While springtime hunts in the European Union are facing the legislative mill one after the other, countries still remain where hunters can enjoy the brief pleasures that come with the end of winter. We were headed for the Russian taiga, where cock fights were taking place al fresco rather than in parliamentary auditoriums.
Initially we were supposed to go to the Yaroslav region, 250 kilometers north-east of Moscow. However, the local government made a last minute decision to postpone the opening of hunting season for Western capercaillie by a week. Therefore, we were brought to the Tver region, 340 kilometers north-west of Moscow, by the driver of a minibus, which we boarded under a blazing sun. Tver was half way between the present day Russian capital, and the historic capital of St. Petersburg, on the royal road which linked the two cities in the time of Czars. The first fifty kilometers were spent on a four lane motorway on which big German engines with tinted windows disputed attention with their English counterparts.
Yet as soon as one entered the countryside, the traveler remarked an immediate step back. The journey concluded by means of a forest path where a wooden dacha awaited, set in the middle of a forest of pines and birch. It was at the end of a peninsula, surrounded by a lake with crystalline waters, on which a few fishermen competed with competence to assure the following days’ meals. A few pontoons clung desperately to the reed obstructed banks; their state was identical to that of the surrounding buildings. A nostalgic feeling, of times passed, hung in the air; a time where idle apparatchiks frequented the site to spend good times, sheltered from the stares of the working people.
Nightfall was accompanied by a brutal drop in temperature, and we were reminded that the Russian winter could still make a strong comeback. We found refuge around a copiously garnished table, but not for long since Alex Melnikov, our guide and Profihunt representative announced our schedule: wake up at 1 am, leave at 1:30 for two hours of driving, plus a nocturnal walk to reach the “lekking” grounds and finally, sitting in a blind until daybreak in the hopes of shooting a capercaillie. Sure, the snow had already melted, but the night would be white! With the help of excitement and the alarm going off, it was after two short hours of sleep that we hauled ourselves out of our beds, put on our hunting clothes, and went out into the freezing night. A few of us were lucky enough to have waders, since according to Alex the thaw had submerged numerous peat bogs in the territory. We were in vehicles originally used for the transport of troops. They were small trucks with very spartan comfort and no shock absorbers! Those who had been naive enough to imagine catching up on sleep after that short night, were in for a rude awakening.
Finally, it was our turn to get some fresh air. We found ourselves accompanied by the glow of our headlamps, behind a guide who spoke nothing other than Russian and sign language. After a hundred meters he stopped abruptly, and slid two rounds of buckshot into his gun. Recognizing our noticeable astonishment, he helped us understand that the big balls of lead were not destined for a capercaillie, but rather for the possibility of a brown bear hoping to devour us for breakfast. Knowing well that our #4 shot was only sufficient to drop a Tetraonidae on the spot, we tried to stick as close as possible to our life insurance. This was made quite difficult by the terrain though, which seemed to want to swallow us with each step.
At four in the morning, after the long wait in absolute silence, a “toc” caught our attention. It was quickly followed by other “tocs”, and the timing between each beat steadily diminished. The guide signaled us not to move. A bit later, other popping noises resounded all around us. Essentially, we were in a nest of capercaillies. Alex had briefed us. To approach a courting bird, our guide would grab a hold of our arms. When the bird let out a single “toc”, one shouldn’t even bat an eyelash. Once he was making gurgling sounds, one advanced by two steps before once again coming to a halt. The manoeuvre could take quite a while, since with a pace of two steps each 3-4 minutes, a distance of 150 meters represented a sacred goal. We waited patiently for the first guttural wheeze, which is part of a series of uninterrupted cries that capercaillies make, strangely resembling the noise of a scythe being honed.
In this precise moment he threw his head back, and closed his eyes and ears, which rendered him blind and deaf. Of course, there was another variable which one had to watch as closely as milk on the stove: hens. Attracted to lekking grounds, these ladies arrived by flight or by foot, and surveyed the surroundings before giving in to the charm of the misters making their rounds. Towards five in the morning the sky was light enough to attempt our stalk without breaking our necks. We were off. Sergeï took hold of our hands, and at the first ‘hiss’ he pulled us down to the peat which our feet had sunken into. Luckily we had the right footwear on, as rubber boots would have never supported such yanking. Two steps later, and 1.5 meters further, we stood as still as statues. Meanwhile, the black bird was sat on top of a pine tree more than 100 meters away, according to the rangefinder. It wasn’t over yet!
Fifteen cocks held fort in the clearing and hens were dropping from the sky from all sides. After twenty minutes a cock placed himself next to us and proceeded with his nuptial parade without paying any attention to the two human silhouettes motionlessly watching him. He disappeared behind the trunks of entangled trees, briefly reappeared, chased a hen, flew away, and even came back, but it was impossible to take aim. All around us, the forest resounded with ‘pops’, hissing, feminine chuckling, and violent sparring between dominant cocks who went at each other without hesitation. As for the cock we were targeting, he was approached by a consenting hen, which he honored as required, before returning to the arena where a rival had sneakily slid in. Insulted, the two knights scratched at each other’s eyes like vulgar domestic roosters. Exhausted by his morning’s performance, our cock gave away his spot and came back to the shelter of the undergrowth… where a charge of steel shot was waiting for him. A hostile ending.
On our way back, a light whistle stopped us. Sergeï smiled and took a call out of his pocket, imitating the whistle perfectly. Less than a minute had passed, when a ball of feathers grazed our heads and settled into the tree that towered above us. Hazel grouse! It was also a cock, and he, just like his cousin the capercaillie, was in love. This species is not hunted, so we just enjoyed the scene that is unfortunately becoming more rare in our Eastern lands, due to inappropriate forestry.
Upon our return to the dacha, three capercaillies made up the morning’s bag. 100% success, with a few hip baths thrown in for free! After a well deserved siesta, the evening was devoted to woodcock hunting. Like for capercaillie, the Russians still benefit from the privilege of being able to hunt woodcock in the end of spring. Our strategy consisted of placing ones-self under an evening flight path, facing the setting sun, and waiting for the arrival of birds. In order to favour the harvest of males, since multiple woodcock show up at once, the hunter is asked to shoot the bird that flies last. In order to preserve the resource, a single bird is shot per evening, per hunter.
The organization is well done, yet those used to hunting with pointing dogs certainly won’t like it, since the absence of retrievers inevitably results in lost birds. Shame. In case of the early harvest of a capercaillie, the organizer had promised us a hunt for black grouse. The operation unfolded similarly to the capercaillie project, other than the fact that this time we were posted in a blind, in the middle of a steppe strewn with a few islands of birch. The black grouse were here to engage in combats similar to their forest cousins, but far more violently. Their song is equally less discrete, composed of long whistling interspersed with extremely loud guttural cooing. The spectacle, that started in the middle of the night, was magical.
This was mainly because the hunter is positioned a few meters from his prey, and can fully enjoy the spectacle until the first few rays of sun appear. Once again the rangefinder was put to work, since it was out of the question to shoot past 30 meters, to not risk wounding the bird. This proximity generates a contagious excitement and often the predator loses his composure, captivated by the song of the little black devils who salute the shot with one last cabriole before disappearing in the immensities of the Russian taiga.
Translation by Savanna Koebisch
The legendary Grouse
According to a very long-lasting legend in the Great North of Europe, a monk’s horse was spooked by a hazel grouse taking off, resulting in the man of the church tumbling off. As a punishment to the bird, God condemned the species to absolute discretion, forcing it to crawl stealthily until its last day. This is how we explain the difficulty of spotting this forest bird the size of a partridge, even in regions where the species is still present in a good density.