Ruffed Grouse Opener

September 20, 2011 by  

Our Outdoors By Nick Simonson

Opening day in the northwoods of Minnesota generally isn’t the ideal time to chase after the booming wingbeats of a ruffed grouse.  The weather is hit-or-miss, with some mid-September weekend temperatures climbing into the 80s, limiting the time afield for my lab, Gunnar.  There’s still a great deal of foliage on the trees, which are usually just starting to turn shades of red, orange and yellow, but mostly remain in their summer greens.  Ticks are still prevalent, and maybe even a few mosquitoes survived the early frost.  But all those things aside, while it’s not the ideal time – it’s still one of the best times of the year.

ruffed grouse opener

Ruffed Grouse Opener Result

For me, it’s a gathering of family and friends to walk the winding trails along the St. Louis River in Superior National Forest, or sometimes, while the family sleeps, I slip off at dawn to make the trek with just Gunnar at my side for a morning hunt.  The season opener always provides that moment that spins me on my heels as the first bird breaks cover, spraying water from the surrounding tree branches and thundering into some obscured pine stand 50 yards off the trail.

There are those moments during opener, while a good two or three miles from the truck, I look down and realize that the paw prints on the ground in front of me aren’t those of my dog, but of something much larger.  And though I have never seen one up close and personal, the thought of a wolf walking the trail just a few hours before me makes me understand that despite the twelve gauge in my hand, I’m not the dominant predator in this portion of the ecosystem.

Grouse opener is also a great primer for the seasons to come.  By the middle of the first walk, Gunnar has remembered his valued role as a flusher.  At that point in the trip, he begins venturing off the path and twisting and turning through the aspens, pines and alders after the ghostly scent of a wise old bird that leads him deeper into the forest.  Usually I hear the bird thunder off into the woods, but once in a while Gunnar manages to send it back to me in a gray blur that comes zipping out of the trees and across the trail.

Early season grousing is a test of instinct for both hunter and dog.  The shot that follows a surprise flush has been described to me in a number of ways; “pull up and pray,” “shoulder n’ shoot,” and “don’t think, just fire” have been the phrases of veteran advice that I have received over the years.  Over time, I’ve learned to trust my instincts, to “just shoot” and follow up with a quick search of the area, even if my shot appeared to do nothing more than take the top off of some poor balsam fir.
Because sometimes, those little 7.5 pellets find the mark through the needles, cones and sap of the conifer guards, and I’m amazed when Gunnar proudly struts out onto the path with bird in mouth and a sense of accomplishment beaming from his eyes.  It was a scene I was once again thankful to be a part of this year, as I rattled off only two shaky shots during the season opener, and thought that maybe some magic pellet in the second shell found its way to the bird.  Unsure I had connected, I ventured off the trail with my dog, and his instincts took over as he scoured the forest floor and a few seconds later turned up at my feet with our quarry, making the first day of the season more than a success.
Over the coming weeks, trips into the woods will be more productive as the cover of the forest changes color and eventually falls, leaving more space to see the birds and size up better shots.  And somewhere between now and deer season the time to pursue grouse will peak and pouches in the upland vests of avid hunters will get heavier.  But for the time with friends and family, an opportunity to break in a new set of hunting boots on the long and winding trail and the test of instinct for both dog and man, there’s no better time than opening day…in our outdoors.


One Comment on "Ruffed Grouse Opener"

  1. Q on Wed, 28th Sep 2011 5:22 pm 

    There is something odd this year thou, very few flushes!

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