Ruffed grouse lessons in Wisconsin's North Woods
Price County Forests are laced with many miles of logging and access trails that make hunting possible.
It isn't funny anymore. I have been personally tutored by such noted authorities as Joe Arnette, Bill McClure and Charlie Waterman and, for all the good it has done me, I might as well have studied ruffed grouse gunning under The Wizard of Oz.
As yet undaunted, however, here I am headed for Wisconsin's Ruffed Grouse Capital of the Universe with wife Nancy, Jack the Brittany, and a wagonload of trout tackle and grouse hunting gear.
Jack has been a bit gimpy on his left foreleg lately, which does not bode well for his upcoming encounter with barely passable alder thickets ("tickets," as it's pronounced in the North Woods). We are counting on some swimming and other low-impact activity to limber up his leg while I spend the final week of fishing season amusing the Driftless Area's spring-creek trout. In just one excursion, I can anticipate two times my usual opportunity for humiliation--by ruffed grouse and rainbow trout.
Sure enough, what few stupid trout were in residence earlier have now been wised-up by throngs of expert anglers and, though trout season is ending, grouse season is just starting, which means there will be plenty of foliage to screen the flushes.
On the bright side, Jack's drive train is sound again and we are on our way to Price County in the heart of Wisconsin's aspen jungles. Grouse thrive in this region because of its vast aspen forests, managed by clear-cut harvest. The cuts average about 40 acres in area on Price County Forests according to Pete Bartelt, Forest Administrator. Because aspens propagate from root sprouts rather than seeds, the residual debris from clear-cutting is left on the ground. This makes for rough going for bird dogs in the young cuts but it suits the grouse just fine.
Small block clear-cuts provide a year-round forage base for wildlife. The winter-budding aspen and understory can support incredibly dense ruffed grouse populations. Pete Bartelt promises we will find a ruff under every thornapple "ticket" and you would lose money betting against him. But the birds are chowing down on dogwood, highbush cranberry and winterberry too, along with the usual buds and green stuff.
Although this is not one of them, there are seasons during peak-cycle years here when 40 to 50 flushes per day are possible for hardworking wingshooters with good dogs. I am somewhat encouraged by that because I'm the kind of blunderer who needs to raise that many birds in order to bag a limit.
Quite a few woodcock are showing up and we take heart in that, not because we want to shoot a lot of them, but because we are troubled over their uncertain future. It is promising to see them abundantly scattered throughout the jungles.
Our destination, Palmquist Farm (www.palmquistfarm.com, or 800-519-2558) is owned and operated as a working farm and resort by Jim and Helen Palmquist. Jim's great grandfather, a Finnish immigrant, settled the farm in the 1890s and built it into one of the largest logging operations in the area. He and succeeding generations handed down their Finnish cultural traditions too. Jim teaches two courses a year in log building construction while Helen preserves the culinary heritage of Finland with utterly scrumptious feasts, all of which include traditional Finnish fare.
We meet long-time hunting associate Steve Conrad and his chum Norton Howe, who arrive from North Carolina amazingly within minutes of us and, as Jim shows us around the main lodge, an early snow shower lightly coats the as yet green and gold forest with a white cloak that will disappear before dusk.
The author pruned several saplings with birdshot in Price County's thick aspen jungles.
Gun dogs are a part of the patina at Palmquist's and Norton's pointing Lab, Steve's pack of quail finders and Jack are all deliriously happy to be out of their crates in this frosty weather and are taking a high-speed tour of the barnyards. On one of their laps, they tear past the resident black Lab puppy that quickly retreats to his vast excavation project under the main lodge. Apparently unaccustomed to such a huge swarm of bonkers bird dogs, the pup barks faintly at them from deep within his labyrinth.
Steve and Norton gather up their hyperventilating canines and head for the far end of the farm to hunt birds. After a brief orientation, Jim points me toward a pond surrounded by tag alders and young forest where I can air Jack out, and the game is on!
