Monday, December 5, 2016

Second Season

Ruffed grouse season here in Wisconsin runs until January 31, giving us four and a half months to hunt. But the reality is there's not a lot of hunting after Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season, which just ended a week ago.  Usually snow and cold effectively end the season well before the end of January.  These last two months, these last few hunts, are the second grouse season.  

I'm happy to get out whenever I can and the weather permits.   And the dogs -- they're happy to be out there whenever in whatever conditions.  To them, there is no bad weather where grouse hunting is concerned. I'm sure they'd go out in a blizzard.  A little snow build-up between the toe pads, no big deal.   

My success rate in winter is considerably less than in September, October and early November. George Bird Evans wrote that he once hunted for 28 days in winter and only fired three shots.  I never seem to shoot more than a couple of birds after gun deer season.  The dogs have a harder time scenting, I think, and I'm simply not all that keen on killing any more birds.  I like to think I'm leaving seed birds for next year, a theory that probably has no biological basis.  Like my dogs, I'm just glad to be out there enjoying another day, another winter day.  If I happen to shoot a bird, I consider it a Christmas bonus, a late season gift.     

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Black Friday Cometh

Tomorrow is what I call Black Friday, when hunting is banned in Wisconsin, on the day before the 9-day gun deer season.  That means no grouse hunting for at least ten days.  If you haven't experienced the gun deer season in Wisconsin, it's a bit like a war out there as 600,000 hunters take to the woods armed with high-powered rifles.  For safety reasons, our setters don't get near the woods during this hunt.      

I'm pretty much a meat hunter, so I go out and try to get some venison and fill the freezer.  This weekend I'm heading down to SW Wisconsin to hunt with a friend and his family in the hill country down there.  I've never deer hunted south of the 45th parallel so it will be a new experience.    

We had a good hunt today, the day ending with me losing Fergus on point in a large popple cutting.  I was walking along thinking about something I can no longer recall when I realized Fergus's bell was silent.  I started to move in the direction where I thought I had last heard him, but after a couple of minutes I still hadn't located him.  (After this season, I'm breaking down and buying a beeper collar.) So I yelled for him, fairly loud, then loader, and when I really roared I heard the faint clang of his bell.  I started to hustle toward where I thought I had heard it, but I still can't find him.  Now I'm starting to think about wolves since we're about half a mile where a depredation had occured in September.  So I beller again, and I hear the clank of the bell, this time closer.  Finally I spot Fergus through the popple. He's pointing and probably wondering what took me so long.  "You got the bird?" I ask, and he relocates once, then twice.  I try to head the bird off because it's moving, but I can only scramble so fast through that nasty popple.  I got a glimpse of the bird as it squirted out ahead of us, and I saluted it with a shot as it flew off unscathed.  Whatever comes our way, though, I can rest content as it was an excellent season.

Now I better go find my rifle. 


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pennsylvania Limit

Pennsylvania's daily limit on grouse is two per birds.  Wisconsin's is a much more liberal five, which in my 25 years of hunting these birds has been a rare occurence.  I'd be fine if the DNR cut the daily limit to three, the limit of birds I grew up with pheasant hunting in Iowa.  Now pheasants are not grouse, but you can understand how my mind equates the two.  On days when I get three grouse, I have an ingrained reluctance to pursue that fourth and fifth bird.  The Iowa limit of three seems just fine to me.  I have gone after that fourth and fifth bird, something I did much more often as a younger grouse hunter, but not so much these days. The number of birds I shoot doesn't seem as important as when I was a zealous younger hunter.

What struck me about these two birds is the size and color difference.  I have been shooting mostly juvenile birds this season, which bodes well for upcoming seasons.  This hunt, however, I shot a huge, what I call, cinnamon bird.  It's a brown-phased bird, but has lighter cinnamon tints, particularly on the ruff. The tail band is also a much lighter brown.  An altogether beautiful bird.  I saved the fan as well as some ruff feathers.             

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Beginning to Look a Lot Like October 

With a bit of frost this morning and high temps around 50, today felt like the first day of fall.  We didn't have to worry about Fergus overheating or running out of water before we finished a loop.

We ran into a fair number of woodcock, so many that Susan decided to get out the camera.  It seemed like every time we got on a grouse there was a woodcock distraction, although I'd say woodcock are a nice distraction.

Even though it was the Wisconsin youth deer hunt weekend, we didn't run into any kids toting rifles. We did run into a couple of other hunting parties, though, out enjoying the October weather.  No one enjoyed it more than Fergus, however.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Getting the Shot

It's been pretty tough getting shots this season so far -- both with a shotgun and a camera.  Seems to be good numbers of birds in northern Wisconsin, grouse and woodcock, but I've been mostly hearing them rather than seeing them.  I did get one good look at a grouse last week that flushed simultaneously with a woodcock.  It crossed right to left in front of me in fairly open woods after it flushed out of a mix of popple and hazelnut.  I saw it so well I could see the mottled breast feathers as the bird banked in front of me.  Most of the birds, however, are disappearing into what Susan calls the Green Curtain.

