Written by: Jerome McAllister
Stone Lake, WI
I have owned a vintage log cabin on Sissabagama Lake since 1992. At the beginning of the 20th Century great stands of white pine around Sissabagama in Sawyer County, Wisconsin were cut down. I imagine the county was named for the men who did the cutting. A canal was dug to float the logs to Slim Creek, about a half mile west into neighboring Washburn County. The canal is visible today, along with remnant dikes built across Sissabagama’s low areas to assist in raising the lake’s water level. Once on Slim Creek, current propelled the logs across Washburn County to the 15 miles of present-day Long Lake, exiting into the Brill River, then into Barron County, the Red Cedar River and finally, lumber mills farther south. Within a quarter mile of Slim Creek’s mouth at the north end of Long, a small unnamed stream, less than a mile in length, flows from the south into Slim Creek. Mostly this “Unnamed” is wet year round, but the flow struggles to go over the boot top of a would-be wader. The Long Lake Grouse, a male, lived on Unnamed until Monday November 9, 2015.
Maddy was a product of Jason Gooding’s Good Go Ing Kennels in Baldwin, Wisconsin. Her sire was Zeus, a stud with the longtime classic English setter bloodlines for which Good Go Ing is known. The dam was from a kennel in Illinois with a classic bloodline new to Jason. Maddy was the stud fee. When she turned 1 year old in the spring of 2012, Jason asked if I would train Maddy for bird hunting, including considerable time in the field with wild birds, and thereby allow him to gain an indication of the hunting capabilities of the new bloodline. Maddy was an easy train with a remarkable nose and a natural instinct for retrieving. The latter is rare in English setters. Successful woodcock points happened during the first hunting season, pheasant and sharptail the second, and Huns the third. By year four, 2015, she was pointing and holding sharp-tailed grouse and pheasant in standing sunflowers, over a shotgun range out from her nose. Remarkable! However, over these first three seasons she had not learned to hunt ruffed grouse. I doubt if she had had over two opportunities in any one of those three seasons. Daisy, my primary grouse dog, got the bulk of those, and only two or three flushes a day were standard in those years. The Long Lake Grouse provided Maddy a coming-of-age on ruffs.
I had hunted Unnamed for the past seven seasons. A neighbor on Sissabagama showed it to me in 2009. For the most part he had given up ruffed grouse hunting, but in the Eighties he was quite successful on Unnamed. The lower part, near Slim Creek, was a great ruffed grouse covert; the upper half, when wet, woodcock. On November 8th and 9th, Daisy hunted the lower covert where only a single grouse flushed each day well out of shotgun range. Maddy, being my junior varsity ruffed grouse dog got the upper more woodcock covert. The latter was about to become a ruffed grouse covert, also.
On the first day, Maddy and I moved upstream along Unnamed, paying particular attention to large clumps of black alder spanning both sides of the waterway. Maddy got birdy at the first of three clumps but did not point and instead circled away from the alder in the direction from which she had come. Maybe three steps after the about face, a ruffed grouse flushed from the middle of the stream. I was not ready, and Maddy never saw the flush but did turn around at the sound of wing beats. Mr. Ruff’s exit took him across Unnamed and farther upstream where a little hill arose abruptly from the next alder clump. We crossed and had traversed an additional hundred yards of stream when Maddy went on point right next to the water. I waited a minute, maybe two, and nothing happened. I released Maddy, she continued along the stream as I began climbing the hill. A couple of steps upward, the grouse flushed at the ridge line, immediately disappearing from eye sight. Maddy again turned away from the scent track and toward the wing beat sound. I fired at blue sky to show her that the point had not been in vain, and that she was on a game bird track. At this point we lost the Long Lake Grouse for the day.
We had a return bout with the Long Lake Champ the next day, November 9th. We arrived about 2:30 PM, end of the day feeding and gravel gathering time for ruffs. Again, at the first alder clump, Maddy became birdy, pointed, and then moved toward Unnamed. Already better than the day before! She had her nose to the ground, tail wagging, moving along a scent trail. Too aggressive! A ruff flushed from about the same spot as the previous day. I was ready but it flew west, perpendicular to Unnamed, and directly into the setting sun. I fired at the sun but did not get another glimpse of the fleeing grouse. Maddy reexamined the scent trail, following it to the flush point.
Something about this ruff’s behavior told me it was a different grouse, not the Long Lake Champ. A gravel ATV trail ran parallel to Unnamed, uphill about 150 yards east. The sun was low in the west, time for grouse to get some gravel for their craws. I moved uphill about halfway to the gravel trail. There were lots of tiny greens on the moist ground, a second prime source of ruff food. At a point even with the third alder clump, I turned around and moved higher still for a hunt back to the truck. Soon, Maddy struck a scent and followed it into a west breeze back toward Unnamed. I continued toward the truck for a handful of steps, keeping an eye on Maddy when just uphill (the opposite direction from Maddy’s search) a ruff flushed, turned behind a tree as my Winchester Model 23 came to shoulder. Then it turned back, put its eye on me and flashed its white underside for yet another turn. The Long Lake Grouse! Too many gyrations, my awkward shot missed. I watched the grouse fly before me a long way to a slight ridge where the waning sun was lighting up a line of white birch trunks.
Maddy had missed the entire event save the shotgun report. We moved resolutely toward the sun-splashed birch. It took several minutes to get through an intervening, recent set of aspen slashings. A couple of shotgun ranges short of the birches, a bog appeared with the white trunks on the far side. Maddy was not birdy. Mind flashed, “Go around the bog?” Maddy chose and led to the left. Thirty seconds and still not birdy. Mind said, “Wrong direction,” so I directed her to do a 180 degree turn and go back to my right. As she cleared me, there was an immediate point, hesitation, then a few steps forward and a rock-solid point. I stepped up even with the dog, and the Long Lake Grouse flushed before us, soaring out over the bog. The Winchester side by side came to shoulder. I squared up the grouse, let it clear a popple trunk, and squeezed the trigger as the bead passed Long Lake’s eye. It was again fixed on me. The ruff twirled down into the middle of the bog with bright white trunks in the background. Maddy was on it instantly. I walked over, and she handed me the Long Lake Grouse: gray phase, beat up solid black-banded tail feathers, a male from the 2015 hatch. Maddy had arrived, a ruffed grouse dog. The dead bird’s craw contained tiny greens from the hillside east of Unnamed.
The accompanying photo was taken by Jason Gooding.