GRAND MARAIS, MI- After a beautiful fall road trip up the middle of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and crossing the Straights of Mackinac, I finally made the easy left turn onto highway M-123. North by northwest I went, through the little hamlets of Trout Lake, Newberry and at last, Seney. Squalls of needle fine rain painted the season’s leafy colors in a watery mix of yellow, red and orange.
Where the sightseeing ended, the quest for “the king of upland gamebirds” began.
My love affair with hunting ruffed grouse started in the 1980s, while attending college in Sault Ste Marie. Back in those days, I borrowed a single-shot shotgun and whistled through box after box of shells in the vast forests in the Upper Peninsula. Even though I wasn’t a very good wing-shot, the whir of grouse wings, the smell of the autumn forest, and the leisurely strolls through the October woods was a practice that became a passion once I left college.
And then, I got a birddog, which added fuel to my grouse hunting fire. When dog number one died, I got another and another and another. In the blink of an eye, I’ve been hunting grouse for more than thirty years and have tearfully buried more than a handful of birddogs along the way.
Enter my third Brittany, Shorty, who may be the nicest, most loyal dog I’ve ever owned. I never have to yell at him. He casts through the understory with a merry pace, seldom venturing too far out of range. Like a good linemate in a hockey game, he knows where I am and I know where he is. We have a little ESP thing happening between us. And it’s beautiful.
After parking the truck, I opened the door of his kennel, slid his beeper collar over his neck and turned him loose. He dashed this way and that, spastically sniffing an inch off the ground the way curious dogs do. The curly-Q hair on the end of his tail was a blur of excitement and anticipation. Gun loaded, pocket full of shells, I followed him into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula.
The cover couldn’t have been better. Shorty plowed through the edge of a pretty little trout stream that sliced through pockets of alder and a variety of fruit shrubs that looked like wild raisin.
And oh, the smell. Bracken fern. Sage. Split kindling and cedar swamps. Fresh fallen leaves in the north wind. It was a setting right out of a wing-shooter’s daydream.
All that was missing was the birds. Despite a lengthy walk in prime cover, we couldn’t find a bird.
It’s been the same way in my favorite covers downstate: Nice looking habitat and an abundance of food, but very few grouse. In ten trips afield this year, my flush rate is below one an hour.
Even though I’ve been hunting grouse for decades, I only started keeping track of my flush rates in 2012. That year, I flushed 1.6 grouse per hour. Things got much better in ’13 when I flushed 2.54 but that rate slipped in ’14 and ’15 when I only flushed 2.4. Things really perked up in ’16 when I moved 3.2 an hour, however it fell to 2.04 last fall.
There really doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why my flush rates varied so much but I can say that it’s a lot more fun going hunting when there’s lots of birds to chase.
Some of my bird-hunting friends say that they have had a hard time finding grouse as well. They suggest that the DNR should do something about the low bird numbers. I’m not sure what they can do. After all, if there’s very few grouse to shoot at there will be very few grouse to harvest. If they close the December season – the way Wisconsin has – I’m not really sure it’ll help.
Still other friends think that grouse have fallen victim to the West Nile virus. There may be a reason to believe that but I think it’s hard to imagine that a virus could have such a devastating impact within one season and across the breadth of the entire state.
Weather fluctuations don’t seem to impact my flush rates. Winters were brutal in ’13 and ’14, and yet grouse numbers for me were decent the autumn after. In June of 2017 we had major deluge which surely killed many a gamebird chick but I flushed twice as many birds last year as I am now.
Ruffed grouse’s population swings are well documented, but scientists and biologists really don’t know why they occur. My observations so far this season are unscientific and troubling at the same time.
I can only hope for my sake and Shorty’s that things will turn around for the grouse population. They’re cool birds and so much fun to hunt.
Chris Zimmerman is the author of six Michigan based novels and an independent insurance agent in Shepherd Michigan. Visit Chris Zimmerman Insurance.