Saturday, October 28, 2017

On The Foot for Grouse.

    I took some time off work and made a long weekend out of it. I spent the Friday I took off sighting in a new scope that I had attached to my Remington 597 HB and put in some time at the range. The weather forecast for Saturday was an all day rain that was supposed to start Friday night. And rain it did. It poured heavily for hours. I had planned to spend the rest of the weekend through until Tuesday at my family's log cabin hunting camp to get in some trail time in the grouse woods.

   With the rain still pouring down I amassed my gear, rustled up enough grub for a few days and donned my Gore-Tex. The drive in on the National Forest road was sloppy and the surface hadn't been graded since early spring so huge, water filled potholes were everywhere. Rough corrugated sections of road rattled my vehicle as I crawled along. Needless to say the drive was slow.

  I reached the parking area at the trail head which leads to the the camp and sorted my load outs to make two trips. One load had my day pack with clothes, random gear and my gun. The other load was a pack with food and a couple of gallons of water. My father was going to be joining me later on, so I took enough food and water for both of us. I wish our camp had a close source of potable water but it doesn't. I'm thinking about installing a ceramic water filtration system in the future which would be more economical than trying to drive a well point. But the idea for a well still isn't off the table.

   The rain a slowed up to a light mist and the walk in was a slog through water. The whole trail was flooded. It must have rained at least a couple of inches since the previous night. As I sloshed along the I suddenly seen a grouse explode out from the woods right off the trail side. I the bird took off in a slow straight away flight that happened to coincide with a perfect opening to shoot. I already had the gun leveled and took the shot. I seen a spray of mist come off of the foliage as my shot impacted it. The bird flew away and I couldn't get a second shot. I had missed. Swinging around just feet in front of me was a dead spruce branch which I must have hit too. I was dejected that I missed that opportunity but was excited by the fact that I already encountered one bird in less than an hour into the trek.

   I continued my slog towards the camp.

The trail was a little damp

No other birds were encountered and the only thing that I killed on the walk in was my pride. I made it to what would be home for the next few days. I was happy that the rain had let up.

The fall colors were at their peak in this area, but this year they were not as great as they can be.

   I dropped my gear off  in the cabin and headed back out for round two. I reached my vehicle and loaded up the food and water and made the uneventful slog back to the cabin. I took my gun and did a few short walk around the hunting camp where I've flushed birds in the past but had no encounters. One of the areas that I walk near the cabin has this ancient yellow birch that has this huge burl growing out of it, just above tree's root mass. It's the largest birch burl I have ever seen. If the tree ever dies I'm going to cut it off and make a table top and a few other things out of it.

By this time I was loosing daylight and started to prep wood for a fire in the camp and get busy situating my gear and setting my bedding up for the evening.

Nice and cozy. Just the way I like it.

   Just after it started to get dark, my dad made it in. We cooked up some food and and settled in for the evening. That night we got a special treat, the Aurora Borealis made an appearance. I wish my camera had the capability to pick it up but it wasn't able to. I always enjoy seeing the northern lights. It's just another fascinating aspect of living up here.

   The next morning arrived with a break in the weather. The sun was out and the day looked promising.

   After a quick breakfast, my father and I gathered up our guns and headed out for the day's hunt. We had a few trails in mind that we wanted to walk. While in route to the first trail my dad spotted a grouse crossing the forest road and we went in after it. The bird flushed and my swung up on it and shot but with no ill effects to the bird. After his shot,  two more grouse that were up in trees flushed. We didn't even see those birds fly off.

  We drove on and reached the trail we wanted walk. It was a good two mile walk that goes through a nice primeval swamp, but alas, no birds were encountered. We then headed off to walk another trail that usually yields good bird activity but no flushes along that trail either. The early promise of grouse action had faded away with miles under our boots now and not a bird in hand to show for the efforts. 

  According to the literature I've read about forecasting the ruffed grouse populations for this season, the bird's population level is supposed to be at year 5 on their 10 year cycle. These birds normally live and follow a peak and valley graph in this cycle. Like most creatures that live with in a relatively short population trend, their's is determined by predator levels. High predator numbers of creatures like raptors, coyotes, fox, weasels, and bobcats yield low grouse numbers. As these predator numbers decline due to over population and disease, the grouse numbers usually shoot up. This mid point in the ruffed grouse's regional cycle should be their peak population level, but they are susceptible to one more factor that is more important than all of the predators combined. Weather. The past 3 springs here have been extremely cold and wet. This  combination spells mass death for clutches of eggs and young grouse chicks. This year was terrible again and the grouse population has yet to recover since last few bad springs we've had.

