Drifter. Or maybe it's that, when we flush a woodcock, Carol pulls up her gun, then lowers it without firing. She has been in the field with clients for five straight days, she says; she's got woodcock in her freezer and doesn't know that she feels like shooting. Behind her reluctance I can hear her father's first rule: "You don't shoot anything unless you're going to eat it."

Drifter comes up on a second woodcock and flushes it down our deer path, a clear shot overhead. I find myself tracking the bird with a hunter's eye. BLAM! goes my inner shotgun. The bird flies on, still alive in this dimension. Carol chuckles. "Drifter's wondering what's wrong with me." We hike on, dodging branches. Carol notes the still-green strawberry leaves and clover, the grouse's fall fodder along with poplar and alder buds. Slash--new growth in clear-cut areas--is the best grouse and woodcock habitat, she asserts. "A mature forest supports no game. That's one for the tree-huggers." I could argue that, for tree-huggers, game is not necessarily the point. But I don't.

The birds we've found, she says, are not locals; the woodcocks who nest here flew a couple weeks ago, riding a north wind under a full moon. As the season goes on, the birds flush more easily; they recognize hunters, she maintains. She also feels, with the perspective of 50 hunting years, that woodcocks are evolving new behaviors: "They're not staying put like they used to," she claims, "and they're starting to flush [through the woods] like grouse, not just heading straight for the treetops." After an hour, Carol whistles in Drifter. He refuses to come, his bell tinkling off to our left. As we near the van, the dog flushes another woodcock over our heads. It wings out, black against the diffuse, melting sky, and is gone.

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