THE GROUSE opener began last Saturday with damp forests following a week of rain, so it wasn’t surprising that what few birds we found were tucked back into heavy cover or spooky and on the run, because that’s what they do when predators are tough to detect.

We didn’t much care because it was the start of another grand season of walking and chasing and shooting in hopes of bringing down a few of Wisconsin’s most elusive upland game bird, the ruffed grouse.

Early season hunting is not the most productive with all the foliage still green and thick, but it’s our time to scout for coveys, to start getting in shape and to take mental notes on the best coverts based on the number of flushes we hear.

Gracie, my black Lab of nearly 10 years now, was sensing by recent long walks in the woods that those glorious fall days of chasing birds were about to return. She was so excited Friday night when I whispered words like truck and birds and “hunt-em-up” that she was dancing around the house with puppy energy. 

It didn’t take more than 30 minutes of walking to hear the first “music” of the season, as three or four birds flushed off trail in a deep ravine of mature balsam mixed with aspen, though not far from a clearing that held crabapple trees.

We jumped five birds in 90 minutes of walking and never saw a feather, but vowed to return when the conditions improve. We walked another 90 minutes in a second location and after seven miles, we still had only five flushes.

But that second spot looked promising because of aspen clear-cuts and a lot of select hardwood cutting in the national forest, which always improves habitat for grouse and other wildlife. So we’ll get back there later in the season as well.

We weren’t far from Deerskin River country and my schedule for the day called for one last stop, so we rolled into the land of jack pine and aspen in hopes of seeing that first grouse of the new season.

The roads near the Deerskin have quite the mix of tree species, from maple, oak and large red pines to huge stands of jack pine that always seem to be mixed with aspen. The last stretch of road we walked, not far from the river, had mature pine on one side and young forest on the river side.

As luck would have it, a male grouse began drumming in the heavy cover toward the river. It was 11 a.m., in the fall, which doesn’t make much sense because  drumming goes with spring breeding most of the time.

My theory is that a male is a male and when that bird heard our commotion out on the road, he drummed hoping there was a female grouse he could strut for and flirt with. I’ve heard drumming before in the fall and I’ve seen males in full strut showing off to young-of-the-year birds — females I would guess. 

We headed for that little ridge above the river, moving through heavy thickets and a mix of small trees that were growing beneath a higher canopy of scattered pines. Gracie’s pace suddenly quickened and I knew she was picking up scent from tracks as we approached.

I heard the flush and it was close, but not a feather did I see. The bird stayed low and darted through the cover, but obviously didn’t go far. We moved in that direction with a quick pace, knowing they always do some running once they land.

If you hunt with a flushing dog instead of a pointing dog, this is called the charge. There’s no sneaking when you are going for a second or third flush on a bird, because they are already onto the game. Sneaking just makes them nervous and they flush early or run out of your way.

Gracie hit scent once again, darting through the ferns and the bird flushed again. This time, I caught a little right-to-left movement, about 25 yards out and got a swing going before touching off a shot.

I saw nothing. I heard nothing. I couldn’t even hear Gracie now, in the still-wet woods. About 20 seconds later, I caught sight of a black streak in the ferns. And when Gracie’s head appeared, I saw a monster grouse hanging from all sides.

Wow, I thought. Without a dog, I had no prayer of retrieving that wounded bird. It was still alive and ready to keep running. One wing was broken. I didn’t even know it was hit until she showed up with it.

All the companionship aside, that’s the conservation side of hunting with a retriever. They run down the other half of the birds that hunters wound and would never find — and sometimes don’t even know they hit.

We took a few minutes to admire this bird, for it was one of the largest taken in recent years. It sported an extremely long tail of brown feathers, which for some reason, they call a red-phased bird as opposed to a gray-phased bird. I call it brown.

It makes sense of course that grouse would be along the river. They thrive on young forest habitat and the hills sloping toward the Deerskin are quite often covered by aspen, jack pine and thickets that meet heavy tag elder near the bottom, closer to the river.

There is more than three months of grouse season left, and it’s going to get better as the leaves change color and begin to fall. That’s when grouse become easier to see and whatever coveys are out there disperse, mostly in early October. All of those factors increase the odds of hunters seeing and harvesting birds.

But know that while chasing grouse is fun and challenging, it’s not a walk in the park. It takes work and struggles to consistently locate and get shooting at these thundering little birds. It’s a small but hardy group of hunters that takes chase and once in awhile, they question their own sanity.

Another opener is in the books and Team Krueger, like so many other hunters with dogs in the North Woods, is on the board with the first bird of the season. 

Of men and guns and dogs, the legacy continues.