Audie Lake Blue Hills

Autumn’s harvest of leaves lines the banks of a small creek trickling out of Audie Lake in the Blue Hills in Rusk County. 

It’s only 15 miles to this wilderness. Not really a wilderness, but a vast tract of undeveloped land that caught my outdoors attention as a relative rookie to this area in the 1980s.

Thirty some years later, it’s still as close to wilderness as we have in this neck of the woods. The Blue Hills still draw my attention, especially on either side of South Bucks Lake Road and Perch Lake Road.

I came here for ruffed grouse on Monday afternoon. More accurately, I came to see if there are grouse in the Hills. The reports on ruffed grouse numbers, from spring drumming surveys and summer brood observations, have not been optimistic.

So I went to take a look and listen for flushes. I didn’t hunt hard deep into the brush. My emphasis for 2-plus hours was hitting some old hunting haunts that still look birdy. Hit ’em quick on either side of brushy trails and move on to another spot of memories when ruffed grouse numbers ran high.

I flushed not a single grouse. Not one woods chicken thundered out of the tangle. In my grouse hunting heyday, now too many days in the past, my hunting journal entries usually read something just on either side of, “Hunted 2 hours, flushed 11 birds, six shots, two bagged.”

I’m not drawing any hard conclusions on my fruitless hunt. It was short, and I was hunting the early afternoon, the worst time to find birds on or near trails. And though I was in some good habitat, I didn’t doggedly pursue the best covers.

It was a good hunt, nevertheless, toting a shotgun and all those memories over the fallen leaves of the late October woods. It reminded me that grouse hunting takes some planning and commitment to get into birdy brush and stay alert, to have the gun at a ready position at any pause, which to a grouse signals it has been detected and it’s time to flee.

I will try small woodlots later this week, in the farming country where I chased up birds while in pursuit of deer nearly a year ago. Did they survive the long winter and wet spring?

I talked to a Rice Lake grouse hunter on Tuesday and was happy to hear his Blue Hills outings this fall offset my single hunt there. Retired Ruffed Grouse Society biologist and director of conservation policy Dan Dessecker has stalked the Hills this fall with his aging German shorthair Blu.

“It’s better than last year, though last year was bad, so that’s not saying too much,” said Dessecker of the ruffed grouse he and Blu have come across this fall.

Dessecker said he’s getting four to five flushes per hour while picking his spots—the best habitat—carefully because 10-year old Blu can hunt hard only up to an hour and a half now.

In the more fragmented forests, such as farm country woodlots, finding birds this fall can be hit and miss.

“The grouse hunting is spotty, perhaps a couple of flushes per hour,” said Kevin Morgan, local Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.

Morgan adds that the last chance, both from a season standpoint and migration, to get after woodcock is this week. He expects the predicted north wind later this week will push through the last of the migrating woodcock.

Woodcock are often found in some of the same spots as grouse, wherever the “timberdoodles” can probe into soft soil for worms. But unlike the grouse season, the woodcock season ends Monday, Nov. 5.

The ruffed grouse season will end earlier this year than in past seasons because of concern over the population. Hunting in this part of the state ends on Dec. 31 rather than Jan. 31.

(The grouse season did end on Dec. 31 for many years until lengthened by a month.)

The decline in drumming statewide this spring concerned wildlife officials because it was not consistent with a typical population cycle for ruffed grouse. By this past spring, it was expected that grouse numbers would be on the rebound.

In addition to the decrease in drumming, there is also a push to determine if West Nile Virus is affecting ruffed grouse numbers across the northern states.

Besides shortening the season on the back end, there was also talk of lowering the daily bag limit from five to three. That didn’t happen, probably because even avid, successful grouse hunters rarely fill that five-bird bag; two or three grouse in one hunt is considered good.

I didn’t have to worry about the bag limit on Monday. Even in those heydays, when I would take 30 or more grouse per season, I logged four birds in my journal only once.

This fall, I’d be satisfied with four flushes in a day. I’ll push through the fragmented forest of alders, blackberry brambles and fallen tree tops yet this season. I’ll enjoy the hunt, birds or no birds.

   

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