By Dan Wilcox
A couple weeks ago I hunted for ruffed grouse and woodcock in northwestern Wisconsin in the area between Drummond and Iron River. The area is hilly and dotted with kettle lakes and wetlands, a legacy of the last glaciations.
I really like the forest in that area. The whole region was logged at least twice but the trees in that part of the Chequamegon National Forest have grown back into a beautiful mixed forest of maple, red oak, white and red pines, white spruce, balsam fir, white cedar, aspen and smooth alder.
An abundance of red-osier dogwood, hawthorn, hazelnut, serviceberry and young aspen in the more recently logged areas provide food for ruffed grouse. Low areas near the kettle wetlands and along rivers provide good habitat for woodcock.
My male golden retriever, Badger, is now 14 years old and too old to hunt. He was an excellent grouse hunting buddy in his day. He ranged close in the woods, flushed many grouse for me and was intrepid in finding and retrieving downed birds. It was with a heavy heart that I left him at home.
I drove north with my friend Jim from Trempealeau and we met our friend Craig from El Paso. Having two vehicles, we dropped off a car at the downstream end of the White River Fisheries Area trail. We started hunting along the trail near the springs at the headwaters of the White River. It was a beautiful day with a vivid blue sky, white fluffy clouds and temperature in the 60s. Sunlight filtered down through the colorful fall leaves. We walked on a carpet of red and yellow maple and oak leaves.
We strolled along the trail as Craig’s dog Jake ranged through the forest near us. Jake is a well-trained and experienced Llewellyn setter, an all-business hunter. Jake would lock up on point when he scented a few molecules of grouse or woodcock. We took turns walking in ahead of Jake when he was on point to flush and attempt to shoot the birds.
Ruffed grouse are relatively scarce up north this year but Jake managed to find and retrieve some for us. Over the course of a few days we hiked many trails through different kinds of habitat as Jake did the work of finding birds. We found areas with groups of young grouse, some wily older birds and places where the woodcock were staging for their migration south.
In the evenings we watched woodcocks fly as the sun went down, landing on the ground near us and appearing to exhibit what we called “migration aggregation social behavior.” Maybe they were just getting some gravel for their crops or landing to feed but it appeared that individual woodcocks would scuttle over to greet one another.
Jake the setter didn’t care much about the twilight flights of woodcocks and bats or the silhouettes of the trees against the setting sun. He was content to rest in his crate after having his two cups of dry dog food and a drink of water. In the morning he was raring to go to hunt grouse and woodcock for us again.
We enjoyed the walks through the beautiful woods, learned discussions on a variety of topics, the camaraderie of hunting and joy of watching Jake work. It was a memorable hunt for me, more than just a walk in the park.
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