2016-09-15 / Outdoors

Grouse numbers up for opener

CHIP SEEMS to have done his job on a grouse hunt in 2015. CHIP SEEMS to have done his job on a grouse hunt in 2015. On your mark, get set, whoa!

The “whoa” command will be heard often in the woods of northern Michigan starting Saturday, opening day for ruffed grouse hunting.

And dogs and owners from Leelanau County will be among those looking for birds.

“Whoa” to a bird dog signals a time to hold steady while a hunter moves into a prime spot to shoot a grouse — or at least that’s the plan.

“The dogs are ready,” said Mark Stevens, a grouse hunter from Solon Township. “I don’t know if I’m ready.”

Regardless of how many grouse are taken on opening day, hunters are likely to see more birds based on drumming counts. Stevens and Centerville Township hunter and dog handler Ed Martin band baby woodcock in the spring, and count the number of male grouse they hear “drumming” wings in a territorial display. Both reported an uptick in drumming.

Stevens also has been working his dogs leading up to the season. His training sessions are usually in Benzie County in aspen cuttings on public land.

“I think the broods are there, so I think grouse numbers are up,” Sevens said. “In the spring I make drumming counts in the area as I’m a woodcock bander, too. Now I’m seeing from three, four to six or even seven (grouse) in a clutch. They are still bunched together,” Stevens said.

Stevens and Martin are grouse dog enthusiasts. Stevens hunts with Chip, who is 11 1/2-years-old, and plans to introduce 9-week old Katie to birds some time this fall on low-key walks.

“(Chip) has a couple more years in him. They aren’t going to be all-day hunts. I’m tickled pink with him,” Stevens said.

Chip came from a line of dogs maintained by Martin, owner of Leelanau Setters. Martin will be hunting Patches, 8, but plans to leave 14-year-old Brook at home.

He offered advice for dog owners in early grouse season, which is often hot.

“You’ve got to carry a lot of water, No. 1. And you have to try to hunt around water — lakes and ponds and creeks. Watch your dog. If your dog’s tongue is three inches wide and hanging out of its mouth, you’ve got to stop and cool him off.”

While heat can zap the energy from a dog, Martin continued, humidity can be just as bad. Dogs cool off by evaporating saliva off their tongues. The more humidity, the less evaporation.

Martin, too, expects hunters to see better grouse numbers and probably more woodcock, whose season begins Saturday, Sept. 24.

“The guys who I associate with who banded woodcock had some pretty decent numbers this year, and there might have been a double clutch. We also saw lots of young grouse that had just started flying. They can still get up in trees when they’re half grown,” Martin said.

The prediction echoes that of Al Stewart, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources upland game bird specialist.

“Our survey data suggests that the Michigan grouse population last peaked in 2010 and the most recent low in grouse abundance occurred about 2013,” Stewart told the Ruffed Grouse Society. “My prediction is that in 2016, grouse hunters will experience flush rates similar to last year or up slightly.”

The next step will be actually bagging those grouse. Stevens said his odds improve in the woods.

“I can’t hit a clay target to save my soul, but I can hit the birds,” he said.

But even a seasoned bird dog backed by an accurate shooter can get frustrated this time of year. Grouse are hidden by heavy vegetation, and on most hunts half or more points are made on woodcock whose season is still nine days away.

“Every once in awhile, as a father of a dog, I get that look like, ‘Why didn’t you shoot that bird when I pointed it and did what I was suppose to do?’ Sometimes I’ll shoot but intentionally miss a woodcock to let (Chip) think I’m trying,” Stevens said.

— by Alan Campbell

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