WET conditions for grouse hunting have been a huge frustration since the days when I got my first hunting dog some 35 years ago.

It’s probably just me, but it seems that grouse get mighty skittish when they can’t hear predators coming, so our combined noise in the woods causes plenty of run-offs and fly-offs.

The frustration is either having your dog follow scent into heavy cover where a bird flushes out of sight, or having a dog hit hot scent on a bird that’s already flown out of your path.

There was a time when a rain-soaked woods was perfect for a single hunter sneaking down trails, quietly, leading to close flushes and great shooting opportunities.

That was especially true in the woodlots of central Wisconsin farm country where you could pin birds in thickets and tag elder and crop edges to maximize opportunities.

But then the scribbler joined the ranks of those conservation-minded hunters who use dogs, and the game changed. Today dry, sunny conditions have proven best for finding birds and getting decent flushes.

That is until a week ago when rainy, humid weather didn’t keep us out of the woods. Still getting in shape and scouting new cover for bird sign, it was a chance to put on miles despite the rain-soaked forests.

Gracie, my black Lab, was out in front on the two-track about a mile from the truck when her head whipped left on scent. If the faster tail movement and body language wasn’t enough sign, there was no doubt a bird had stood there minutes ago when she started snorting like a pig.

Gotta love those dogs. She took that track into the aspen and moments later, two grouse exploded in front of her. I knocked the first one down, a straight-away shot, in time to swing the second barrel on a bird that was high-tailing it across the two-track at 35 yards.

I got a piece of that second bird but it didn’t drop until hitting heavy aspen and balsam across the road. After Gracie retrieved the first bird to hand, we headed in that direction.

As she always does, Gracie hit the track right off and went into mine-sweeper mode. The sneak was on before the bird thundered and ran ahead of her, and the chase was brief.

It’s music to the ears of a bird hunter to hear that chase unfold, especially the post-grab quiet and the muffled breathing as a dog returns with bird in mouth.

So we were off to a great start with a double on a day when expectations were quite low. Little did we know what was in store.

Less than a mile later, after we left the two-track for a narrow trail, two birds flushed close that we never saw. That’s pretty typical prior to the leaves coming down.

Moments later, two more birds flushed on the opposite side of the trail and a load of 7 1/2-shot put one of them on the ground for Gracie.

The wet forest syndrome did catch up to us a couple of times with wild flushes from treetops. On one of those, Gracie was hot on scent in the middle of a ravine while I awaited a flush. A big grouse that heard us coming flushed from a tree straight overhead, and bee-lined backwards.

I missed the first shot straight up and then got my feet so tangled on the turn-and-aim to get a swing going that I almost fell over. And Gracie just looked at me.

Wet and sweated from the humidity, we took a much-needed break. It was time to drop three birds at the truck and take a different direction.

It was a long walk that produced just two flushes, but connecting on both meant our first five-bird limit of the season. That was a fluke with the humidity, leaf cover, wet conditions and declining bird population — but that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you put your time in.

The best grouse hunting is still to come. It will peak right after all the leaves have dropped, a time when broods are dispersing into new territories and birds hold tighter in crunchy conditions.

I’m not an expert on anything, but my theory on that is early in the season when the woods are quiet, it’s easier for birds to run off the trails undetected. But once the leaves are down and the forest is noisy, they hold tighter in order to avoid detection by predators.

I believe that’s why the grouse hunters with the pointing dogs do better after most of the leaves are down, because they get better points with less bird movement.

It just makes sense that grouse are not as nervous when they can hear exactly where predators are moving in the woods. And sometimes in those conditions, without a dog, you can almost step on a grouse before it will thunder skyward. And let me tell you, that will put your heart in your throat for a minute.

The jury is still out on how this bird season will stack up to last year, but young birds are showing up and that’s mighty promising.

Good luck with the hunt.