DUSK had dimmed the lights in the grouse woods as we made our way back toward the truck, the scribbler and his trusty Labrador retriever, Gracie.

It was still shooting hours but I was tempted to let up on the strict gun-ready posture after six miles of walking, knowing we were backtracking on a trail we walked 90 minutes earlier.

But I resisted and stayed at the ready, gun across my chest and thumb on the safety, and it turned out to be the right choice.

Seconds later, a big male grouse thundered from a windfall on the edge of the two-track and fired straight across the narrow opening at about 35 yards.

The first shot missed its mark and the second hit the brush as the bird reached heavy cover in tag alders, the leaves preventing me from seeing anything regarding the fate of that shot.

Gracie plunged into the small wetland area but was immediately stalled by some thick grass and a couple of windfalls. As she was attempting to find another way in, a grouse sounded in the grass with some nervous peeps, jumping two feet off the ground but unable to fly with a broken wingtip.

And then it took off running deep into the swamp, making no more noise. It was out of sight in three or four seconds and Gracie was just arriving where it had been, sniffing scent.

As she circled the area wider and wider, she hit the track that led deeper into the wetland. And off she went, nose to the ground, dodging left and right while closing the gap.

I didn’t see the show in all that cover, but I heard it. There was some splashing in open water, a little thunder of wings, a couple of peeping sounds and then silence. And silence is always welcome.

Moments later she was trotting back through the mix of tags and mature balsam, a big grouse hanging from both sides of her mouth. Its head was up and its eyes were open.

I only wish the Chicago resident who hunted with me during the recent national Grouse Camp in Eagle River could have witnessed that, for seeing is believing on the value of a good dog.

The guy wants to get into grouse hunting but he doesn’t have a dog and isn’t sure that fits into his future plans. 

All I could tell him is that I’ve hunted these birds both ways, going dogless as a teenage grouse chaser down in farm country, and I’d never hunt them again without a dog.

While the Ruffed Grouse Society probably wouldn’t discourage people from hunting grouse any way they choose, there were a lot of dogs and talk of dogs at Grouse Camp.

What dogs bring to the hunt, whether flushers or pointers, is scenting expertise that helps you find birds, flush birds and retrieve those birds you do hit. And quite often, we hit birds and don’t even know it until the dog shows up minutes later with a grouse in its mouth.

Once you learn to read a dog’s movements, you’ll be able to tell where a grouse was moments before you arrived. They quite often fly off the trail or into a nearby tree to let you pass. Without a dog, you would have no idea there was a grouse nearby.

And you will notice while backtracking on the same trail, two hours later, that they still can pick up that old scent. That’s the kind of expertise that helps when scouting new areas, for your dog will sound the alarm on bird scent even if you don’t get a flush on a particular walk.

There are not enough words to describe the benefits of companionship in the grouse woods, for long walks through thick cover miles from the truck are never intimidating when there’s a dog out in front.

It’s crazy what a hunter with a dog will try to do when the two-track suddenly dead-ends, striking out across dense cover while trying to make some sort of loop back toward the truck.

Those of us who train our own bird dogs get another dose of satisfaction in witnessing great flushes and retrieves, knowing we had a direct hand in creating a productive, obedient hunting dog.

If you own a bird dog, then you qualify as a hunter who cares about the wise use and conservation of natural resources.

Growing up without a hunting dog and going afield on my own, it never dawned on me that the birds I knocked down and couldn’t find were wasted game.

At the time, those situations were viewed as part of the hunting process — something that was expected. The scribbler was totally ignorant of how effective retrievers and pointing dogs were at locating downed birds.

My newfound views have been reinforced hundreds of times through in-the-field experience with dogs of many breeds, though I’ve never hunted over anything but Labs. They went by the names Samantha, Abbey, Max, Katie and now Gracie.

And what a bonus these dogs are when they can double for the family pet — always at the door with tail wagging when you arrive. Wouldn’t it be nice if your spouse . . . well, wishful thinking.

Wisconsin has a well-established conservation ethic, and hunting dogs fit well into that equation. They even retrieve birds that hunters didn’t know they hit.

Good luck with the hunt.