The Big Five of Russian Spring.
By Mikhail Sidorov.
Condensed translation into English by Aleksei Morozov.
In the southern part of Russia where I come from there hasn’t been any spring hunting for almost 15 years, so we have to seek the thrill of a spring season elsewhere. Last April my friend Pavel and me went to Nizhny Novgorod Region, where a year before I was lucky to get four of the five birds legal for spring hunting in Russia: capercailzie, black grouse, woodcock and drake. That left only a goose, and so I set the goal to bag every species of the Big Five of Russian spring.
It meant that I had to take a longer vacation and start the hunt in a different location. With our Nizhny Novgorod friends we camped at a small island in the middle of a marsh surrounded by fields. The problem was that the peak of migration passed before the season was opened. But, unlike most hunters, I realize how unpredictable this is, and don’t hold a grudge against the authorities who decide on the dates.
In spite of poor hunting, bad weather, and uninspiring scenery, I had that rare feeling of being one with nature, however banal it may sound. The few geese flocks that we saw passed over high enough to wear oxygen masks, and most days we couldn’t even get a shot. It was raining nearly all the time, and one day the rain was so bad we had to stay in tents.
We set our blinds and decoys on a field of stubbles, near a large pool of molten snow water. We took turns hunting over a live decoy for ducks, and that’s where I opened my “big five” count of this spring with a mallard drake.
Three days into the hunt we scored on geese, with a single white-fronted goose. The bird was only crippled, but it was already getting dark, so we couldn’t start a retrieve until the next day, but we were lucky to collect the trophy in a field of winter wheat two kilometers away. One goose is too small a bag for such a hunt, but under never-ending rains we somehow felt we could live with it.
A week passed quickly, and it was time to leave camp. That wasn’t easy, because the rains raised the water level in the marsh. All day, wet and muddy to the bone, we toiled, getting stuck all the time. And when our “exodus” was nearly over, we got a sort of consolation prize. A distant flock of geese for some reason turned to the sounds that Aleksei got on his blow call “for practice”, and circled us, crouched in an improvised shelter, until they came within range. My shots brought down one of the birds, doubling our humble bag of the week.
Then there was a 200 km drive to the north, to the grouse habitat. The weather got from worse to nightmare; suffice it to say that our truck, which was covered with mud as we left the marsh, was cleaned by rain after a short stretch of highway as well as by a car wash.
Our first morning in the woods was dedicated to perhaps the most intense and impressive of the spring hunts: capercailzie lek. We left the sleeping village at 1 a.m., and entered the forest with its unforgettable smell of fir trees. The year before a friend helped me stalk my capercailzie, now it was time to see what I could do alone.
At the lek, I soon heard the low-key clicks of the capercailzie’s song. I came carefully forward, making two steps to the third part of the song, where the bird becomes temporarily deaf. The song is not too loud, and the silhouette of the bird on a tall pine appeared unexpectedly. But the cock suddenly stopped singing when I was almost under him. The bird wasn’t in a good position for a shot, and I waited for a chance to approach it from the side. The pause in the singing caught me in an uncomfortable position, my arms were outstretched and the gun felt very heavy. In these minutes I had more adrenalin in me than on a boar hunt home in the South. The throat went dry, the knees were shaking, the hands felt like cotton wool, and all my attention was focused on the silhouette of the ancient bird on top of an old tree.
Then the bird started singing again. A few songs after I moved to a better position, and fired. The capercailzie did not drop like a sack, but flew down. I was afraid he was going to go away, and ran after him, switching on the lantern, but only some 20 meters from the tree I found the cock stretched on the moss. The most difficult trophy of the Big Five of the Russian spring was mine.
We spent the evening waiting for woodcock on its mating flight – this hunt is not as intense as a capercailzie lek, but no less picturesque. The main motive in the symphony of emotions here is some calm and detached feeling of ease, contrasting to the background wild roar of the forces of nature that awaken after a long winter. I got two birds, and now there was only the black grouse between me and my goal.
Next morning I went to the blind on a black grouse lek. As our friends were too busy goose hunting with us, they had no time to scout and make new blinds, so I found myself in my last year’s blind, and the lek scattered and removed. Realizing my options were limited, I took no chances and shot the nearest bird. My dream of the Russian big five of spring came true.
Original Russian version of the story and the condensed translation published by Russian Hunting Magazine in April 2017. Photos by the author. Text and photo (c) Russian Hunting Magazine and Mikhail Sidorov; translation (c) Aleksei Morozov.