In the North Woods, gunning for birds

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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NEAR MILLINOCKET LAKE, Maine — Ike, a young Brittany, works the thick cover, following his nose, tracking woodcock. He is fast through the boggy alder thickets, jumping over deadfall and scooting under leaf-plastered bramble. The woodcock is plump and richly feathered — a migratory shorebird that wades through the upland bogs searching for earthworms.

Ike spots a bird and stands still, pointing, bobtail wagging. The bird sits pretty. Ike is frozen, quivering. The hunters crash through the woods swinging axes, shouldering shotguns, dressed in waxed cotton, Cordura nylon, rubber boots from France. They catch up to Ike. They spot the woodcock three feet from the dog’s nose. They switch off their safeties, look for an opening in the sticks where the bird might fly. They raise their guns, lean forward, and walk slowly.

Ike flushes the woodcock. It whistles and takes off fast, flying into the clear, where it is blasted from the sky. “Dead bird, dead bird,’’ is the call of the hunters. Ike bounds off after it.

For 120 years, the Libby family has been operating hunting camps near the Oxbow in the North Woods. Today, Matt Libby, great-grandson of the original owners, runs Libby Camps with his wife, Ellen, their grown children, a staff or 10 or more, and a team of guides.

The main camp is a collection of guest cabins and guide cabins, a boathouse, an ice shack, and a grand lodge built of native spruce logs — all on the sandy, driftwood strewn shore of Millinocket Lake.

The family also keeps 10 remote cabins in Maine and a camp in Newfoundland and Labrador — all accessible by Libby-flown floatplanes. In summer, guests fish for trout and landlocked salmon, hunt bear, and scout for moose. In fall, it’s deer and moose hunting and for the gentleman: upland bird hunting.

Libby Camps is a long seven-hour drive north of Boston. For those who want to skip a few roads, Libby will fly his floatplane to just about any lake in Maine, for a fee. Or it might be convenient to fly commercial to Presque Isle, a couple of hours’ drive from the camp (Libby can fly there too).

But by car, it’s a pleasant adventure. Past Bangor the drone of the peopled landscape fades to wilderness. Off the highway, it’s a couple of hours through rolling farmland with views of Mount Katahdin. Eventually the empty roads lead to the Oxbow gate where a $30 fee grants access to the vast dirt road and big woods and clearcut kingdom that is most of northern Maine.

Another hour of dirt road driving leads to the camp. It’s dark and rainy. A cow moose trots across the road and into a grove of spruce trees. The full moon rises in the rearview mirror and looks like headlights.

Dinner is at six in the main lodge. The dining room is decorated with generations of North Woods taxidermy; no creature left unstuffed. Seating is communal. Booze is bring your own. The food is served family style.

Guests include a famous novelist, his politico wife, and three great white hunters from Pennsylvania. The food is served all at once, giant steaks (each “the size of a planet,’’ says the novelist), baked potatoes, an iceberg lettuce salad with bacon and cheese, soft and sweet homemade bread, apple pie for dessert. Table talk sticks to hunting. One of the Pennsylvanians has hunted just about every huntable place on earth and spins a long slow drag about an endless bear hunt on Kodiak Island.

After dinner a guide leads the way through the drizzly night to a cabin in the woods with a big view of the lake. Inside, the old iron woodstove clicks away, heating the room to sauna temperature. I crack a window, pour myself a glass of apple brandy, and sit down to read. Cluster flies buzz around the oil lamps.

Breakfast is served big and early. Strong coffee, blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, eggs any style, bacon, sausages, homemade bread.

After breakfast dogs and guests pile into four-wheel-drive motorcades to this bog or that cover. Libby takes his group to a wild river about 10 miles away.

The men trudge through the alders. Libby leads the charge, chopping away at the thickest branches, clearing as he goes, dropping more tangle for future grouse and woodcock. “Walking like this, I might just bump one,’’ he says. And he does. A ruffed grouse explodes from the forest floor in a flurry of beating wings.

Grouse are native, year-round residents of Maine. They nest on the ground and eat all manner of forest edibles: buds, leaves, berries, seeds, insects. In the winter they night roost in the deep snow, and in the morning they stick their heads out and look around, and then burst out of the snow and up into the forest.

The bumped grouse flies high and fast but the men are good snap shots, and they all fire at once and the bird falls. “Dead bird, dead bird,’’ says Libby. Ike fetches the grouse. It’s a young bird with a broad black band of fanlike tail feathers and dark feathers on the neck that can be expanded to resemble a ruff. Libby tucks the bird into the game pouch in the back of his coat. “This one will be good eating,’’ he says. “Grouse meat changes when the snow falls and the conifers bud. It goes bitter. But for now, this guy’s eating the bounty of fall and he’ll taste like it.’’

The men continue through the bog. The leaves on the ground are splattered with chalky, whitewash droppings, a sure sign that the woodcock is nearby. Now is the time of the fall flights; birds that have bred and nested in the north are heading south for the winter. They may be here today and 50 miles away tomorrow. The woodcock is secretive and nocturnal, difficult to hunt with dogs, almost impossible without them. A sportsman’s bird, hunted with fine, side by side or over and under shotguns, loaded with just a couple of cartridges of small shot, because with woodcock a couple of shots is all you get.

That morning the men get four woodcock and more grouse.

Everyone eats lunch by the river. Squash soup, meat sandwiches, plenty of hot coffee, packed in the kitchen. It’s good ballast for an afternoon of hunting, which turns out to be wet and not very productive.

Libby cooks the gamebirds. Woodcock is classically served whole, feathers on the head, body plucked, roasted hot and fast in bacon fat with the insides intact. The old wives’ tale goes that woodcock empty their bowels before they fly — but really, the bird is cooked guts in because it is such a small bird and because the guts taste so good on bacony, buttery toasted bread.

Supper is baked ham with mustard, an irresistible mess of macaroni and cheese, and Jell-O salad right out of some other century. As the hunting talk goes on, the rain falls and the fires burn.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at

If You Go

Libby Camps
The dates for bird hunting in Maine differ from species to species and from year to year. Generally, the best hunting takes place between early October and mid-November. Libby Camps is open from April until late November. Spaces fill up fast.