Around here the firearms deer season often marks the end of grouse hunting, too. There aren’t many of us will run bird dogs in the woods then, and when it’s all over it is often too cold and snowy to get much done. Still, if weather allows, I grab the dogs and gun and give it a try. There have been times when I gave up in short order after stopping every few minutes to clear hard snowballs from a dogs feet. And there have been other times I found grouse bunched in unusual numbers in unusual places that provided some exciting shooting. I remember one late hunt when my setter, Cully, pointed the edge of a slash pile along the border of a recent clearcut we were crossing. When I approached the grouse went up and there were 5 or 6 in the air at once. It was one of the two true grouse doubles I can claim, but it wasn’t really much of a feat with the grouse in the wide open sky trying hard for the cover. I have had some other good hunts in the snow, but a lot of the time it’s more exercise than anything else.
This weekend the days were overcast and threatened more snow but we enjoyed some warm temperatures that had the few inches of snow wet and melting. Rare weather for this time of year and it was hard to stay out of the woods. I took Jack and Gabby to a cover north of here that I hadn’t been at all season. It’s been a favorite and I’ve taken many a grouse and woodcock there, and with some ongoing logging it should be good for years to come. I turned Jack loose and we started off into a stiff south wind. It felt great to be out and Jack’s bell sounded Christmas cheery as he cast to the sides of the trail. In minutes we reached the heavy growth of spruce that often provides shelter for grouse in bad weather but Jack hunted it out without contact. Jack was happy to be out and hunted the cover like I wanted him to. I spotted a couple of older sets of grouse tracks and we went deeper into the woods, but after 30 minutes I was wondering if we would see any game. That’s when Jack’s bell fell silent far to the left.
I left the trail and pushed through some thick buck brush down into a gully and then back up the other side. The woods seemed open with the snow covering the ground, but there was still plenty of tight brush to slow you down and blow-downs to duck under. There were several short runs of balsam and spruce throughout the cover ahead and logical places for birds to be. Jack was a ways out and I activated the beeper to locate him. He was standing motionless pointing towards a stand of thick green balsam. I’ve been in that situation many times and know how tough it can be to get a shot and this time was the same. I actually moved quickly through the evergreens hoping to get a shot at a bird exiting the other side, but when I came out I heard the grouse flush behind me and made it’s escape behind the screen of balsams. Out-smarted again.
Ten minutes later Jack pointed again out to the right, and when I finally got to him I heard a grouse flushing far out front, unseen. Those late season birds are tough to get close to, and that’s ok. Every grouse that survives the winter could raise a brood for next year. An hour and a half later we were back at the truck with no other grouse contacts. Even though there was only two or three inches of snow on the ground, it was wet, heavy and slippery and Jack was pretty tired from running through it. And yeah, I was too.