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On the Wildside: Not grousing about grouse hunting

Badger and a grouse he retrieved on the dock at Mason Lake. Photo by Dan Wilcox

I try for equanimity most of the time but often find myself grousing about work, traffic, or my aging body. Grousing about irritations offers little satisfaction or remedy. It's the other kind of grousing that I really enjoy.

The most popular kind of small game hunting in Wisconsin is hunting for ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse may be the most feared game animal in North America because they scare the bejeebers out of hunters when they flush with a startling thunder of wingbeats.

Badger and I went hunting a couple weekends ago with John Barko of Trempealeau. We stayed at his luxurious condo on the Elk River in Phillips WI. We hunted south of Foster's End deer hunting cabin on Mason Lake in the Flambeau River State Forest. On Saturday we got up 12 grouse and three woodcock. I shot twice, got one. We stopped by the Oxbo Resort and met "Breeze" Langer and Joe Deiss from Ellsworth. They were up there to scout the woods around Joe's deer hunting cabin near Draper. They reported that the Wisconsin Badgers beat Perdue that afternoon.

On Sunday we got up 10 grouse and one woodcock. I shot twice and got one.

A 50% batting average on grouse is pretty good. Badger scented up birds and made a great retrieve. That was some strenuous hunting for him now that he's 77 years old in dog years.

The dense cover that grouse occupy makes hunting for them more than a casual walk in the woods. It's tough exercise climbing over the rough terrain and through all the down wood and brush. The difficulty of hiking through grouse coverts is offset by the fun of watching dogs work, the thrill of flushes, the challenge of shooting the rocketing birds, the grand scenery of the woods, and the camaraderie of hunting with friends.

Grouse populations in much of their range go through 8 to 11 year cycles of abundance. Some wildlife biologists contend that their population cycles in the north woods are influenced by the abundance of snowshoe hares. When hare populations are up, the numbers of predators increase. When hare populations are down, predators turn to ruffed grouse, decreasing their numbers. The ruffed grouse population in Wisconsin is relatively high, declining from a peak last year. The previous population peak was in 1999 when we had some memorable hunts, flushing more than 40 birds in a day. When grouse numbers are down grouse hunting is challenging. Most of the birds in the woods are smart adults that flush well ahead of the dogs. When grouse numbers are up, there are many naïve young birds that are easier to hunt.

I visited "Oxbo Bill" Steenberg, patriarch of our "rival" deer hunting camp. Our friend Jack Duewe who used to own the Oxbo Resort was there. I listened to them tell stories about Bruce Foster and other local legends for a couple hours before I headed home. I listened to the Vikings vs. Arizona game on the radio. Brett Farve was slinging bullets near the end of the game and the Queens won in overtime as I crested Meteor Hill near Birchwood. Badger and I returned home dog-tired. We watched the Packers beat up the Dallas Cowboys until we fell asleep at halftime. I'm not grousing about a great weekend of grouse hunting.

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