GORDON, Wis. — Thirteen-year-old Connor Pennings advanced cautiously through the head-high alders and hazel brush, his 20-gauge shotgun at the ready. He knew that at any moment, a ruffed grouse might roar from the cover, or that a woodcock would go flitting toward the aspen canopy.
Jordy, a 2-year-old English pointer owned by Superior’s Mark Fouts, was holding a solid point nearby, indicating the imminent presence of a grouse or woodcock.
“With the dog on point, you always walk in on the left or right and walk past the dog,” said Fouts, an official with the Ruffed Grouse Society who was serving as Connor’s mentor on this late-September hunt in Wisconsin’s Douglas County.
Connor is one of 37 new hunters being groomed in the Ruffed Grouse Society’s New Hunter Mentor Program this fall in northwestern Wisconsin. All of the hunters go through three class sessions where they learn about gun safety, dog handling and field skills before going afield to hunt with a mentor.
Connor’s dad, Cale Pennings of Duluth, Minn., was along for this hunt as well, though not carrying a gun. If the mentoring program kindles a desire in Connor to pursue grouse and woodcock, his dad will be the key to getting him out on future hunts.
“What we’ve found out with the mentor program,” Fouts said, “is that if you’re not able to provide a mentor with follow-up and transportation, it’s a one-and-done program. You have to set them up with a parent or guardian who can take them out.”
Learning the game
Connor moved past Jordy now, but no bird flushed. Perhaps the bird had run ahead, eluding the dog and hunters. Fouts released Jordy, who quickly relocated the bird and locked up on point again.
Connor knew the drill. He moved confidently past Jordy, and when a woodcock twittered skyward, he fired a single shot from the over/under double barrel that Fouts had loaned him. Only leaves fell, but Connor had seen the whole sequence unfold — point, flush and shot.
“That was awesome,” Fouts said.
It was the first of several chances Connor would have that afternoon under Fouts’ tutelage. Fouts’ two English pointers — Timber was still in the truck — would point 19 woodcock and a couple of ruffed grouse during the hunt, though not all offered shots for Connor.
Throughout the afternoon, Fouts would offer tips and instruction that reinforced what Connor had learned in the classroom sessions. When a woodcock flushed behind Connor, he pivoted to watch its flight but passed up the shot. It would have been an unsafe shot with Fouts and Connor’s dad behind him.
“Good,” Fouts said. “That bird was behind us, so no shot. I like your safety. You’re definitely paying attention. That’s a big deal.”
A grouse flushed from a Jordy point, and Connor got a shot off but missed the bird.
“Even for an experienced hunter,” Fouts told Connor, “it can be hard to get a shot. A lot of times, it’s a hope and a prayer.”
“When you see one,” Connor would say later, “you’ve got a split-second to shoot. You have to know where the dogs are and where your fellow hunters are.”
More mentored hunts
The New Hunter Mentor Program is just one effort the Ruffed Grouse Society is making to bring new hunters into the pursuit of grouse and woodcock. A few days earlier, Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen of the Ruffed Grouse Society in Grand Rapids had taken 15 women hunters to a pheasant game farm near Warba for a controlled hunt with live pheasants. The hunt was the culmination of a six-month “Women’s Intro to Wingshooting” class that Kouffeld-Hansen conducted.
The women, all from the Grand Rapids area, had met monthly in classroom and field situations learning the fine art of grouse and woodcock hunting. Each session included trapshooting to get the participants familiar with shotguns and shooting techniques.
“It was really fun watching them morph, especially on the trap range, from shooting two of 25 (clay targets) to 12 or 13 of 25,” Fouts said.
The mentoring programs are supported in part by foundations and by grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s very exciting,” Fouts said. “It’s a program we’re moving into other states.”
All of the young hunters in the New Hunter Mentor Program have had field hunting experiences this fall, Fouts said. Some did hunts like Connor’s, in actual hunting situations. Others went to game farms to shoot chukar or pheasants.
Connor liked the mentored hunt program.
“It’s pretty nice seeing the dog point and seeing the bird flush,” he said. “And now that I know where they are, I’ll be able to hunt them a lot more.”
Fouts, Connor said, is a “cool guy.”
“He’s a great mentor. He always is trying to position me where the birds are going to be. And he’s taught me a lot about habitat,” said Connor, who made his high school’s varsity trapshooting team as a seventh-grader.
Cale Pennings thinks the mentored hunting program is valuable.
“It’s good education for me as well,” he said. “We moved back here so the kids can get these experiences.”
He has hunted grouse in a casual way previously.
“We never got into the habitat and learning about what makes grouse and woodcock tick,” Cale Pennings said. “This forces you to look into that and become a better hunter.”
One more chance
Timber, Fouts’ 5-year-old pointer, had pinned down another woodcock.
“Are you in spot where you can shoot?” Fouts asked Connor.
“Yeah,” Connor replied.
A woodcock, all wings and elongated bill, flushed through the dense forest and into a clearing where Connor waited. A single gunshot rang out through the woods.
“Did you get him?” Fouts shouted from the jungle of brush.
“Yeah,” Connor hollered back.
“Congratulations!” Fouts shouted.
Connor told him where the bird had fallen, and in short order Timber was trotting back to Fouts with the prize in his jaws. Fouts took the bird from Timber and examined it with Connor.
“That was cool,” Fouts said. “That was really cool.”
Watching all of this unfold, his dad realized one thing for sure.
“We’ve got to get a pointer now,” he said.