Boozer went on point first. The 4-year-old English setter looked stylish, his eyes locked on something his nose told him was there.
Then Scout, his littermate, came in from the other direction and honored Boozer's point with one of her own.
Somewhere between them, it was likely that a woodcock squatted in the fallen leaves. Pat Pollard of Grand Rapids, Minn., and Tracy Lee of Lake Bluff, Ill., approached the dogs slowly. Each held a 20-gauge double barrel at the ready.
This scene - the dense aspen, the golden leaves, the damp air, the dogs on point - this is what Lee and her long-time hunting partner, Scotty Searle of Lake Forest, Ill., live for. This is why they come north for two weeks each fall to hunt with their old friend Pollard. This is why they drive 10 hours from Chicago in the two Suburbans with the seven dogs in portable kennels.
"This is like Christmas for us," Searle said.
Lee and Searle have been making the trip for at least a dozen years, since they met at the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt, a Ruffed Grouse Society fundraising event held in Grand Rapids for 26 years. They both had Labs then. Lee, 45, had grown up hunting ducks at her grandfather's duck camp in Stuttgart, Ark. Searle, 51, had grown up hunting and fishing across the country with her mother and father.
Quickly, the two women came to love grouse and woodcock hunting in the north woods. But they could see they would need English setters, a pointing breed that many consider the ultimate grouse and woodcock dog. So, they bought setters. Two became six, and at least a couple of others have come and gone.
Pollard has, for many years, coordinated the "huntsmen" who accompany two-hunter teams into selected parcels for the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt. This year's hunt concluded Friday. A former surveyor, Pollard knows Itasca County like a plat book. Since the early 1990s, he has spent at least a week each fall hunting with Searle and Lee, purely for fun.
"He's like a brother," Searle said.
He's like a brother who owns plat books for seven counties and keeps track of every logging cut in several of those counties. Which is to say, he knows where to find grouse and woodcock.
Pollard owns no hunting dogs, but Searle and Lee are happy to share. Now, with Boozer and Scout on point, Pollard and Lee move in to flush the bird. The dogs' beeper collars, set to sound at regular intervals when they're still, send cool electronic sound waves through the October afternoon.
Without warning, a woodcock leaps into flight. Then - surprise - another. Pollard downs the first. Lee swings her double-barrel, and the second bird falls. The dogs scurry to sniff up the dead birds.
Searle and Lee came north Sept. 25 to hunt with Pollard. After close to three weeks here hunting grouse and woodcock, they'll head home for six days. Then it's 10 days in northern Wisconsin for more grouse hunting, four days in Kansas in November for quail and five days near Stuttgart, Ark., in January for duck hunting. Searle will throw in a Thanksgiving trip for grouse in northern Michigan and a December duck and goose hunt in Maryland.
"They like to hunt," Pollard said.
Lee is married, and her husband, Peter, joins her each year at the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt. Searle is not married.
Of all their hunting, grouse and woodcock in the north woods remains the strongest draw, both women say.
"It's the whole package - the colors, the time of year, the friends," Lee said. "I love that you're walking, the remoteness of where you are."
Searle, too, speaks of the friends she's made through grouse hunting.
But clearly, something else is at work here, too. It's the dogs.
"There's no purpose to doing it if you don't have a dog, in my opinion," Searle said.
They hunted Shades, Lee's 8-year-old setter, and Belle, Searle's 4-year-old, in the morning. These were the varsity dogs. They hunted beautifully, weaving through the popples in intersecting arcs, cowbells clanking, beepers sounding when the dogs pointed. Setters don't run through the popple so much as they glide or float. They're not always in sight, but they're never out of cowbell range. When the beep signals a point, the hunters move quickly in that direction, swimming and pawing through dense stands of aspen.
The hunters took three woodcock in the morning. For the day, they would flush just three grouse but close to 30 woodcock.
As is their custom, the three hunters broke for a picnic at midday, despite the damp, cool day. Out of the Suburbans came canvas chairs, two folding tables, breadboards, crackers, sausage, sharp Cheddar, dried apricots and more.
"We have a picnic almost every day," Searle said.
They worked the less seasoned dogs in the afternoon, picking up six more woodcock for a three-person limit. Pollard hadn't taken 20 steps into the cover when he wild-flushed the first woodcock and shot it. The rest came off the noses of Scout or Boozer. When Boozer was born four years ago, he was the last pup in a big litter, and conventional methods didn't bring him around after birth.
"We had heard that if you put whiskey on their tongue, it can help," said Lee, who was monitoring the birthing. "We got some Jack Daniels and put a drop on his tongue and he started barking."
Boozer it was.
It is, of course, somewhat unusual that two women have forged such a friendship around dogs and hunting. Some of their friends back home don't understand hunting, much less the passion for it that Searle and Lee feel.
"They don't get it," Searle said.
"I come home, and they say, `Did you catch anything?' " Lee said.
She shrugged. It doesn't matter. All that matters is that they get to Grand Rapids with their dogs each fall to hunt with Pollard.
"Yeah," Searle said. "This is what we like."