NISSWA, MINN. — Somewhere I read that ruffed grouse habitat, without the chance of flushing a grouse, is uninviting. I cannot recall if the writer alluded to classic October grouse hunting or not, a time when the air is cool and the foliage ablaze.
What I do know is that last Saturday, on the Minnesota grouse opener, the September woods indeed looked uninviting -- dank, green, thick, almost hostile. Add to the mix a pouring rain, and had it not been opening day, I may have thrown in the towel before the first round.
Axel, my Deutsch Drahthaar, didn't care about the rain; he just wanted to hunt. He enthusiastically bound for the woods while I, with chin tucked and shoulders hunched against the downpour, trailed behind him.
I had yet to reach the jungle into which Axel had run when I heard a grouse flush. Then another and another, and maybe more, I couldn't tell. I waited, gun ready, for a grouse to show, but none did. I knew the birds had landed after just short flights, and I now could hear two of them anxiously clucking from hidden perches in the rain-soaked forest.
Axel was running helter skelter through the woods, invisible, his whereabouts detectable by the sound of the beeper collar he wore around his neck. I was disappointed he had not pointed the grouse, but I knew those birds had likely flushed from overhead perches in berry-laden gray dogwoods and that the heavy rain and still air only added to the dog's difficulty in sorting out the olfactory clues.
I stepped forward and entered the jungle, already soaked anyway. My hunting pants clung to my thighs, restricting my stride to a Frankenstein-like shuffle.
In the meantime Axel was burning back and forth with the reckless abandon of an 8-month-old puppy, and not the 8-year-old hunting veteran he is supposed to be.
Then a grouse flushed from just above my head. I swung my gun quickly, shot, and whiffed. Another grouse rose but landed on a limb before I could shoot. I took a step, and away it went, disappearing in an instant in the heavy green vegetation. A few more steps, and another grouse was airborne. I touched the trigger, and again no feathers flew. Then, one more flush and another miss.
Dog and master were both now failing miserably.
"OK," I thought. "It's raining, my clothes are glued to me from head to toe, and water is running off the brim of my cap. My shell belt shows four empty loops, and yet my game pouch is barren. Settle down."
I took a moment to study the vegetation around me and realized nearly every plant was on a ruffed grouse's bill of fare. Light green berries clung to gray dogwoods, crimson red fruit hung from high bush cranberry shrubs, and ripe wild plums lie scattered beneath tangled branches.
When the next grouse left its tree limb perch I was ready, and it dropped into the wet branches at my shot. Axel retrieved the bird. Soon another grouse rose on thundering wings and it, too, collided with my shot.
I was still only 75 yards from my truck, so I headed in that direction to empty my game pouch. Axel was scouring the cover ahead of me, and suddenly he pointed. The instant the dog stopped, a grouse flushed and flew over my head. I swung, shot and the bird disappeared.
Unsure whether I had connected, I stood in the rain while Axel searched the area where the bird would have fallen. After a minute or two, I walked to the spot, and there floating in the middle of a small creek was a dead grouse. In the pouring rain and still air, Axel had to nearly step on the bird before he scented it.
The truck was in sight when another grouse flushed from halfway up an aspen tree. It was an easy shot, if there is such a thing; straight away and in the relative open. But I missed. I was dumbfounded when the grouse didn't drop, and thus I failed to fire again.
I left the three grouse in the truck and hunted in the direction the last grouse had flown. Axel was working hard, now more focused, and soon he pointed a woodcock. I flushed the stout little bird, and since the season was not open, I watched as it flew away. A minute or so later, Axel ran up behind and in his mouth was a dead grouse. I had indeed connected on the "easy" shot a few minutes prior.
"Good boy, Axel," I said as I took the grouse and patted him on the head.
Shortly, I shot a fifth grouse, which completed my daily limit.
It is difficult for me to judge how many different grouse I had flushed, but without a doubt there were at least 10. Four of the five grouse I shot were young of the year, an indication of excellent reproduction.
Had I just happened upon a ruffed grouse hotspot, or does my brief outing foretell smiling hunters, tired dogs and grouse dinners ahead?
Bill Marchel, a wildlife columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.