My good friend (and former employer) Ronny Boehme shared with me some insights and adventures from this year’s grouse camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Ronny is an avid bird hunter and dog breeder (Dancing Duke Kennels) who produces some fine four-legged hunting companions.
Things changed quite a bit during the 10 years since I last organized a grouse camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mainly, the areas where I last hunted grouse and woodcock grew into more mature forests that no longer hold birds. So I ended up doing a lot more scouting than hunting as I tried to search out new productive locations. In this area of the U.P., some of the best producing habitats are 10 to 12 year-old clear cuts. These regenerating forests have a thick and brushy understory with lots of grouse foods and also a protective overhead canopy to ward off avian predators.
There is still a lot of active timber cutting in the U.P., so new clear cuts are getting made all the time on both national forest and timber company land. The problem is finding these areas without also finding a ton of other hunters. It takes a lot of map-work and driving around to build enough areas where a hunter can find game and be successful. (My long-term plan is to return yearly with my group of friends and develop enough local knowledge so that we can begin hunting more and driving less.)
Grouse are very food-specific in the fall. They know when food sources are ripe and will adjust their habits accordingly. By checking the crop of a bird you harvest, you can get a snapshot of its last meal or two. Grouse will forage the forest floor for everything edible. You may see berries, nuts, buds, mushrooms, and insects all in one bird’s crop. Other times, you’ll see a bird that’s gorged with just one particular type of food. On day two of our hunt, my friend connected with his first bird of the trip. Upon cleaning it back in camp, we discovered what looked like a bushel of mini apples. These were thornapples. Grouse like them not just because of the food, but also because the bushes are armed with thorns – a feature that probably helps keep predators at bay.
Armed with this fresh bit of on-the-ground intelligence, I told the rest of the camp to keep their eyes open for thickets of thornapple. These trees can grow anywhere, and not always in what one would call grouse-y spots. On my last day, though, we found a large field surrounded by thornapple trees. In less than 2 hours of hunting, I put up 10 grouse and managed to take one. I was hunting alone at this point; if I had a partner on either side of me, I’m sure we would have put more birds on the ground.
I also had another interesting thing happen this year with a woodcock. I took a long shot at a woodcock that was vanishing over a small hill and I knew I hit it. But after five minutes of searching with the aid of my dog, we came up with nothing. I couldn’t believe it. Artie found blood on the ground but couldn’t track the bird. Woodcock are not known for their stamina after taking lead shot. In fact, if my memory serves me, I don’t remember ever losing one. But just as one of my friends was looking at the bloodstained leaves, a big drop of blood fell to the ground from above. He looked up, called, “Got it!” and we all had quite the laugh. Now I know to look up in the trees before ever abandoning the search on a bird.