There wasn’t much reason for optimism, but that didn’t keep me from hitting the woods on a recent Sunday morning to hunt ruffed grouse, a forest game bird that has been all but nonexistent for me this year.
On the plus side, I’m shooting 100%; I haven’t fired a shot.
Despite the underlying pessimism, some days are just too nice to stay indoors, and that recent Sunday morning was no exception. After a much-too-early stretch of brutal cold, the temperature had risen to near freezing and there was very little wind.
Besides, a walk in the woods is always rewarding, even if grouse are hard to come by.
About 4 inches of new snow covered the trail of the wildlife management area where I parked the truck and entered the woods. Judging by the lack of footprints, no hunters had been there since the snow had fallen four days earlier. The firearms deer season had ended the previous Sunday, lessening the incentive to traipse down a snowy trail on a Sunday morning in late November.
Occasional deer tracks crossed the trail, but the only sign of human life was the bicycle tracks left by a fat tire-biking friend who had pedaled down the path earlier that morning.
I had the place to myself — to hear what there was to hear and see what there was to see.
Even in years when ruffed grouse are plentiful, I have trouble finding birds after snow hits the ground. One can only assume the birds head for thicker cover, perhaps roosting among the branches of pine trees where they’re difficult to see.
Whatever the reason, something changes, and my success rate plummets.
The chosen route on this morning began in a patch of aspen trees that eventually gave way to a thick stand of jack pine, their branches covered with the recent snow, before looping around past familiar landmarks and back to the parking lot.
The hunt would take no more than an hour, and even if I didn’t see a grouse — which was my expectation — a walk in the woods on a pleasant morning would be a fine way to work up a sweat and get some exercise.
There’s always that chance of seeing a bird, after all, and sometimes that’s enough.
The woods initially seemed quiet as I started down the trail, but a closer listen told a different story. The light breeze was strong enough to rustle the trees, and the raucous calls of blue jays and scolding squirrels echoed through the woods.
Walking into the stand of jackpine was like walking into a tunnel.
I had stopped to enjoy the moment and take in my surroundings when I noticed the snow falling from the pine branches in random showers. The woods were alive, it seemed, with the showers of falling snow, some of which found its way past my collar and down my neck.
No matter, that, the encounter was exhilarating.
I stood there a couple of minutes, trying to guess which branch would be next to lose its snow. Sometimes, several seconds passed; other times, snow showers rained down from numerous branches at once.
So simple, so random and yet so pleasing.
My theory that the grouse would be in the pines either was flawed or the birds were holding tight and out of view.
I saw neither grouse nor their tell-tale tracks in the snow.
The hunt had ended pretty much like I had expected it to end — without a bird in the bag. Some of my friends in our annual October grouse hunting crew actually had respectable success in these same woods, but that wasn’t my experience.
Still, I left the woods feeling good about the time I’d spent roaming its trails.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a trip memorable.