Upland Hat Trick In The Eastern UP

Sharptail GrouseThis year marks the first time in many years that upland bird hunters in Michigan have the chance to pursue a hat trick in upland birds. These three come in the form of the ruffed grouse, the woodcock, and, saints be praised, the sharptail grouse. The only place you can do this is in the eastern UP, basically the lands west of I-75, but not including Drummond Island. (Check the regulations for specific sharptail boundaries).

First, a word on sharptails.

Shartptails, for those of you unfamiliar to them, are a grassland species. You won’t find them in the alders or aspens. You won’t find them in the conifers. You will find them in the old overgrown hay fields and prairie plantings. You’ll find them along abandoned fence rows and ditches with a good cover of shrubs. If you think of them as you might pheasants, you are thinking correctly. You will need a sharptail endorsement on your small game license. This costs nothing but it must be there.

Second, know that there is a seasonal limit which is six birds per hunter, two birds maximum per day. These birds, when they flush often much farther than a ruffed grouse will. Expect to do a lot of walking. And, expect the birds to flush, if there is any pressure on them at all, from 20 or more yards away.

One other thing, a lot of sharpie habitat is held in private lands so a bit of polite asking permission will be in order.

Now, let’s talk ruffed grouse.

Depending on which biologist you speak with, the ruffed grouse population is either at its peak, or just past its peak. No matter. All that means is that there are a good number of birds out there. The nesting season was very successful with accommodating weather throughout and a very mild winter had the birds finding plenty to eat. Like any year, habitat is vital. Michigan has had a very wet late summer so water won’t be as important as it has the past couple years. Any low ground seems to have a lot of moisture in it.

And, if my time in the woods training my setter is any indication, a lot of grouse will be feasting on mushrooms, there is a serious bumper crop out there this year. Ten-year-old aspens, a forest floor littered with mushrooms and wild strawberries, wintergreen and the like, and well, you should find the birds. And then there is woodcock. Unlike most areas in the eastern U.S., our resident woodcock population is either holding its own very well, or actually may be increasing a bit.

All this is good news for those of us who chase that funny little bird with the long beak. Like with ruffed grouse, nesting success was very good. Spring singing counts last April and early May at least in the south central UP, where I hang my hat a bit, were up over 30%. Having a real spring certainly helped with this, as my numbers the two previous years were sad due to cold and very wet conditions.

And what about migration dates you ask? While that is sort of like predicting when the peak fall color will arrive, as a general rule of thumb October 10 is a pretty solid date. Things like freezes in Ontario, or exceptional warmth for that matter, all figure in. In my 20 years chasing these things I’ve seen a fall of woodcock as early as Oct. 1 and as late as Halloween.

A number of years ago, while hunting woodcock with an expert, he mentioned these migrating birds are “never far from tar.” What he meant by that is that woodcock traditionally have used north/south running rivers are migratory corridors. Now, with the development of roads, the birds see these at night, when most flying seems to be done, as rivers, too. If you think about it, it does make some sense. Hunting the migrants is a lesson in following the river bottoms and large wet areas surrounding them. If there are no rivers, or soft ground to be specific, look to old county roads that offer soft ground and you just may find a serious honey hole.

Hot Spots:

Upper Peninsula 

Chippewa County; All species; www.saultstemarie.com 
Iron County; ruffed and woodcock www.ironcountylodging.com 
Gogebic County; ruffed and woodcock; www.westernup.info

Lower Peninsula 

(all ruffed and woodcock only) Wexford County; www.cadillacmichigan.com 
Petoskey area; www.boynecountry.com
Newaygo County; www.bigrapids.com
Grayling Area; www.grayling-mi.com
 

Depending on who you talk to, the sun was already below the trees. The whistle of diver wings trilled from the river a half mile away. Sitting in my tree stand, located in a forest of mixed alder and aspen, hoping for a deer was proving futile. But, strange things happen in a tree stand. Strange and wonderful things. Out of nowhere came a soft, high-pitched "wheep."

I knew that sound- it's the sound of the male woodcock in his springtime evening mating flight. But, this was October. What the...?

Moments later more wheeps filled the air, followed by the whir of wings as dozens of woodcock fell from the heavens, wove through the branches and landed softly on the wet earth of Sugar Island. The woodcock were in a party mood.

The next morning I rejoined the birds in the alders and aspens of Sugar Island, along with a 28-gauge, my hunting partner, Tom, and his English setter, Erin. After a three hour hunt where we, make that Erin, put up well over two dozen birds, five of those doodles joined us around the grill. The birds were marinated in heavily herbed olive oil, Tom and I were lightly marinating our livers with a nice single malt.

That was almost ten years ago. Since then, Tom and I, along with trusted other lovers of these buff-colored birds that twitterpate our hearts, have replayed the same scenario along the islands of the St. Marys. From that chance encounter with those tumbling woodcock, a major migration route for woodcock was discovered. These birds stream down from Canada, following the river, stopping over to refuel their high-strung metabolism in the golden autumn forests found here. While it would be nice to say that their migration flight could be timed with that mystical full October flight moon, that isn't necessarily so. These river-running doodles are just as apt to come into the islands on the wing of a good storm.

Now, if there is a good storm in conjunction with that migrating moon, consider yourself in high cotton. In fact, it is the storms coming out of the northwestern quadrant that make this river routing woodcock so reliable. Since that first encounter I’ve witnessed the woodcock tumble in droves on the front leading edge of a good storm, the same sort of storm that waterfowlers look for in the forecast.

Just as the ducks pour in with a good blast of wind and cold, so do the woodcock. It’s magic time when the hawk is on the wing. This woodcock don’t just use Sugar Island, either. Neebish, Lime and Drummond are all well worth the time spent in searching out their coverts.

You can certainly island hop your way into woodcock Nirvana by car, but, the real adventure comes when you use the river as your highway. As it's generally best to start at the beginning, Sugar Island makes a logical choice. The south end of Sugar Island holds the majority of public land on the island. In order to maximize your hunting time it would be best to trailer your boat onto the island and launch from one of the resorts found along the southern part of the island. Then, it's a simple matter of finding a sandy swatch of beach and go ashore. Good coverts of aspen and alder draw the birds in here and the ground seems to be always moist enough to make the birds happy in their search for earthworms.

Starting on Sugar Island makes sense for another reason. On neighboring Neebish Island, only a five minute boat ride away, most of the public land is one the north part of the island. Hunting the Sugar Island coverts in the morning, and heading to Neebish for an afternoon hunt, makes a wonderful day of gunning and exploration.

The forest on Neebish is a bit more mature but you'll still find those golden leaves of autumn and you'll find some decent bird numbers.

Lime Island is best accessed from the Raber Bay boat launch, about 40 miles down river from Sault Ste. Marie. Virtually all the land is public. A four mile ride across the St. Marys puts you on these shores. A neat thing about Lime Island is that the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources has a few nice cottages to rent, along with some campsites, if you choose to spend the night. If you're thinking about hopping these islands completely by boat, be advised that it's about 15 miles between Neebish and Lime Island.

Drummond Island is the next stop, about another 15 miles down river. The north end is the preferred location. Good hunting can be found along its nor then shore, along with Maxton Plains. There is a fair amount of state land here and holdings by the Nature Conservancy add a lot to the mix. The area is characterized by wide open fields, called Alvar plains, intermixed with beautiful stands of aspens. Inside the aspens you'll also find seasonal stream beds that are choked with alder. In both the aspens and the alders you'll find the woodcock.

Written by Dan Donarski, a noted professional outdoor and travel journalist, September 2010.

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