Despite my notoriously dismal record as a ruffed grouse hunter and a reported slump in the grouse cycle, I feel oddly confident that this venture will mark a turning point in my wingshooting fortunes. Even in an off year, the exceptional number of birds hereabouts should work in my favor. But not this evening--Jack and I draw our usual blank.
It is midmorning. The dusting of snow is gone and it is time to walk off the huge breakfast we devoured. I'm doing so behind Jack on a county forest access loop trail. We have no idea how long the loop is, but Steve and Norton strike out one way and Nancy and I go the other. I check my compass and flip the GPS on. Getting lost in the jungle here is as easy as taking three steps off the road.
About 300 steps from the vehicles, Jack slams on point in a tangle of limbs. Though but a few paces off the trail, he is hard to get to and, as I claw my way toward him, it occurs to me that there will be no shot unless this bird is witless enough to fly the access trail. This ruff is no fool hen and even if I could see clearly and get my feet untangled there is no way to get the gun to my shoulder.
We arrive at a marshy opening in which a snapshot might be possible. No grouse here of course, but there are some timberdoodles which Jack studiously ignores until they dart away. Although he stops to flush, Jack has never been much of a cocker. Passing on the woodcock, we soon reach some older growth aspen. Jack's beeper says he is locked up in it and, as I push toward him, the cover opens up a bit. I can swing the gun in here but I can't see anything for the leaves. A grouse jumps out from under Jack's nose and is instantly out of sight. I fire off a shot after the ruff anyway and, while I peer through a hole in the foliage for some sign of feathers, the top half of a nearby sapling lists slowly to the right and finally topples to the ground on a hinge of green bark, cleanly sheared by a load of
Jack is still frozen and when I move ahead of him a second bird bursts out behind us--sailing straight down the broad trail. So far, absolutely nothing about the course of this grouse hunt is at all unfamiliar to me. Soon, Steve and Norton round a bend in the trail ahead and I am treated to some brand new hard luck stories.
It is truly gratifying how far a Finnish sauna, hot shower, roaring fire, dry socks and a delectable dinner can go to restore sensibilities wracked by futile encounters with ruffed grouse. Jim and Helen know about these things. Now, having received just such attitude adjustment therapy, we are lingering at the dining table, intently absorbing local grouse lore and tips from Dan Heikkinen and Joe Soley, two of Palmquist's master guides.
We learn that both men favor large Drahthaars for hunting the aspen jungles because of the breed's cold tolerance, endurance and ability to run over limbs, logs, stumps and brush that litter the forest floor, hellish tangles that smaller breeds must often skirt or crawl through and that are a tripping hazard for gunners.
The slash from aspen clear-cuts is left on the ground to hamper gun dogs and trip up grouse hunters.
These experts tell their clients to try the shot even if the bird is disappearing from view in dense foliage. "You'll be amazed how many birds you knock down after they've gone out of sight," Dan asserts. I don't mention that he has no clue how amazed I am just to knock down a grouse in plain view.
Finally, Dan and Joe advise us that two or more guns moving in on a point from opposite sides can usually keep grouse from keeping trees and brush between them and the shooters. Steve and I prove the worth of that advice next morning.
Kate the pointer locks down and relocates several times along the edge of a logging road we're following. We are sure a bird is running and there is nothing we can do to help Kate pin it down. What's more, we can't keep up with the hard-driving dog in the dense alders.
After 15 or 20 minutes, Kate's beeper signals a solid point deep in the jungle. Steve and I fight our way toward the signal, making our approach on either side of the rock-solid pointer and the ruff goes up well before we reach her. If the bird flushes toward either side, necessitating swinging our shotguns, neither of us could get a lead. Instead, the ruff flies to an opening straight away, giving us both a long but easy shot.
It's not over yet, as we discover that Kate has tracked down two grouse. The second bird swings away from Steve, to my left, and my 26-inch double barrel is a little too long to swing with a grouse in the thick growth.
Though we experience no 50-flush days, Jack and the other dogs never run very far between finds. And those attitude adjustments between outings...ah, well, they make everything right.