KALKASKA — Rub, my English setter, was busy as usual, working through the waist-high bracken ferns in a mixed aspen-cherry stand when he slammed on point. I took two steps toward him and a grouse rocketed out of the cover, maybe 25 yards away, headed toward a young pine thicket.
I wheeled and slapped the trigger, just as the bird disappeared behind a pine.
"Did you get a piece of him?" asked Ric Heller, one of our quartet, on a wet September morning, the end of the first week of grouse season.
I really didn't know; I felt good about the shot, but couldn't see whether the bird had fallen. Rub, who works at a frantic rate anyway, was going nuts, but to no avail. Heller brought Jones — one of his Labs, named after a fishing hole on the Betsie River — over to the area. Jones was on it like a short-seller on a company with disappointing earnings report.
"We don't lose many of them," said Fritz Heller, Ric's older brother and the ramrod of this expedition. "We don't get them all, but anyone who says they never lose a bird either doesn't kill very many of them or is lying." Indeed, having a dog that hunts dead well is just about as important as having one that will find 'em in the first place. And the Heller brothers' Labs are some bird-finding fools.
It was my first grouse of the season (on my first hunt, too) and I was the last of our foursome to score. Two hours into it, we were all in the plus column. Excellent.
I'd had a chance earlier, on a fast-parting grouse that I never got on until too late. Everyone else had made at least one of their chances count.
It was what looked like a fine morning that intersected with rain just minutes after we stepped into our first cover. We flushed seven grouse on that first jaunt; Matt Mates, Fritz's long-time buddy (with whom I'd hunted a number of years back) scored a fine red-phase grouse and, as we doubled back towards the truck, Fritz killed a bird, too.
On the next course, through some low-lying ground in a thick-as-a-brick alder stand, Ric put one into his game pouch. Meanwhile, we were flying birds at the kind of pace that makes one conclude we are at — or at least very near — a peak in the population cycle. And, as is usual in early season, many of them were out of sight immediately or shortly after they flushed.
The trees were still fully leafed (and largely still green) and there hadn't been enough weather yet to beat down the bracken ferns. Those conditions slow down most mortal grouse hunters some, but never seems to bother the Hellers, who are grouse-hunting machines.
I've been bird hunting with the Heller boys — both Traverse City-area residents in the hospitality industry — for about a decade now and have never failed to be impressed by their routine. They hunt hard, cover lots of ground, find lots of birds and kill at least their fair share.
The Hellers hunt with Labs, which is something I don't do so much anymore as my tired old legs won't let me keep up with them like they used to. These guys move through the woods as though they were recreational walkers covering the floor at a shopping mall. Nothing slows them down.
They can stay up on their dogs, which are outstanding bird-finders, top-notch retrievers, and seem to fully understand the nature of their partnerships with their humans. Fritz says they cover the woods at three miles an hour and I think, if anything, he's underestimating their speed. When I hunt with them, they usually assign me the outside edge of the cover, for which I am quite grateful.
As the day progressed, the sun came out, the wind picked up a little bit and the woods began to dry out. And our bird-finding slowed. We hunted through what looked like ideal cover with just one variable missing — food. Although there was plenty of cherry and thornapples in the cover, there didn't appear to be any fruit. Only the autumn olive sported berries and even that was spotty.
Fritz offered that he wasn't finding any fruit this year and the crops in the birds he's cleaned — and the Hellers have taken their share, already — have been full of leaves, acorns, and little else.
In early afternoon, after a trip through some fine-looking aspen bordered by fruitless autumn olives, we took a break, Mates reported that we'd flushed 26 grouse (and 11 woodcock, though that opener was still a day away) not counting a couple of birds he deemed were reflushes. We were four hours into it; figure three of those on the ground.
That morning at breakfast, Fritz said he was hoping we'd move seven birds an hour. Depending on how you count time (and birds), we were either just short or well ahead of that. As the crew planned out the afternoon strategy, I begged off. I can't keep up with the youngsters anymore.
But I came away with two impressions: The Hellers are as good as ever and it looks like we have the makings of another excellent grouse season.