THE JURY is still out on whether the ruffed grouse population is headed downward, as evidence of a strong spring hatch improved hunting success this fall and may be stalling the cyclic fall predicted by state wildlife biologists last June.

The truth be told, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is doing the best it can to figure out the grouse equation in unprecedented times.

They aren’t dealing with just the global pandemic and canceled drumming surveys and people working from home, but also the bizarre summer die-off of adult grouse that occurred during an unusually cold and wet June to August period in 2017.

That mysterious event not only wiped out all evidence of a spring hatch, but it took down much of the adult population. And biologists have been reeling ever since to try to explain it with zero success.

It’s easy to point to something new like the West Nile virus but studies since then have shown that dozens of grouse contracted the virus but survived. The virus was found in less than 30% of the grouse sampled. At the same time, top biologists have concluded it’s not likely the virus caused the kind of devastating population impacts that were seen in 2017.

The scribbler is just one hunter and no expert on anything, but my experience this fall and reports from other diehard grouse hunters suggest that bird numbers were up from 2020 due to a strong spring hatch and brood-rearing season, fueled by warm, dry weather in June.

So it’s really hard to buy into the DNR’s theory about the population cycle “headed for another bottom” when we get a decent hatch two springs in a row and appear, by hunting standards, to have more birds on the ground.

Keep in mind that for the first time since 1964, the DNR did not conduct its annual spring drumming survey during the heat of the pandemic in 2020. And when they resumed the survey in 2021, they found just a 7% decline in drumming from 2019 levels.

It was on that basis, a 7% decline over two years, that they cautiously declared that it was likely the grouse population had peaked and was heading downward. History shows the peak usually occurs in a year ending in 09, 0 or 01.

While it means considerably less than the opinion of expert biologists, this avid grouse hunter of 50 years has a theory. I’m thinking that mysterious die-off of adult grouse in 2017 has disrupted the normal population cycle, and that you can throw the tradition of knowing an exact ending number for the peak year out the window.

I’m basing that theory on a proven fact. After the mysterious crash in 2017, the spring drumming survey in 2018 showed a 13-year population low. Strange but true, the population hit rock bottom when nobody expected it would. And the numbers have been slowly rising in most years since.

This is all conversational conjecture of course and we’ll know the truth next May, when the DNR runs the 2022 spring drumming survey to determine where the grouse population is trending. A lot could still happen between then and now, including some strange vole population crash in Canada that sends thousands of owls and hawks into Wisconsin during winter. That has occurred before.

How good was the hunting this fall?

Gracie, our 12-year-old black Lab, was still putting up good numbers of grouse a full week into November. It can be a tough time to shoot limits of birds because they generally flush wilder and at longer distances later in the season, yet we were getting four birds here and three birds there quite often.

New coveys were still showing up on some hunter walking systems with great habitat, and some of those groups held five to seven birds. The spring hatch was above average in 2020 as well, but brood numbers last year weren’t as good as what I found this year.

We were up in northern Forest County on the first Saturday of November, scouting for the nine-day deer season and chasing some grouse as well. I spent most of the afternoon fixing up a ground blind while Gracie whined in agony, standing in a hardwoods void of the birds she lives to chase.

When we finally got a chance to hit a favorite grouse haunt that we had avoided the previous season, due to dog poisoning incidents near Alvin, we shot four grouse in less than two hours.

The final bird won’t escape my memory any time soon because there’s no way it would have been found without a good retriever.

Gracie flushed that bird from the right side of a two-track but it was nearly 40 yards out when it appeared for a shot. One shot from the 20 gauge clipped a wing so lightly that it almost appeared the big bird landed under its own power, though it did go down.

The grouse was long gone by the time the two of us got that far down the road. Gracie hit the track, trailed it through a group of low tag elders and then up a small hill and over the top, out of sight. All I could do was listen to the music — the music of the hunt.

The song was dominated by crunching leaves under the weight of a 60-pound Lab but included thunderous wing beats, peeping noises from a nervous bird and in the end, a crash of leaves and sticks that ended sharply in total silence.

There was some faint walking that turned into a trot, and the sound of heavy but muffled breathing that can only be created with a fat grouse stuck in a dog’s mouth.

And right there I said, that’s why I hunt with a dog. She delivered the live bird and I tackled her in praise, sporting a wide smile that would last for hours.

Time will tell how the numbers shake out, but it was a grand grouse season once again.