It took eleven days of antibiotics, antiseptic wipes, wound cleaning and bed rest for Watson’s wound to fully heal closed. If there’s a silver lining to having an injured bird dog in the middle of October, it was that he was able to heal up just in time to give us a final six day run before the opener of Minnesota’s firearm deer season. In general that spells the end of our time in the grouse woods. The influx of hunters over the weekends is extreme, and even finding places to hunt over the week can be a challenge sometimes. I put together a small plan to hunt some new promising spots, our top favorites, and to pace out the field hours in a way to keep Watson from re-injuring himself and maintain his endurance over the stretch. I decided that plan would essentially be hunting only six hours each day, starting around late morning or even noon, and then hunting until sundown. Hunting ruffed grouse in the middle of the day isn’t always the best plan, as they move around very little and can be hard for dogs to locate during those hours, but it was going to work best for us. Our first day would be spent basically running up and down forest roads, allowing Watson to run big and wide to blow off his pent up energy while simultaneously keeping him out of thick and heavy cover, where risk of injury to his freshly healed wound was more likely. It worked pretty well.
The first cover was an old standby of ours. In fact we had already hunted it earlier with Jason and his two labradors. It’s a pretty simple place to hunt, it’s a big road, and the good hunting spots that are off the main road are very easily walk-able two tracks, tree lines, and clearing edges. Watson was running like his feet were on fire, and by the end of our brisk walk we had moved a good number of grouse, and even a woodcock. I connected on one of the big birds and the timberdoodle, and after two hours we had two birds, Watson’s mind was at peace again, and I decided to call it a day with our small victory and having got back out there.
Our next day the plan would be similar, albeit I decided we would try some new covers that I had been meaning to investigate. Our first choice was empty, and after a short walk from the van I was able to see the cover that looked liked it would hold birds disappeared faster than anticipated, so we bailed and moved to our second option. That one was better, it was your typical, picturesque grouse cover. Young aspens, intermixed conifers, some small water sources that all butted up against a clear-cut from a couple of years ago. It had seven residents, and gave a good scare to three of them, but they were either bullet proof or faster than I was.
Feeling both relieved to be back in the grouse woods, and frustrated at my shooting incompetence, I took us to another cover on the ‘to-do’ list. This one was just as perfect in terms of cover type, but was a little bit cozier and would let us get up into the thick of it with the birds more. The ones we encountered in the previous spot were very skittish, and I was hoping that hunting them in a denser location would let Watson work them better. We made our way down an over grown four wheeler trail, which eventually stalled out into a small patch of cedars that was surrounded by aspens and dead fall. We worked in a circle around the cedar patch, and my plan paid off. Watson found four birds in just a short ten minutes, and I connected on the first, second, and fourth of them. It was a pretty exciting few moments, and after taking a pause to enjoy the moment, I decided that trio would end the day for us. We had been afield for four hours by then, and three birds is a pretty good day for any grouse hunter, so with Watson on heel we made our way back to the van to stay on schedule and continue our week. Our next day would be similar, as we tried a few more new spots, albeit we didn’t find much. A small handful of flushes, some mixed feelings about my location choices, but by the end of it I was able to connect on a young grouse that broke off from a group of three that all flushed together from a small patch of young white pines.
Then would come the day I had been saving all week, we would hunt our favorite spot on last time. As tempting as it was to run back there the first day we could, I decided I would leave it alone until the middle of the week, giving the birds in there time to relax from any weekend pressure they might have received. I actually had driven past it each of the last three days, and never once saw another vehicle at the entrance to it, so I was pretty sure we would have a nice time in there. It’s hard to say exactly what makes this one place great, other than that it always has birds, and it’s cover mix is incredibly diverse. You could spend a full day hunting every square inch of it, and you’d find slightly different cover types all over. There’s one other aspect to it that makes it’s bird production great, but that’s my secret, and I’m not sharing. We spent about four hours in there that day, working every back tree line, clearing edge, aspen patch and conifer stand. We flushed big mature drummers back by the swamps, and couple of social gatherings in the more typical grouse cover. By the time the dust settled, we had flushed seventeen grouse. I only fired at four, and only connected on two. It’s just as well though, as that means those others will be there for the future.
As I was taking our end-of-the-hunt picture with Watson and his trophies I had to realize that I might not see this place for a long while. My gypsy-hunting life style has two potential future paths before it, both very different, and both will likely not have me in Minnesota during our favorite month next year. It’s likely we’ll still get to visit this place, although we’ll miss it in it’s greatest glory, and with that in mind I was more grateful than usual for our harvest from it, and our walk back to the van felt a little bitter sweet.
Our last two days afield I spent hunting closer to Duluth. There were a lot of places I hadn’t checked in with yet in our time here, and although they aren’t the greatest bird producers I still wanted to hunt in them for old times sake. Our Thursday afield we found some decent numbers, but they were professional birds highly adept in the art of hunter evasion, and it took thirteen flushes before I pulled the trigger. Thankfully it was a good shot, Watson had given me one of those perfect flushes right down the chute that you damn well better make when you get them. I did, but I almost didn’t. The cover in this spot was a little more mature, which allows the birds to hit their full aerial speed faster, and he was rocketing down the tree gap in a hurry. I actually switched the barrel selector on my gun to my tighter choke pattern and bore down in an attempt to make one good shot. It made contact at a solid forty (possibly more) yards, and the bird sailed down all the way to the end of the path setting down in the blanket of leaves like a crashing helicopter. As such, I was treated to the rare sight of getting to watch Watson make a full speed, retrieve on a ruffed grouse of about a hundred yards. It was pretty cool.
That awesome sight would be likely be our last grouse in Minnesota for the year. Our next day out was light on flushes, and I never even fired a shot. It’s just as well though, we went out for six days straight and were fortunate enough to harvest a bird in five those, making for a pretty solid closing week for our time here. This weekend belongs to the deer hunters, and we might sneak out for a morning or two before we head south for the season. In fact, as we were driving back to Duluth, I came to the realization that that day was only our second day afield this year without a harvest, the other being our day out ptarmigan hunting in Alaska. Our next week here in Duluth will be mostly catching up with friends and family before we head out, tidying up a couple of van things, and then it’s off to our next stop. See you in a couple weeks Kansas!