WE went 4 miles without a flush to open the ruffed grouse season Sunday morning, our opening day after other obligations pretty much kept us out of the woods Saturday.

It was just short of 9 a.m., and the two of us — the scribbler and his trusty retriever Gracie — were already dogging it a bit with the mercury reading 70 degrees. It was an untimely heat wave for most hunters as hopes for a return to the woods has been building for months.

It was the 12th straight opening weekend with my black Lab out in front on the two-tracks and trails, searching for fresh scent. It appeared at first blush that my choice of hunting spots was a grouse dessert with no action two hours into the hunt, but it didn’t end there.

Backtracking on the same trail we took away from the truck, the first bird thundered to the sky at close range, but not a feather was visible in the heavy foliage of mid-September. And moments later, a second flushed, this one emerging from leaves momentarily but banking hard to return to cover as the 20-gauge sounded.

All I saw from the roadside thickets was a bunch of green leaves falling that got clipped by 71⁄2 shot. Gracie was still retracing the steps of that first bird, snorting up her first hot scent of the year with tail wagging.

I gave her a minute or two before moving ahead to where the second grouse had entered the woods. We both slid into the heavy cover, but she plunged down the hill in a mix of balsams and aspen that ended on a swamp edge.

Suddenly, her movements and body language changed entirely, slowing to the point where she appeared ready to pounce. The thunder of wings came next and the chase was on, Gracie dodging trees and running back and forth trying to clamp her jaws on a feisty cripple.

She retrieved the first bird of the season to hand, a large male bird that sported a gray tail and a solid black ban. I rested the over/under against a tree and snapped a couple of photos as she approached, holding the bird by the tail.

Once again, this is why many hunters choose to bird hunt with a good retriever that will bring back virtually every grouse, even the ones you didn’t know you hit. I had no idea this bird had taken pellets through that wall of leaves until Gracie located it hiding some 30 yards from where it went down.

Retrievers fit perfectly into America’s conservation ethic, the one we’ll be celebrating this Saturday, Sept. 25, during National Hunting & Fishing Day. We eat what we shoot and we make every effort to retrieve every bird or animal.

You’ll notice a two-page spread on the Outdoor pages again this year, thanks to dozens of businesses and organizations that realize the significance of hunters and anglers; the best and most effective conservationists in the country today. These are the business owners who support us and believe in the cause, so they deserve our business as well.

This celebration is about more than a rich outdoor heritage and the massive economic boost the country sees. It’s about hunters and anglers putting their money where their mouths are; pledging millions of dollars in license fees, excise taxes on equipment and donations to habitat-minded groups to keep our waters, fields and forests filled with abundant fish and game.

Gracie and I put in a couple more hours and went more than 10 miles before calling it quits. A second grouse made it to the game bag that she flushed from the edge of the two-track.

The mercury was reading 80 degrees and gusty southwest winds were making it impossible to detect anything except a flush at your feet when we left the woods just before noon.

The goofy thing about grouse and, oftentimes, all upland birds is that you seldom get those first good flushes when you’re fresh and spry, ready to swing at any speed in any direction. No, they usually come after miles and hours of walking, just about the time your arms and legs are so tired that staying ready and swinging smoothly isn’t likely.

And keep in mind that these birds get nervous when you stop moving, which explains why it’s not unusual for birds to flush while you’re crossing a windfall or fence, blowing your nose and adjusting a boot lace. They get credit for being escape artists, which is true, but most of it is pure instinct.

It’s way too early to determine just what kind of a grouse season this is going to be, but it was good news to have flushed several covey birds that prove spring nesting wasn’t a total flop. 

The official word from the Department of Natural Resources in its pre-season forecast is that a seven percent decline in spring drumming between 2019 and ’21 means it is “likely” that the population peak is past and we’re again headed downward in the 10-year cycle.

Time will tell just how large and plentiful those coveys are this year. Right now, most of the groups are tucked back in swamps and river bottoms where they can escape from hot weather and still find plenty of food including insects.

The hunt will peak in October as the leaves begin to fall and the broods disperse, putting more grouse onto the seeded trails and two-tracks that hunters use to access favorable habitat.

Meanwhile, we’ll be putting on the miles to get in shape, scout out the best areas and prepare for a peak that doesn’t last more than a few weeks.