Bo was already ten years old when I turned him out in Wisconsin one fine September morning.......
Dances with Wolves
Of the many species of grouse, the Ruffed Grouse is king. They are, arguably, the most difficult to even get in a position to shoot. Then, based on my amateur calculations, you have about a half second after the flush to get a load of shot on the way! With their range throughout the country, the best hunting, to my mind, is in Wisconsin. The populations are large, the terrain is flat and the available hunting land is plentiful and managed for grouse. I've been a guest of the Northwoods for close to 15 years, now. Every October, definitely, and every September, if I can, I load up the dogs for the annual trek to match wits with the finest game bird on the planet. A good, experienced grouse dog is a rare thing indeed. When I first began hunting in north central Wisconsin, I had Rocket, a Brittany male, and Ruby, a setter female. Both were dead broke dogs and took to the thick cover and trails of the Chequamegon National Forest with ease. They always checked in, never disappeared, rarely busted up the birds and were a real pleasure to hunt behind. Over the years, those dogs passed on and my follow on dogs were led by Julia’s Bocephus (Bo). Bo was a Southern Quail Dog, bred and trained to "get on out there", locate coveys of quail and hold on them until I got there to flush and shoot. That kind of hunting is diametrically opposed to what a dog needed to do in Wisconsin. If a dog gets 50 yards from the hunter in the Wisconsin grouse woods (considered way too close for a quail dog), he was lost and of no use to a grouse hunter- the cover was simply too thick and the birds too skittish and too quick to flush. Bo managed to do the job, but I was never at ease with him, even though I used a beeper collar to keep track of him and alert me to when he was on point. I used to dread watching him head down into an alder swamp- and sure enough, his beeper would go off and I'd bust through the brush and muck to get to him in time before the bird flushed. Many was the time, I would push my way through alders and briers and hemlock and fir trees for 50-60 yards and finally see Bo standing rock solid on point; only to hear the roar of the grouse wings just yards away and maybe get a glimpse of the gray ghost through the trees. I tried for years to get Bo back into a comfortable grouse range, but I had trouble with the idea of really bearing down on him to get him to alter his basic range. I know some dogs that will adjust automatically- I owned one, my setter, Ruby for one- and they are such a pleasure. But, I have what I have and Bo and I came to a mutual understanding. He would work as close as he could, but I'd have to accept a little more effort on my part in the woods.
The limit to how many grouse can be harvested in one day is very liberal in Wisconsin. On a good year, a sojourn through the woods could get you numerous flushes in front, either side, or sometimes behind you; I counted those flushes but would not shoot. I made it a policy to not shoot at a bird unless it was over my pointed dog. (I know, I'm an idiot, my friends tell me.) Getting a limit was never the goal. Working with my dogs to get that perfect series of point, flush, shot and retrieve was the goal, and when I got several of those events in one day, I was completely satisfied. However, Bo and I did happen to bump into the limit one time.
Not many years ago, when Bo had some age on him and his legs started getting a little heavier, he stayed a lot closer. We were hitting trails we'd never seen before and exploring a little. One trail I remember in particular. A little northeast of Phillips, WI, we discovered a little dashed line on the map and put out to take a look. Bo worked out about thirty yards on either side of the trail that morning. I remember watching him and recalling other times and other trails and CRP fields- daydreaming on the pleasant walk through the forest. (Some days, when the sun is beating down on a warm September day, grouse hunting consists of a pleasant, thoughtful saunter in the forest interrupted, occasionally, by a roaring freight train as a grouse flushes three feet from your ear!) My thoughts were broken by his beeper of to my left. This time I could actually see him when I looked through the alders and pines! He rarely false pointed, so I got excited when I moved quickly off the trail to a spot 10 yards in front of him. Two grouse blew out of the leafy, green grass and headed to Mexico. My old Fox 20 ga. hit my shoulder and I dropped the one to the left and Bo took off after it. Right at that instant, 4 more birds flushed in a roar of wings to my right! I swung, saw the closest gray blur and let loose my second, and last, load of 7 1/2's. The bird flew behind a fir tree just as I shot, but I cocked an ear and was rewarded with a dull thud as I heard the dead bird hit the forest floor. Amazing! Six grouse on one point! Bo brought the first bird back and I sent him for the second one. He located it with no help from me and put it in my hand. What a great start to the day! We managed to bag another single a little further up the old railroad bed. Further on, I heard the noise from heavy machinery as we approached the old logging road where I was parked. I discovered that my little "two track" was being widened by the Forest Service. We popped out of the woods right in front of the biggest bulldozer I've ever seen! Bo and I were both impressed. The driver must have been impressed with us, too, because he cut the engine and climbed down to chat. Wonderful, friendly people are up there in Wisconsin and he was no exception. While we talked, I was in the middle of describing the six bird find Bo had earlier, when I noticed a curious look on his face as he glanced over my shoulder. "You might want to take a look at your dog!" he said and pointed behind me. There was Bo, standing on the dirt berm thrown in to the woods by that monster machine. He was on point! I whispered, "Gotta go" and jogged over to Bo, up the berm and down the other side- right into a flushing bird! Four birds in the bag on one trail. That is a good day! On the way to the truck, perhaps a mile down the newly widened road, I found one more and we had our limit. I hunt alone a lot, but this is one time I really wanted to have a hunting partner so I could gloat a little bit. So, in lieu of that, the Old Knucklehead and I sat in the ferns by the truck and had a little love fest. I told him how good he was and he allowed as to how I was trainable.
