They watched the dogs and told stories but didn't shoot grouse.
By SAM COOK
DULUTH NEWS TRIBUNE
NEAR FINLAND, Minn. -- When Duluth's Shawn Hansen was up here opening weekend, he had seen grouse all over the place. He and his uncle had been out just for the day, poking up old tote roads in the quiet country between Finland and Isabella.
They had seen something like 30 birds, he said. They had shot well and taken home nine, just one short of their limit.
Hansen, 38, knows what he's doing when it comes to hunting grouse. He has a quick little Gordon setter named Keena, who is 5, and a well-trained black Lab, Max, who is the same age. They know their business.
Which is why we were both questioning our credentials as hunters on a recent after a day on those same trails. We had seen, however briefly, just four grouse. We had shot at, however hurriedly, two of them. We had bagged, however unbelievably, zero.
"I can't figure it out," Hansen said somewhere along the way.
Easy to miss, but ...
Oh, the shooting we could figure out. Missing grouse is an easy enough thing to do. But where were all these birds? Early season reports had been much like Hansen's. After two or three years at the low ebb of the population cycle, the birds seemed to be bouncing back. Most hunters were seeing more.
Granted, we weren't off the trail, busting through the brush, which is perhaps where the birds had been pushed after three weeks of the young season. But we were putting our miles in, and the dogs were hunting hard.
We had flushed just one bird by noon, when we pulled out our sandwiches and sat on a log to eat. The dogs stared at us from their kennels in the back of Hansen's truck. We were parked at a trailhead just off the main road, if you can call a gravel artery through the woods a main road.
On a weekday, you would expect to see hardly anyone else out, but we must have bumped into six or eight other hunters with dogs or All-Terrain Vehicles or neither. For Finland, on a Monday, that's a traffic jam. Word of this improved grouse hunting must have gotten out.
We picked another tote road and let Keena out to patrol the popples. Watching a pointing dog float through the underbrush is a beautiful thing. She weighs in at 48 pounds, Hansen said, and she has a lot of hunt in her. Hansen fits her with an orange collar and an orange vest, which become something of a blur among the popple trunks. Her small bell jangled lightly as she moved. Its silence would indicate that she was on point.
Keena was a surprise gift from Hansen's wife, Cammy, a few years ago. Hansen hadn't even thought about owning a pointer.
"I never wanted one, and I'll never be without one," Hansen said during our hunt. "I'll have a pointing dog for the rest of my life."
Keena pointed an occasional songbird for practice, but Hansen can always tell whether she's on a grouse or not.
"When she's on a grouse, she shakes," he said.
He contends she's not truly a grouse dog yet. The population of grouse has been so low for the past three years that Keena hasn't refined her technique, Hansen said.
As we walked behind either Keena or a pair of Labs, we soaked up the shifting scene. This was the first cool day of fall, and probably 80 percent of the leaves had blown down over the weekend. The popples looked grouse-perfect. Each of them had a few tenacious leaves clinging to their extremities. Visual snippets punctuated our hunt -- a drake wood duck swimming in a creek, an abandoned bird's nest crafted with old-man's beard lichen, a hidden bog pond just waiting for a moose to materialize along its shore.
Mostly, we watched the dogs and told stories and didn't shoot grouse.
Our best chance occurred late in the day with the Labs at work. Max must have flushed the bird, up ahead of us. It flew directly toward us, just off Hansen's side of the trail.
"Shoot it!" I yelled, mostly to let Hansen know I didn't have a shot. But Hansen hadn't picked up the bird's flight yet.
The grouse got almost even with us and, like a receiver running a down-and-out, took a 90-degree turn into the woods. I hustled to get a safe shooting angle, and I fired off one prayer shot. We let the dogs hunt the area, but I knew they wouldn't find the bird. They didn't.
"I'm not really happy that we didn't get a bird," Hansen said on our way home, "but I really don't care. It didn't ruin my day one bit. I like to follow my dog in the woods, for good or bad."