Camera work is also difficult this time of year with all of the brush between the dog and the lens. Many shots seem like nothing but a green blur.  I couldn't help myself a few days ago when Jenkins locked up on a chipmunk in our front yard.  I ran in the house, grabbed the camera and snapped a few shots. Looks sort of like a classic New England shot in an old abandoned apple orchard -- but I know there's a rodent on the other end of this point.

The good news is a few leaves are starting to spin off the trees.  Things will open up out there shortly. A little frost, a little wind, and the trees will be stripped bare.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Woodcock Opener Saturday

I'm debating where to hunt this Saturday, the woodcock opener here in Wisconsin.  For the past week, I've been trying to avoid woodcock and hunt grouse, and I hunted several coverts where I typically run into few, if any, woodcock.  But apparently this isn't a typical year.  Tuesday, Fergus pointed ten woodcock in a section of county forest where I usually see just grouse.  My theory is that our wet summer and wet early fall have moved them to higher ground.  I imagine we'll go out Saturday and put up just grouse, and if that's the case, I won't complain.  

Saturday, September 23rd, is also National Hunting and Fishing Day, and I can't think of a much better way of celebrating it than a woodcock hunt.  I'm sure Fergus and Jenkins agree.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Bird Practice

With the grouse season opening next weekend, I figured we needed a little tuning up, but the temps and humidity have been nasty around here for most of August.  This morning, though, the temperatures dropped into the mid-40s, so we headed out to the county forest.

Fergus pointed a woodcock about 50 yards into the cover, and Jenkins backed.  I stood and watched the tableau for a half a minute or so.  A good point is better than a strong cup of black coffee for stirring me up.  I had a great look at it when I flushed it, which always happens in the pre-season. The dogs were birdy halfway through the covert, and a grouse busted out of a tree about ten feet up. That really jacked us all up, like a double espresso.  Overall, it was pretty quiet, though, as I expected more woodcock.       

Can't wait for next weekend.  Now, I need another coffee.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Kris Kristofferson and Lyme Disease

Interesting story in Rolling Stone about Kris Kristofferson and Lyme disease. His doctors thought he had dementia or Alzheimer's until one of them tested him for Lyme disease early this year, and the test showed positive.  After three weeks of anti-biotics, he was back to his 80-year-old self.  He's even scheduled a few shows this summer with Willie Nelson.  

Since I hunt in Wisconsin, one of the most deer tick infested places in the U.S., and live in the county in Wisconsin which in 2015 recorded the most confirmed cases of Lyme (558), I've suggested to my wife that she first test me for the disease if it seems like I'm losing my mind.  That could get expensive.    

Friday, June 24, 2016

Wisconsin Grouse Numbers Up Slightly In 2016

Grouse numbers are up one percent statewide for 2016, according to the recent drumming counts from the Wisconsin DNR.  The central region saw the greatest increase over 2015 numbers at eight percent, while the northern region saw a four percent increase.  The southwest region, however, recorded a 27 percent decrease, which is bad news for hunters in the coulee region.  

Since most hunters pursue grouse in the central or northern regions, this fall looks to be better than last year numberswise.  The DNR says "declines in breeding grouse numbers may have ended till the next decline in 2021 or 2022. Good nesting and brood rearing conditions this summer should set the stage for the cyclic increase in the next 4-5 years."  Fergus and Jenkins are seven and four years old, and with the grouse cycle tending up, they should end their hunting years on a high note.       

Friday, May 13, 2016

Blood Ties

Here's left-to-right Sheffield, Jenkins and Fergus after a run in the wet woods on Wednesday.  Sheffield is my wife's niece's (Laurel) new pup. Laurel and her mom, Cindy, were up this week for a short visit and brought along the seven-month-old setter pup.  My first thought was he looked like Ox, our first setter, with his dark head, who died almost a decade ago.  We later checked Sheffield's pedigree -- he was out of Round River Kennels in Burlington, Iowa -- and found to my surprise Alderwood Hope and Alderwood Black Jack in his blood.  Hope was Ox's mom and Black Jack his grandfather.  So of course I had an even softer spot for Sheffield.

