Sam Cook: Damp weather, lots of foliage slow grouse opener
This is not how opening day of grouse season is supposed to be. It isn't supposed to be dark and dreary, still dripping from overnight rain. It is supposed to be dry and crisp on this mid-September Saturday, with pale sunlight filtering through maple leaves.
But the yellow dog doesn't know any of that. This is her first grouse opener, and for all she knows this is the way it will always be in the grouse woods.
That's the beautiful thing about dogs. They live entirely in present tense. Wet, dry, hot, cold, rain, snow — no matter. Let's hunt, the quivering of their tails says.
So, we hunt.
We are north of Duluth, walking a hilly trail among popple and balsam fir. Across the region, I know others are doing the same. Pickups are nosed into trails off the tote roads. Four-wheelers putt along likely looking trails. Most of us have high hopes for this grouse season, with its nearly unprecedented high spring drumming counts. Grouse numbers rise and fall in cycles, and we're headed for the high end. So they say.
We try to temper our expectations. We know, in the early season especially, grouse hunting typically isn't a numbers thing. The woods are dense, almost too thick to glimpse a flushing grouse. We stick mostly to the trails, hoping for the young and unwary bird that flushes straight away. Few choose that path of escape. You don't make your living evading goshawks by flying down open trails.
On the scent
The pup dives into the woods, where it's even darker. Somewhere from beneath the balsams, I hear the flushes. One, then another — the thunder of unseen wing beats. I wait for a bird to cross the trail, but none cooperates. Later, a single flush. I hear it and wait, and finally the bird crosses the trail far ahead.
The shot is futile, I know, but I'm willing to take a chance to drop a bird for the young dog. No bird falls. It vanishes behind curtains of leaves.
I see no other hunters on my hour-and-a-half walk. The pup flushes six birds, most of which are only auditory experiences for me.
I will happen onto other hunters later, on other trails. One is a lone hunter, on foot, with a Lab. He has flushed one group of three grouse, another single, he says. He dropped the single and another one from the bunch of three. He's carrying the two of them in his vest. He has already had a perfect opener.
Another trail, and here come two young hunters walking toward me. I'm carrying no gun, just a camera now. The hunters are a mile or so into the woods, dogless. Haven't seen a bird yet.
It's Nick Sawyer and Zac Schendel, both of Duluth. Their buddies, Cameron Luoto of Duluth and Bill Symons of Lakewood Township, are working another portion of this loop trail and soon join them. Symons' 4-year-old chocolate Lab, Kola, works the trail, all business.
Symons and Luoto have seen no birds, either.
"It's so thick," Symons says.
It's good to see these young guys out here. They're in the demographic whose numbers are declining among hunters these days. They seem to take their hunting seriously. They know these trails.
"We usually flush about a dozen birds when we come here," Symons says.
I wish them luck and get out of their way.
Midday, the pup and I venture down another trail north of Duluth. The day has warmed into the mid-60s now. The air remains heavy. The humidity is oppressive. And the bugs — midges and mosquitoes — are so thick they bounce off my face as I walk. I have to keep my mouth shut to keep from inhaling them.
This isn't right.
Sunday of opening weekend dawns sunny and dry, breezy and cool. No doubt every grouse in the county is parading along the nearest trail, fluffing her wings, soaking up the sunlight.
I'll bet the hunting would have been great.