"Perfection" and grouse dogs are mutually exclusive concepts.
It's said that it takes half a good dog's life to develop into a grouse dog, which may be an understatement. Still, my dogs and I are willing to give it the old college try, which we've been doing now for lo these many years on our annual trip to Wisconsin.
Where did the grouse go? Good question.
We're prairie hunters, the dogs and I. Huns and sharptails are the home team. Wide open country and widely scattered coveys, that's me. Going to Wisconsin is like--how do you Americans say it?--it's like€¦going over to the dark side.
Up 'nort, as the up-norters like to say, you can hunt all day over your dog and never actually see him hunt; instead, you catch glimpses of him as he rockets through the trees. But that's okay, because when your dog does go on point, the bird probably isn't going to be there anyway.
Still, after four years of wallowing around at the bottom of the cycle and feeling sorry for themselves, the grouse are trending up again. Praise unto the Lord.
Which got me to thinking: What is it, exactly, that goes into the makings of a grouse dog?
To get there, though, you must first understand this: grouse are trophy birds. I can't take credit for that designation; it originated with the esteemed John Palmer, of whom I've written before. Since retiring from the New York State police department, he's thrown off the bonds of convention, good taste and assisted living to devote his life to hunting grouse and quail. We who still have to work for a living can only stand back and marvel.
You go, John!
No doubt about it; ruffed grouse are trophy birds. My average--and this is when the cycle is on the upswing--is about one bird a day reduced to possession. It's not like I'm not trying; I'm out there trying to reduce birds for all I'm worth, but year in and year out, a bird a day is about as good as I get.
Slow years are vastly worse. Two years ago, which was about as slow as it can get and still resemble a hunting (as opposed to a hiking) trip, I killed, in 10 days of hard walking, exactly zero birds. Skimming through my 2005 shooting journal reveals all kinds of self-disparaging remarks. Nothing new there.
The author's setter typically hits a point like she has piled into a wall.
But the dogs are a different story. Unlike me, they actually seem to get better with practice. It's not easy getting a dog acclimated to woods and swamps when you live and hunt on the prairies. From some of my Montana covers, I can see halfway into the next county. From some of my Wisconsin covers, I can see halfway to the next popple thicket, a good 30 feet. That kind of worldview draws down your perspective on things.
What it doesn't change is my position on close vs. far-ranging dogs. My best grouse dog is arguably my Brittany, Powder, who is anything but a boot polisher back home. But in Wisconsin she closes up considerably. Much more important is that, when she cuts scent, she slows down and works it out, no matter how long it takes to find the bird.
Last fall, for instance, we discovered an area less than 10 minutes from the cabin we rent.
This particular spot is what I call mixed cover--a combination of cutover aspen, hardwood and conifer stands. A logging road runs the length of the place, and several spurs branch off the road and lead to dense popple thickets of just the right age class.
Farther up, the road swings wide of the Brule River, then doubles back on itself like a giant horseshoe.
Strong retrieving skills are essential in a grouse dog.
We were halfway around the bend when Powder's tail began to whir, and within moments she'd locked up. But almost as quickly she broke off and began working her way slowly into the woods, her nose to the ground.
This part is always nerve wracking for me. I don't have a slow personality. I want high-speed Internet access, prompt payment from magazine editors and a bird at the end of every point. Powder, on the other hand, couldn't care less about my itinerary. In due time, she worked her way back across the logging road, then dropped off the bank and into the hardwoods on the far side. And then, suddenly, she lost the scent. Her head came up; she looked at me.
"All right," I said, lowering my gun. It was getting warm and I unzipped my turtleneck.
Powder charged ahead, but hadn't gone 50 yards before she locked up and once again broke into her creeping, nose to the ground, forward progression.
"Here we go again," I thought. Ahead, the road crooked to the right, and precisely there Powder swung wide, doubled back under a conifer and slammed into a point, trapping the bird between the two of us. I took two steps toward her and the grouse--a beautiful red-phase male--flushed right at me. Then it turned, and I swung, straining to pull past it. I fired when it was just 15 yards out, and, par for the course for me, missed in front by a good two feet.
Occasionally, though, the hand of providence touches even bad shots and writers, and my second shot dropped it like a stone. It had a gorgeous red tail with a chocolate-colored band. That tail is drying on my windowsill as I write this.
Once in a while, things work out the way they're supposed to.
My two setters haven't yet got Powder's game, although both have the potential. Both cut their globe-trotting casts by two-thirds in the woods, but that's still a relative comparison, and after spending hours listening to their bells but never actually seeing them in action, it's easy to jump to conclusions. They may be in th
e nearest bar drinking, for all I know.
