AS WE embarked on yet another grouse opener last Saturday morning, the scribbler walking trails with Gracie out in front, it didn’t take long to rekindle exactly why this sport is all about the dog.

We were walking an old snowmobile trail corridor through some pretty young aspen when she hit the first scent, and it was back and forth across the trail for 50 yards before that bird flushed.

It went up behind a wall of leaves and needles as the mix of aspen and balsam hid the bird well. It’s what they do best, running into cover before taking flight, usually leaving the hunter with nothing more than sound.

But this time there was a slight window in the cover, a couple of small openings that let me know the direction of flight, so I got the swing going and touched off a shot from the 20 gauge.

By the time I fired, the bird was beyond the openings. There was no way to know whether any of that lead shot connected, at least not with the limited tracking skills of a hunter.

We left the trail and walked in the direction the bird had gone. Gracie hadn’t seen the flush in all that cover so she was still working the hot scent it left before takeoff.

But then we got out into the area where it might have dropped, and suddenly, Gracie was in mine-sweeper mode — tail wagging, neck and nose extended and every movement focused on finding the bird that left that scent trail.

At this moment it doesn’t matter what breed of dog you are following, for the excitement of watching the back end of a dog follow a nose through heavy, twisted cover is quite entertaining.

The dog’s butt pretty much slams into everything because the nose is turning crazy corners in heavy cover that the body can’t make.

Moments later, there was a peeping sound and a little thunder from a single healthy wing. And then a wild and noisy chase, followed by a crash — and then absolute silence.

Next I heard the movement of a dog coming my way and muffled panting, which meant she was breathing with a big grouse stuck in her jaws.

That’s a lost bird for anyone who hunts without a dog, and even some who do — especially the puppies and the out-of-shape retrievers who are panting too hard to scent. Dry conditions make the potential retrieve even more difficult.

Gracie isn’t perfect by any means, but there aren’t many birds that get away. It took her a minute to sort out the older tracks from the newer ones left by a wounded cripple, and then it was pretty much game over.

Upon delivery, I heaped on the praise and gave her a hug. Maybe it had happened dozens of times before across eight full seasons. It didn’t matter. You can’t take a good dog for granted.

Besides being the truly necessary part of any hunting team, a dog does more than just flush and retrieve game. They make the entire experience more worthwhile, and nothing is more important than the chase.

It starts when you’re putting on camo clothing and boots in the basement, when you have to let the dog outside before it puts a tail through a wall. And sometimes the whining is so loud it could wake the neighbors.

The show continues when you leave the highway and get into grouse country, which they know quite well by the slower speeds and rougher road conditions. And the anticipation builds.

And when you finally stop the truck, well, that’s the moment every hunting dog lives for. It’s what they’ve waited anxiously to do again since late last fall. It’s their time to live; to shine.

I may have put that first bird of the season on the ground, but I can hardly take credit for a good shot. Without a retriever, that bird would never have found its way to the game bag.

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. I thought of it as part of the hunting process.

At some point, I went from total ignorance to dog owner. That’s when I learned how incredibly great it felt to retrieve the other 50% of the birds I killed each year. It’s crazy how many birds get crippled with a broken wing or a couple of pellets to the body.

My newfound views have been reinforced hundreds of times through in-the-field experience with dogs of many breeds, though the scribbler has never hunted over anything but black 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 a tail wagging when you arrive. 

The grouse season is young, the cover is heavy and we are again at the bottom of the population cycle in most areas. Grouse drumming was off 38% in the northern forest this spring, so don’t expect many birds.

It’s not a good year to be hunting without a dog, for your chances of getting a flush are quite dismal.

Wisconsin has one of the most well-established, well-documented conservation ethics among the 50 states and hunting dogs fit well into that equation. They even retrieve birds that hunters didn’t know they hit.

I can tell you one thing for certain. For most people, once they hunt with a good dog, they’ll never head into the grouse woods without one.