NORTH OF DULUTH, Minn. -- Adolescent aspen flank a grassy trail. Most of their leaves have fallen now. Moist and decomposing, the leaves impart an aroma both sweet and sour on this early October morning.
It's a scent Bruce Smith loves. It smells like grouse hunting.
"If I could only hunt one thing, it would be grouse, and I'd hunt 'em every day," says Smith, 59, of Duluth.
As it is, he gets out a few times most weeks. He'll make a couple of trips to South Dakota for pheasants, but he'll come home and hunt grouse some more.
Smith learned to love hunting and fishing from his dad. He's been grouse hunting since he was a kid.
"For 45 years and five dogs," he says.
His current dog, his fifth Labrador retriever, is Cooper, a lean 70-pound yellow Lab who at the moment is coursing through the wrist-thick popples. At 4, Cooper already has flushed plenty of grouse and woodcock on October mornings.
The flushes have been less common this fall, with the ruffed grouse population on the downhill slide in its 10-year boom-and-bust cycle.
"It's a tough year," Smith says. "I'm probably averaging one flush per hour. To me, that's terrible. But two days, I've gone out and shot five."
That's a hunter's limit of grouse.
Smith has refined his grouse-hunting methods over the years. He hunts strictly from trails, letting Cooper range side to side but never far ahead. Cooper knows the drill.
"I spend a lot of time on the trail," Smith says. "If the dog gets hot, I'll go (into the woods) with him. I know a lot of guys are beat-the-brush guys. I was, too, in my younger years. But I think birds like the edges, like the trails."
We are three minutes into this hunt when Cooper points a grouse just off the trail. Like a wise old bird, it escapes without offering Smith a shot when it flushes. He follows it up, hoping to flush it again, but the bird isn't playing that game.
Back on the trail, another grouse flushes ahead of Smith and flies down the trail out of range. Two more simultaneously flush from nearly the same spot. Smith misses one with both barrels of his classic side-by-side 12-gauge, a Parker reproduction by Winchester, made in 1964. It's a gorgeous gun, a copy of the famous Parker double guns of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He redeems himself a few minutes later when a grouse flushes wild from just off the trail. Smith's load of No. 6 shot catches up with it. Cooper scoops up the bird and returns it to Smith. Smith also shoots a woodcock that Cooper has flushed along the trail.
Smith does most of his grouse hunting alone. It's his preference.
"I just love being one-on-one with the dog," he says.
He hunts trails he has hunted for years, in territory not far from a family cabin. He uses no compass or GPS. He knows the country.
Smith prefers hunting young aspen, trees mostly 7 to 10 years old. He works part time for the St. Louis County Land & Minerals Department, and he talks with foresters to learn where recent clear-cuts have been made. Using plat books and aerial photos, he plans his hunts.
After a short mid-morning break at the truck, Smith sets off on another set of trails. He walks for a while with no flushes.
"That's the way this year has been," he says. "You see a batch of 'em, and then go a couple of hours and not see anything."
He doesn't go that long before he sees his next birds, though.
Crossing a clear-cut that has been logged this past summer, where virtually no new growth has emerged, he stumbles onto a covey of birds in the wide open. Two grouse flush together and thunder toward the woods. The first barrel of the Parker reproduction sounds, and the first bird drops. Smith swings to the second bird, and the second shot brings it down. A clean double.
Before he can reload, a third grouse flushes from the same spot. Smith has to watch it fly away. He keeps reloading, and when a fourth bird flushes, he offers one long shot at it. It flies on unscathed.
Cooper retrieves both of the grouse Smith has shot, and he stands in the thin October light admiring the big gray-phase birds.
"Those birds looked like pheasants out there with nothing around them," he says.
We wonder why the group of birds would be out in the middle of a clear-cut. The ground is covered by wild strawberry plants, and Smith surmises that's what the birds have been feeding on.
"The first several birds I shot this year were all full of high-bush cranberries," he says.
The trail eventually loops back to the truck. Along the way, Smith and Cooper flush a couple more grouse, both of which offer no shots, and another woodcock.
He finishes the three-hour hunt with three grouse and two woodcock. He has flushed 11 grouse and seven woodcock.
Not bad for a tough year.
(c)2013 Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)
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