By Shawn Perich
September is when we reluctantly take leave of summer, which for me would be nearly unbearable were it not for grouse season. Even though the forest is still leafy green, I’m ever eager to get out there and roam around. It’s been that way since I was a kid.
My father was a walker. From the time I was old enough to tag along, age 4 or 5; he took me for long walks along what he called “tote roads”–logging trails, ancient railroad grades and old, overgrown roads. Often we were accompanied be a black Lab, first Sooty, then Blackie and finally Sambo. We’d be out in the woods all day, walking for miles.
Back then, lots of Dads took their boys partridge hunting, which is what we called it. This was before all-terrain vehicles became common, so hunters went into the woods on foot. Those who didn’t like to walk drove slowly along gravel forest roads, stopping to shoot the birds they encountered picking grit or feeding along the roadside.
Times change. Grouse hunting isn’t what it used to be, at least where I hunt along the North Shore. While I know folks who still like to walk up their birds, they are a precious few. The high price of gasoline has taken a bite out of road hunting. It’s hard to justify burning up half a tank of gas just to shoot a couple of birds. Even ATV hunters are few and far between.
Other hunters may have lost their enthusiasm for ruffed grouse, but mine hasn’t dampened at all. I like to roam in the woods; grouse hunting is an excuse to do so. Fortunately, my stomping grounds offer nearly endless opportunity to do so. Without venturing more than a few miles from home, I can hunt throughout the season and never cross my tracks.
My spots range from close-to-home haunts where I’m likely to find a bird or two during a quick evening hunt to endless networks of old logging roads where you can wander around for the better part of a day. In some places, I follow the trails. Elsewhere I just walk through the woods. There’s always a compass in my pocket.
Some hunters like to give their grouse coverts descriptive names, like the Muddy Boots Thicket or the Moose Wallow. Not me. Instead, I’ll leave a note at home saying something like “up by South Fowl” or “Jackson Lake Road.” While the note doesn’t leave Vikki with an exact fix on my whereabouts, at least she can give the searchers a starting point if I fail to come home.
So far, that’s only happened once, on an overcast day a number of years ago when I forgot to carry a compass. A grouse flushed from the edge of a nearly vanished old road and I followed it into the woods. I flushed it again without getting a shot and followed it even farther into the brush. When I tried returning to the old road, I couldn’t find it. Daylight was waning. In a tract surrounded by gravel roads, I was confused, not lost. My only hope was that I’d get out of the woods before dark, because I would never live it down if Vikki had to call the county rescue squad to look for me. Darkness fell. Finally, by walking toward the distant sound a passing vehicle, I made it to a road—four miles from my parked truck. Fortunately, I hitched a ride back to my vehicle and made it home before Vikki called for help.
This September, I plan to visit some old favorites, like the aspen stands along the Pigeon River on the Canadian border, and investigate some new places as well. There are some old roads where I’ve never walked and a few hidden beaver ponds that may attract mallards. I’ll also investigate some young aspen stands that are just reaching the age where they are attractive to grouse. On day-long excursions, I intend to bring some fishing gear and perhaps the canoe. Fishing in lakes stocked with stream trout can be pretty good during September and October.
The big question is how abundant grouse will be this fall, especially since we had a cold and wet nesting season last June. While the DNR found an increase in the spring counts of drumming males and is saying the birds are headed toward their 10-year cyclic peak, this prognostication runs contrary to my experience here in the far northeast. It seemed the grouse population peaked three years ago, and remained pretty good during the past two seasons. Drumming activity this spring seemed sporadic and somewhat delayed, undoubtedly due to the prolonged cold conditions. I saw few grouse along the roadside or while walking the dog this summer.
The abundance of grouse factors little in my hunting plans. Aside from the rare years when the cycle bottoms out, a walk through good cover will usually result in a bird or two. Usually, hunting improves after the leaves drop and the grouse are concentrated near food sources such as clover. Early in the season, you may find catkins, mushrooms, grasshoppers, berries and other foods in the crops of birds you clean.
While I may grumble if the birds prove hard to find, I won’t stop looking for them. Autumn walks in the woods are so enjoyable, that shooting a grouse or two is just frosting on the cake. If I find a couple of mallards on a beaver pond or catch some red-bellied brook trout in a remote lake, well, so much the better. Autumn is just a short interlude before the long northern winter. I just want to be out in the woods, making the most of it.
As a follow up to last week’s column about the wolf that was attacking dogs in Grand Marais, Conservation Officer Darin Fagerman said in an email that a control trapper captured a small female wolf last week that appeared identical to photos he’d seen of the offending animal. He intended to leave traps out for a few more days to make sure there wasn’t another wolf in the town.