Minnesota grouse season looks, smells right this yearDULUTH, Minn. — The old tote road trail not only looks right on this opening day of Minnesota’s 2012 grouse season — it smells right too.
By: Sam Cook, The Dickinson Press
DULUTH, Minn. — The old tote road trail not only looks right on this opening day of Minnesota’s 2012 grouse season — it smells right too.
The trail is dappled with fallen aspen leaves, and every grouse hunter knows they smell earthy and a little bit sour. It’s the smell of fall in the North Woods.
It is still early on this opening day in mid-September, cool and damp, and the sun throws long shadows down the trail. For now, it is just the yellow dog and I, working a familiar two-track about 20 miles north of Duluth.
This isn’t supposed to be a banner year for ruffed grouse in Minnesota or Wisconsin. The bird population is starting its downhill slide toward the bottom of its 10-year cycle. Drumming counts were down significantly last spring in both states.
But for most of us who hunt grouse, the hunt isn’t about how many thousands of birds will be taken this fall. It’s about getting out in some good country, poking along with an old shotgun and seeing what opportunities present themselves. One satisfying shot, a couple of startling flushes, can make a hunter’s whole week.
The dog courses back and forth from one side of the trail to the other. She has figured out, with some prodding, that this is the way to hunt grouse. A swing into the woods on the left. A swing to the right. When she crosses the trail, she throws a split-second glance over her shoulder to make sure the guy in blaze orange is still there.
A person can get spoiled hunting with an 8-year-old dog who understands the game.
The woods are brilliant with color. The maples are coming on in shades of peach and crimson. The sumac leaves are the color of merlot. The popples and birches quiver in gold. Every time the dog bumps an aspen on her passes, more gold coins shower down.
A quick look into the woods, though, tells me that any flushing grouse will have the advantage. The cover is still dense. I’m soon able to confirm this when a grouse launches into flight among the alders. I throw the gun up but catch only intermittent glimpses of dusky feathers. On top of
that, the bird takes low trajectory, just over the dog. The familiar shoot/don’t shoot scenario plays instantly in my brain, and I pass on the shot out of concern for the dog.
The whirring of the bird’s wings diminishes to nothing, and the forest is silent again.
Other hunters are celebrating the opener as well. When I stop at Island Lake to refill the dog’s water bottles, I come across Dan Frigaard of Duluth fishing just below the Island Lake bridge.
“I already got a grouse,” said Frigaard, 32. “I saw four, got one. Now I’m trying to get a walleye.”
Frigaard was hunting alone, without a dog. Early.
“I was north of Boulder Lake at 5:30,” he said. “I started walking at 6:25 or 6:30.”
He likes the early shift.
“It’s peaceful. The wind’s calm. You can hear a lot better,” he said. “I typically have my best luck in the morning.”
A little later, Dan Mettner of Duluth is finishing a swing through woods on a snowmobile trail with Riley, his 11-month-old half-yellow Lab, half-golden retriever. In an hour’s walk, he hasn’t flushed a bird.
“I’d like to get one,” Mettner said, looking down at Riley. “I’d like to see what he does. He retrieves real well.”
At midday, I encounter Jim Winklesky Jr. and Amy Swanson of Rice Lake Township riding their four-wheelers. Winklesky has a shotgun on his rear rack. Both are wearing blaze orange.
“It’s pretty slow around here,” Winklesky said, assessing the grouse numbers. “I’ve been hunting around here since I was a kid. I haven’t heard or seen that many this fall. It’s just slow.”
They’ve ridden 15 or 20 miles, Winklesky said. A couple of hours. They haven’t seen a bird yet.
“We’ve seen a lot of deer, though,” he said.
The yellow dog and I find another trail we’ve hunted before and take one more walk. I haven’t hunted here for a while, but it used to produce some birds. Sure enough, on a rise topped with 20-year-old popples, the dog plunges in and all but disappears in the foliage. I hear one bird flush but never see it. Another appears and disappears in the same instant in the slice of sky right over the trail. No shots are fired.
The dog snuffles the spot hard, trying to make another bird materialize, but it won’t happen.
It’s still early in this season. We will be back in a couple of weeks, when the birds are dispersing. We’ll be back when the leaves are down and thick on the trail, making the woods smell even more like grouse hunting.