Which, not incidentally, can serve as a functional icebreaker with the locals: "Any of you guys see a little orange and white setter come in here?"
I don't know where I ever got the idea that ruffed grouse hold for a point; they do a lot of stuff in the woods but "holding for point" is rarely one of them. Powder again: A couple seasons ago she cut a track which led her 15 or 20 yards ahead before it veered sharply to the right and plunged into the woods. We were walking a logging road.
And I was hoping to stay there. Not because I'm lazy; I'm certifiably lazy, which is harder than it looks but that's beside the point. No, I was hoping to stay on the road because if the bird flushed between the dog and me, odds were it would fly over the road, giving me a clear shot. But as Powder crept deeper into the woods, I abandoned that plan and reluctantly followed her in. A few moments later, she locked up for real.
I stepped past her, my gun level and anticipating a flush. But several long seconds of thrashing through the sweet fern produced nothing. I sent her on, but she refused to budge, her eyes bulging. Disgusted, I lowered my gun and stalked back the way I had come, leaving my little dog, I presumed, pointing air. And at that moment, of course, the grouse towered up and flew over the road, precisely as planned. I watched it go, having failed once again to reduce it to possession.
Ruffed grouse are runners. They don't run like pheasants, which seem to have someplace to go; instead, grouse run like a top that has begun to slow and wobble, careening off everything it touches. Expecting your dog to establish point and hold the bird until you can amble up and shoot it is not, let me assure you, anything like the same way the grouse reads the job description.
Dogs accustomed to hunting on the prairie will have to do some adjusting in the grouse woods.
Instead, I want my dogs to break point and creep (there, I said it) until they pin the bird. I encourage them to do this simply by not correcting them when they break off an unproductive point. I suppose there's a chance a dog could carry that behavior over into other, more cooperative birds like quail and Huns, but in my experience that almost never happens with a mature dog, so I long ago stopped worrying about it.
Most dogs are relatively easy to read when they're pointing a grouse that has moved on--their intensity wanes, they begin to flag, they may even look back at you as you approach. But one of my dogs, Scarlet, is tough to decipher. Bird or no, she hits a point like she's just piled into a wall--tail straight up, head down and nostrils flaring. That there may not be a bird within 75 yards makes no difference to Scarlet, because style is style. It becomes a problem when, after a series of flashy false points, I let down my guard.
That happened last fall. John Meyer and I were working a logging road when Scarlet slammed into one of her typical Katy-bar-the-door points. She already had a half dozen non-productive points under her belt that morning and as I ambled in with my gun over my shoulder, expecting another, I spied the bird strutting around 10 feet in front of her nose.
I took a few steps toward it and it chicken-walked a few steps in the opposite direction. I took a few more steps and it flushed, my shot sending up a geyser of mud and leaves behind it. Amazingly, it dropped back to earth and this time I charged it, Scarlet still holding point behind me. On the second flush I barely wing tipped the bird, and when I released Scarlet she charged past and ran into the woods.
After several minutes of calling I finally got her back for the retrieve. Five minutes later she was writhing on the ground in pain. Running past me, she'd impaled her thigh with the stub of a broken stick. A bloody emergency trip to a good vet put her in order again, but she was on medical leave for the next two weeks.
It's odd that I've read so little about the huge advantage of owning a grouse dog that retrieves. It doesn't take much to bring a grouse to earth, but a bird with a broken wing will run into the next county and it takes a strong retriever to track it down. I force-break all my dogs--something I absolutely believe is the right thing to do--but even so, they're average retrievers at best.
That, in turn, has given me new respect for some of the versatile breeds--wirehairs, griffons and even GSPs, that seem to take to retrieving with as much enthusiasm as setters, pointers and Brits take to pointing.
This year, after my Wisconsin buddy Mike Bartz and I loosed a fusillade at a tree-flushing grouse, we watched sheepishly as it spun down with only a broken wing to show for our barrage. I trotted over and called out to Hanna, my youngest setter. She picked up the bird's scent but soon lost it, and at one point in the chase the bird was almost within my reach.
Instead of making a grab for it, though, I called for Hanna again but before she got there the bird took off and that was the last we saw of it. Mike told me that his Drahthaar, Gus, would have tracked the bird down in short order, and after hunting over his dog for a couple days, I believe him.
Grouse hunting is a game that, more than almost any other, is played on an un-level field, and the slope always tilts toward the birds. I pray that never changes.