It’s All About The Bird Dogs

Thanks to Dan Donarski, our noted travel and outdoor blogger, for sharing his experience and tips on hunting grouse this fall!

Under an azure sky, with the leaves blushing in the glory of autumn, it is now the season for the dogs, bird dogs to be specific.

Dateline: Menominee County

Last weekend found me in the sand hills and oak and aspen forests of Menominee County. I wasn’t alone, Darby was along, and was in heaven.

Darby is my English setter, all of seven years old, and still miraculously full of a puppy’s vim and vigor. He’s a bird dog. He’s the greatest bird dog in the world because he’s mine. Just as yours is the greatest because he, or she, is yours.

Arriving somewhere in the vicinity of Stephenson mid afternoon on Friday I set Darby out in a large grassland area to burn off steam. This was his first hunt since last November and I wanted his excitement, or at least some of it, to get burned off. Not a chance.

After half an hour I re-kenneled him and drove to a very special piece of grouse woods inside a block of the Escanaba State Forest. Within the first hour Darby had bumped two birds, meaning that he was not using his nose and was simply running through the woods. While doing so his running startled two grouse and they flew away. Not exactly a good start if one’s goal is to put some weight in the game bag.

Yet, I couldn’t help but smile watching him run. Leaping over downed trees, coursing back and forth in front of me, and, every now and again, running back to me with a mile-wide grin. He was having fun, and yes, so was I.

The next morning dawned clear and cool. The near cloudless sky meant that the sun would heat things up quickly, so any hunting we were to do would be now and then from mid-afternoon until just before sunset.

The trees along the Menominee River, though not nearly at full blush yet were surprisingly brilliant in sections. For the morning I chose an area west and north of Carney.

Darby didn’t leap out of the kennel from the truck this morning. Instead he sort of jumped. Anyone could tell his muscles were just a bit sore from the workout yesterday. And, better yet, while he still ran, it wasn’t the hell-bent-for-leather speed of yesterday. It also looked like he was using his nose.

In the first hour he pointed three birds, all grouse. All of which flew safely away under the heavy leaf cover of the aspens we were working. Around quitting time, with us working a section of aspens that bordered some alders, he jammed on the brakes, cocking his head hard to the right and lifting his left front leg in that classic point pose. Moving up to him, a woodcock could be seen barely 18 inches off his nose. The bird lifted, twittering and corkscrewing up through the young trees. It would have been an easy shot.

Darby looked at me in a perturbed expression. It is hard for him to understand that woodcock season was not yet open. I maneuvered out of that cover so we would hopefully not find any more woodcock. We didn’t, but we also didn’t another grouse, either.

After the mid-day nap we went searching for some new country. Just before you would cross the Menominee River on G-18 there is a sand road cutting to the north. We took it, and somewhere in the next 30 miles found an area that had been clear cut 10 or so years ago. Within 30 minutes, Darby pointed another grouse, and this one was served for dinner that night. One other grouse was a possibility but Darby’s hunting partner, muffed an incredibly easy shot.

Frost greeted us Sunday morning, and in the frost, Darby pointed once more. This one, too, offered a shot, and fell across a small stream. Darby brought it to me after a minute or so of searching. I could blame the short hunt on Darby being tired. He was, but truth be told, so was I. My muscles were stiff, too, and it was me who cried “uncle.”  While Darby balked a bit at going back into the truck’s kennel, I don’t think he minded. Not this weekend.

(Michigan grouse numbers are at their peak, or just one year past their peak, in the 10-year population cycle they possess. Woodcock numbers in Michigan are slightly rising across the state. This info comes from the state biologists. From that weekend, through three more hunts in areas closer to my home in the Soo, it has been my experience so far that grouse numbers are up. Flush rates for me last year were only about 1 an hour. This year, in those same covers it is nearly three.)

Dan Donarski

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.