Last year, I was introducing some friends to the Northwoods. I would point to a trail head for them to hunt in the morning, tell them where I was going to be, wish them luck and agree to meet for lunch, or, failing that, dinner back at the motel. As luck would have it, the warm fall day started turning dark a little early, and it was almost black by noon. The rain started as a sprinkle and then gradually got worse. We put out on a trail that produced a lot of birds over the years. I was the only one on it and I determined that a little rain wasn't going to interfere with a grouse hunt. I did swap my guns out, though, and the little Fox went back into the case, replaced by a 20-ga. SKB Model 100, I used for weather like this. Bo and I started down the trail with him running ahead to veer off to one side. And that was that. He was gone. I walked and whistled and listened for his beeper for about an hour. The rain was heavy at times but merely a downpour at others. He could have been 20 yards out in the thick growth, on point, and I would not have heard or seen him. Finally, I returned to the truck, dried off, cleaned, dried and oiled and cased the gun, put on some dry clothes and headed out to find my dog. The trail was about 3 miles long-6 miles out and back. It was getting darker now and I was getting a little more concerned about the old boy. The good thing was the temperature was quite warm-in the 60's. If he did have to spend the night in the woods, I was sure he would be able find a dry spot and stay warm.
Walking, whistling, listening and bouncing between anger and concern as I walked down the trail, I rounded a bend as the trail dropped off sharply. I stood for a minute listening and staring down the trail. Suddenly, a big, gray shape stepped out on the trail about 50 yards away. He was looking down the trail, away from me. After a second or two, I recognized him as a Gray Wolf. Instantly, I realized he and I were looking for the same thing. I was looking for my old bird hunting companion. This big, gray boy was looking for dinner, and it downright pissed me off! "Hey" I yelled, "Get out of here!" (Or words to that effect and edited for content.) I expected him to jump and run like the coyotes I'd encountered numerous times out West. His reaction was quite a bit different than I anticipated. That huge, majestic canine slowly turned his head to the right and looked me right in the eye. Then, he slowly turned back to the left and trotted down the center of the trail without so much as backward glance. Even now, I'm impressed with him. He was huge-easily three times the size of my bird dogs, which would make him over 100 pounds! And as he trotted off, in the direction of my lost dog, he more glided that ran. Just then, I came to the realization that I was completely unarmed! It was one of the few times in my life I really did want a gun in my hands-and it was resting, dry and well oiled, in my truck over a mile away. Not thinking all that clearly and remembering the literature I'd read about wolves not bothering humans (yeah, except for the thousands of years of history and stories about wolves devouring little kids and old men ... the big, bad, wolf, and on and on ....) I pressed on down the trail calling and keeping a careful eye behind me. An hour or more later, at the end of the trail, I turned and headed back to the truck. Concern now was for my ability to make it back before dark. I picked up the pace. Head down in the rain and moving along pretty quick, I rounded a bend and there he was. A 35 pound bundle of shaking, wet Setter! I'm not sure who was happier to see the other, but I got down on my knees and hugged that mutt and thanked Jesus for the one more time he answered my prayers. We didn't stay long on that trail in the rain, and I put him on a lead and headed out. He was so tired he tried to lay down a few times and, finally, I had to pick him up and throw him over my shoulders. We needed to get out of those woods-now! The sun was long gone behind thick clouds and darkness was settling in. The GPS said we had more than a mile of up and down to go. I remembered that song from the '60's-"He ain't heavy, he's my brother...." as I carried him up and down hills, slipping on the up slope with rain dripping down my neck and wet dog scent in my nose. Song or not, don’t believe it, he got heavy as this old man got close to the road. I put him down and we finished side by side-both of us limping and panting hard. Back at the motel, I checked the old campaigner over for cuts, bruises and ticks. It was then I noticed blood on my hands when I ran them over his haunches. I turned him around and gave him a closer inspection. On his right rear leg, just below the tail, was the perfectly round hole of a canine tooth! Bo wasn’t talking, but to this day I think he encountered my big, gray friend, too. I think we were being watched during our little reunion on the trail, in the rain, in the Wisconsin grouse woods.