IF YOU said there was a chance I’d shoot a limit of grouse on a two-hour walk after work one night this month, the response would have included something about a doctor’s visit and a head examination.

Grouse flushes have been hard to come by this fall after a crash in the population last year sent spring drumming counts to a 13-year low. We’re at the bottom of the population cycle for sure.

In fact, it’s been so poor that we’ve already put on nine miles without a single flush. A few birds have dropped because we expanded our territory to Langlade and northern Vilas counties, trying out some new terrain.

My partner in this “we” experience is Gracie, a seasoned black Lab who will turn nine next month. Chasing birds is her passion in life. Nothing gets her more cranked up than a truck, a gun and some camo clothing. It’s what she lives to do.

Our mission on an evening last week was to sneak back into a not-so-great spot where, by our best estimation, the population had crashed severely. The goal was to shoot a single grouse so that some blood and a heart could be sent to a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) lab in Madison for testing.

Biologists want to determine if the West Nile Virus had anything to do with last summer’s disappearance of adult grouse across the landscape. We had a 30% increase in drumming during spring 2017 and then the bottom fell out by fall. This spring, the drumming counts dropped 38% to prove the adult bird decline.

The mystery is where all the adult birds went. It is expected that most young birds won’t survive that type of rain and cold throughout May and June, but usually the adults live. Not this time.

So we forged into the grouse woods with that mission in mind. And the second flush we got, about 30 minutes into the walk, was good enough for the scribbler to connect with the 20-gauge. We had our sample.

But we were more than a half-mile back into the system with not enough time left in the day to go anywhere else, so we checked out a couple more dead-end woods roads off the main two-track.

A half mile and 20 minutes later, we got an out-of-range flush from the middle of the road. It was a big male with a red-brown tail. Beautiful bird.

Trouble was, after we passed that location, Gracie was still lit up on scent. In fact, it seemed like there was scent everywhere she went.

About 100 yards down the road, we found out why. Three grouse flushed at the same time, out of tag alders on a creek bottom. The cover was thick and the shooting was tough. Nothing dropped.

While I was reloading the over/under, more birds started flushing. They were going left, right and straight away. One landed in a tree in front of me, momentarily. After that one left, I had to duck for one that flushed at me.

I’d say there were nine grouse in that covey, and it sure brought a big smile to my face. Gracie looked a little disappointed that she didn’t get her mouth on any of them.

That moment fortified my theory that in a year when the turkey hatch is fantastic, as it was this year, the grouse hatch will be equally good. There aren’t many hens around, but the ones that nested had a good shot at raising a big brood during a hot and somewhat dry spring.

So we pressed on. About 150 yards down the road, three grouse busted out of tag alders. I got nothing more than a two-shot point and blast, as balsams blocked most of the view.

Gracie didn’t spend enough time on the wet edge to satisfy my curiosity, so I walked her in to the spot where a bird would have dropped if I got lucky.

And wouldn’t you know it, she started snorting right in front of me, bulled her way into the marsh grass with nose on the ground, and eventually came up with a big male grouse. Oh, the beauty of hunting with a good retriever.

We didn’t take 20 more steps and another two birds flushed; and then two more ahead of us. A second covey in the same woods. I knocked down one more and we had three birds.

With less than an hour of daylight left, we backtracked on that road and went to one last area of young aspen cover, hoping there might be some opportunities there.

On the final walk while the sun was up, we got into another small covey of five or six birds. The fourth bird was a fat little covey bird with a full tail.

The last flush of the evening got up at 40 yards, on the edge of the two-track, and the second shot from the modified barrel broke the outer tip on the right wing.

The bird flew erratically another 50 yards down the road before landing under its own power, though it was a little bit of a crash landing.

When Gracie arrived, she pulled a big adult bird out of a big clump of roadside grass some 15 yards from where I thought it landed. I would never have found that one.

So what started as an evening walk to get a sample for West Nile Virus testing turned into the most productive hunt of the year, by far. This is a spot I pretty much left alone last year because the numbers were so bad.

The message to fellow grouse hunters is don’t give up just yet on your season. The leaves are just dropping and the broods are just dispersing now, so they could show up anywhere.

Even in a down year at the bottom of the cycle, there are always some pockets of good cover with birds. And that’s especially true when conditions were right for a big spring hatch.

There’s only a couple of really good weeks left for chasing grouse, before snow becomes permanent and drives them off the trail systems.

It’s time to hunt.