  After excepting the dismal fact the hunting would terrible again this year, I took a walk down a new trail I never hunted before. Maybe it would be a good scout for a future hunt when the birds will be back in numbers. So off I went with out much expectation. The habitat on this trail was mediocre with just sporadic pockets of "grousey" looking areas. I hiked along taking in the terrain, and then I noticed something odd off to the right. I walked over to a massive, old rotting tree stump and discovered this colony of gigantic elm oyster mushrooms. I have never seen any so large. It was an amazing find!

After about a half mile in, I turned around and headed back to the forest road. I met back up with my father and we walked yet another birdless trail.

My oldman

   After this fruitless walk we returned to the camp and on the way in we flushed one bird, probably the same one that I missed the first afternoon I hiked in. I took an awkward twisting shot because the bird actually flushed behind me after I had walked by it. Of course I missed. I was disappointed and took a break to down some lunch in the cabin. 

   My dad stayed behind did some plinking with his .22 rifle and I took off for one more long walk for the day. This would be a 4 mile trek along a woods road that I deer hunt off of. It usually has some good spots for birds, but I wasn't expecting much.

  A little ways down this road runs a creek. Near the creek there are a few small, but thick stands of young balsam which makes for excellent grouse cover. I readied myself as I approached this location and as if on cue, a bird exploded from the cover just after I passed. I only caught a fleeting glimpse of it as it careened through the forest. No shot was available. My hopes were up because this was just the first section of my walk. Just a few paces more up the road and another birds flushed. The only clue to it's whereabouts was the noise of it's rapidly flapping wings as it rocketed to parts unknown. I never even glimpsed that one.

 I continued down the road for about a mile with no other flushes but then something on the ground caught my eye. Even though I focus on hunting birds and keep most of my sight line along the trail and road edges I always make it a point to make short glances just out from my feet. You never know what you may find or see if you keep a sharp eye. I noticed some odd depressions in the mud but they were mostly covered by fallen leaves. I stooped over and gently removed the leaves that were obscuring them.


   Moose! In the last 4 years I have found moose tracks on 4 different trails here. I have seen moose sign off and on in the area since 2004, but there has been consistent sign over the last 5 years. According to the Michigan DNR and an arial survey they completed last winter has shown that the moose population in core area of the western end of U.P. of Michigan has grown to 378  and is up from the 285 animals recorded from the survey last done in 2015. This survey did not include the county I'm in, but my observations on the consistency of the tracks leads me to believe the population has grown here too.

   Why the up tick in moose in the last 5 years? My theory is this. We had a  population crash of our whitetailed deer population that started at about the same time, and the deer hit bottom about 3 years ago. The deer are just starting to come back now. They died off due to a combination of predation from the rapidly expanding and unchecked wolf population and a few back to back extremely harsh winters we have had. With the deer gone, there was less a chance of the moose contracting brainworm. This brainworm is a nematode that is carried by the deer and can be transmitted to the moose via the deer when they expel egg laden fecal material. The eggs find their way onto vegetation which is later consumed by slugs and snails. The slugs and snails are occasionally eaten by another deer or moose while they are browsing  and that's how the worms complete their life cycle  Deer can usually live with this parasite, but it's often a death sentence to a moose if they contract it. So no deer means no brain worms, and no brain worm means more moose.

  Not long after walking past the moose track, I spooked a grouse off to mt right side. i heard it scurry into some thick cover and I took pursuit after it. I slowly crept into the balsam thicket and the bird took off somewhere from my left flank. I never seen that one either. I took another step and somewhere up ahead another bird flushed, sight unseen. It just wasn't my day, But that's why they call it hunting and not shooting.

 I continued on to one of my favorite spots to take a rest. It's just a nice little spot in the woods that always calls to me for some reason. I think that those of us who spend any time in nature have such a place.

I sat for a bit amongst the cedars and took in the days events before heading back out on the long walk to the camp.

   The walk back produced no encounter with any grouse and I my legs were getting tired...or more specifically I should say my knees were. I put in a solid 12 miles of walking and this day and my vintage flannel lined canvas sleeping bag back at the cabin was going to be a welcome comfort for the night. Back at camp my father and I talked, ate dinner and I read some outdoor literature. I spent part of the evening around the fire just thinking thoughts. It's the simple ways and the ambiance of camp life that I find to be the most appealing to me.

  Morning broke and we cleaned up the camp and packed up our gear. The walk out was uneventful and no game was taken this trip. But game in hand doesn't mean the trip was unsuccessful. Time spent in the field is never a waste and always has something to offer. The memories made and neat observations in the bush will last a long time in my mind. The little discoveries like the giant fungi, huge burl and sign from the local mega fauna are just a couple of things that made this hunt worth while and memorable, not to mention the time one gets to spend with their father. Success can often be an intangible thing and that's something in today's world that we should not forget.

   Thanks for looking

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