Well the 2015 grouse and woodcock season is well underway here in Minnesota. However up until yesterday, it had not really “felt” like it. Yesterday was the first day of the season that I can recall during which the temperature did not rise above 60 degrees. It was calm and clear and it felt good when the dog and I were able to sneak out for a quick late evening hunt. While most of the leaves are still clinging to their respective branches, there is abundant color in the woods and the next couple weeks should result in peak color. The cooler temps are expected to stay with us as we enter October and begin to live once again, the greatest month of the year!
The biggest factor in my season so far has been the unseasonably warm temperatures. Don’t get me wrong it’s been beautiful September weather and warmer temps can always be expected early season, but when you’re running dogs through grouse cover you tend to always hope for a little cooler weather. The heat is an even bigger factor considering the fact that I only have one dog and do not have the ability to rotate throughout the day. As a strategy to defend against the early season heat I’ve gone about my hunting in a particular manner. When I’m granted the opportunity to hunt all day, I aim to get out early and hit one large piece of cover that has been known to produce first thing in the morning. I figure some of my best hunting will occur in the first couple hours while my dog is fresh and conditions are best. By hunting a known cover that I can usually count on to hold birds I’m effectively making the most of the best opportunity of the day, because later in the day you can’t predict just how warm it’s going to get, windy it’s going to be, or just how tired your dog will be, or yourself for that matter. For the remainder of the day, I try my best to keep the hunts short (under an hour), for myself and the dog. I’ve also been using this time to explore and find new covers. When conditions improve later in the season I want to be hunting all day and it’s nice to have a full arsenal of covers to hit, especially a few new prospects that maybe your buddies don’t know about yet.
Moving on to the stuff everyone wants to hear about, how has the hunting been?! So far, I’m comfortable saying the hunting is good. Not great, but it’s certainly not bad and could potentially improve as coveys are busted up and birds begin to spread. I should clarify that by “hunting,” I essentially mean flush counts. Early season shooting opportunities can be tough with all the foliage still in the trees and with a young pointing dog I’m still very selective on the shots I take and don’t take. Through the first two weeks of the season I’ve racked up 17.25 hours of woods time which has amounted to total grouse and woodcock flushes of 44 and 32 respectively. Combining grouse and woodcock flushes per hour puts me at almost 4.5 flushes per hour, which isn’t bad when you think about spending an hour in the woods, but I hope to see that number improve as the season progresses. I’ve heard reports of considerably higher flush counts in other areas as well. My opinion at this point is that if you’re hunting the right cover, you should not have a problem finding birds this year. Our best covers from recent years are all producing birds and showing signs of a good hatch this year due to the favorable spring and summer weather. Keep in mind we are still closer to the bottom than we are the top of the 10-year grouse population cycle. Coming off a tougher year last year, I think the birds are in pretty good shape this year.
With respect to cover, it’s been a point of focus for the Northwoods’R crew this year. We are really attempting to minimize the time we spend in unproductive covers which is why we’ve mentioned a few times the importance of exploring and finding new areas to hunt. In the past we simply have not had enough productive covers to sustain the pressure we put on them along with everyone else as we hunt 99% public land. As a grouse hunter, I’m always looking for mixed cover with excellent edges. You’ll hear people talk a lot about Aspen trees which are very important to grouse and woodcock and should always be a staple in your search for new cover, but they are not the be-all, end-all if you will, especially for grouse. If you see a large clear-cut that is filled up with 8-10 year old broomstick thick Aspen you’ll so often read or hear about, you might be excited to jump in and walk straight through the middle of it. While this strategy may produce some birds, especially woodcock, I would be much more likely to attempt to walk the edge of this clear-cut where it butts up to mature forest, or even better, a swamp! Again, just be careful about zeroing in on one species too much, as grouse really prefer a good mix of cover and food sources. Ideally, I love to see some early-stage aspen that slopes down into some alders or the edge of a swamp, with some mature forest nearby, especially conifers for roosting and protection from the elements. I will add the caveat that “when in doubt, let the dog out” because you never know what you might find within any one cover. Sometimes they just have that magic mix and you might have your next go-to spot worthy of a unique name. When that does happen, study it closely, take notes and look for others like it.
Lastly, an update on my young English Setter, Hartley. He has officially started his second hunting season and is currently one year and three months old. To say I’ve seen improvement this year would be a massive understatement. With that being said, the bar was not set very high last year and he’s got a long ways to go, but the key is that he’s learning. Through the first two weeks of this season I think it’s safe to say that he’s had more contacts, finds and points than he did all of last season. He’s showing excellent endurance and durability and he’s hunting cover well. With the help of the Garmin Alpha, I’ve kept a close eye on the distances he’s been covering. Last Saturday, in a total of 6 hours on the ground he covered just under 30 miles. It’s amazing to think that the urge and instinct to hunt birds would drive someone to run more than a marathon… through grouse cover! I estimate that he had over 25 finds that day and almost 15 points. There have been many bumped birds so far this season, some of which is due to the pup’s inexperience and some of which is due to the dry and warm conditions resulting in reduced scenting ability for the dogs. If there is one thing I hope to see improve quickly, it would be minimizing the bumps and increasing the urge to hold point at the first sign of scent. For now, I’ll keep putting him in the woods and letting him do his thing. At the end of the day, whether I get a shot or not, 90% of these birds would have never been flushed without his nose finding them.
That’s all for now. I hope everyone has had a chance to get out in the grouse woods and for those of you that have not been able to yet, due to time constraints or seasons not open yet, the best is yet to come! For those that have been out, let us know how you are doing, where are you finding the birds and how those dogs are doing?!
WELCOME TO OCTOBER!