Ox, my first real bird dog, got me addicted to grouse hunting.  He and Dan Pempek of Alderwood Kennels taught me a lot about grouse hunting.  He's pictured here above with my brother Matt in a northwestern Wisconsin covert.  Just before this photo was taken he had pointed a black bear hibernating in the open, which fortunately ended well with the bear lumbering off.  Ox was 80 pounds plus and wished every day was October.  It warmed my heart to know his blood is still flowing, his genes still coursing through the woods and across fields.    

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Axe (Chainsaw) In Hand

In  Aldo Leopold's essay "Axe-in-Hand", he discusses our plant biases, particularly which trees we want to keep and those we want to cut.  Leopold writes, "The wielder of an axe (chainsaw in this age) has an many biases as there are species of trees on his farm."  Leopold goes on to list some of his. He admitted that the popple (aspen) was in "good repute because he glorifies October and he feeds my grouse in winter, but to some of my neighbors he is a mere weed."  He also preferred tamarack "because he sprinkles gold on October grouse (gunpowder bias)."  Leopold had a soft spot for brush, like the prickly ash where his woodcock took "their daily sunbath under the shelter of his thorns" and the hazel because the catkins fed his deer and grouse.  

Leopold wrapped up the essay by noting that our plant biases not just our vocations but also our avocations.  Our biases are a reflection of what we value, what we prefer and what we do, what Leopold called "our manner of wasting weekends."  He preferred to waste his weekends in November with his axe in hand.

A friend of mine who owns 80 acres adjacent to county forest land has an overwhelming deer bias and cuts many of his large trees, often sugar maples, to grow the brush deer love.  He can't use all the firewood and generously lets me take what I can use.  Now I have a maple syrup bias and have a difficult time cutting maples, even my friend's.  On the other hand, his bias keeps me in firewood.  

The grouse don't seem to mind his bias either.  This morning as I was sizing up a maple, deciding which way to fell it, I looked over at Fergus who was immobile 20 yards away.  "Hmm, he looks like he's on point."  I looked back up into the crown of the tree to cipher which way it was leaning, and when I looked back over at Fergus, it really sunk in that he was pointing.  I took a few steps in his direction, and a big gray grouse busted out from beneath a balsam fir and flew clattering through the brush.  Like Leopold, I have a grouse bias and love all the plants that feed and shelter grouse.  Well, maybe all of them except tag alders.



Monday, March 28, 2016

Author and Setter Lover Dies

Jim Harrison, author of over 30 novels and collections of poetry, died last Saturday.  See npr article or Outside article for more info.  Harrison didn't write specifically about grouse and woodcock hunting or doubleguns and setters, but these things crop up continually in his writing.  Julip, for instance, is a novella about a bird dog trainer and setter lover from Ashland, Wisconsin.  Brown Dog is a collection of stories about a character from the UP of Michigan, where Harrison owned a cabin for years.  In one of those stories, Brown Dog says, "You can't even shoot a grouse or a deer properly if you're vaguely upset about something."  Words to live by.

I never met Harrison, but I feel like I knew him through his writing.  He was that good.  Take this short poem for instance:

Between the four pads of a dog's foot,
the fragrance of grass.      

Now go and smell your dog's feet after it has romped in the yard, and you'll understand.

From his writing I knew that Harrison occasionally drove through Wisconsin on Highway 64, a highway about 15 miles from my home.  One of my coverts I call Club 64 because it sits right on this highway.  For years I've had this fantasy that Harrison would be driving by on 64, see me with my setters and screech to a stop.  We'd then proceed on a short hunt.  In the long version of my dream, Harrison stopped by after the hunt and we cooked up a meal of grouse or woodcock and talked the evening away about dogs and literature.

I never got to hunt grouse with Harrison, but the next best thing is all of the books he left us.   That's almost as good.      

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Last Day of Wisconsin Grouse Season

I don't think I have ever hunted on January 31st, the last day of the Wisconsin grouse season, but with temps in the mid 30s, we figured why not and headed out the door with both dogs.  They haven't hunted for over a month, which was evident by the way they tore up the cover for the first 15 minutes or so.

I probably should have just taken one dog, but I couldn't see leaving one behind since it would be until next September before we got out again.  They settled down eventually, and we had a wonderful last hunt of the year.

We did see/hear a half dozen birds, and lots of tracks, some fresh, others days old. I think dogs have a more difficult time scenting in the snow, especially when the birds are buried beneath the snow.

The last bird, Fergus nailed in a clump of balsam firs.  I walked in on his left, and the bird flashed through the green on the dog's right and disappeared.  It was a tough shot, but I've hit shots like that before. However, when they fall I say to myself, "Wow, I actually hit that bird."  We followed it up, but I had simply missed.  For once, I was happy to miss a bird, though.  That grouse only had a few more months to survive before spring when the drumming would begin, the grouse in this cover hopefully flourishing.