One last grouse hunt on Mead comes up empty
“Only a fool seeks grouse when bluegills are biting through the ice,” friends Dan and Jim must have thought last weekend when I told them of my plans to hunt before the ruffed grouse season ended.
If you’ve followed this column long enough, you’ll recall this story sounds familiar. Like the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” it’s a recurring theme for my cocker Buster and me – one last grouse hunt on the Mead each year.
Annually, the hunting season ends for me on the last day of January. Tradition has it the hunt is held on the 33,000-acre Mead Wildlife Area six miles west of our home. It’s a ritual that involves a “drive-about” – from west to east, north and south – covering the entire state property. A census of human and wildlife activity in the dead of winter, if you will.
My days of walking cross-country on snowshoes are over. Rather, I drive to hotspots I can access – locations I know harbor grouse in the winter months. When snow is over my ankles, up to my calves or knee-deep, I look for logging or dike maintenance activity.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), bless their hearts, plow in roads for loggers and heavy equipment to gain access. I use the snow-free trails to do the same – especially when they traverse good grouse habitat. Such was the case when my cocker Buster and I entered the west end of the Mead off Rangeline Road last weekend.
No human or dog tracks were evident on our way in. Buster found and flushed nearly 20 mourning doves in a corn field along the trail – left standing for wintering wildlife. He dove into the grouse woods that followed – tag alder, aspen, birch and dogwood – with his classic never-ending enthusiastic charm. Had there been a grouse in that neighborhood, it would not have stood a chance.
Killing a grouse this time of the year – while not impossible – is a feat worthy of note. Snow and pine roosters, grouse are survivors and waste no time and energy being out and about during the day – save for brief feeding frenzies once or possibly twice a day – in the morning and before dusk. In between they roost – deep in the snow or among the protective, needle-covered evergreen branches. Hemlock and spruce seem to be their favorite.
We traversed the county highway bordering the north side and turned south on Smokey Hill Road. Like Rangeline Flowage, the Smokey Hill refuge was in deep sleep – snow covered and frozen tight. An eagle soared above, a large flock of turkeys searched for roadside gravel and male cardinals called out for February. That was about it. Except for tracks. Tracks in the snow tell no lies.
We traveled to another spot along County Road S near the Mead headquarters and education center, and along the way noted a lack of human tracks – vehicle or otherwise – at just about every turn-off or parking area. We had the whole state-owned wildlife area to ourselves.
By the time we hit County Road C again it was noon. That could only mean one thing. It was time to stop at Mike’s Halder Bridge Bar and Grill for two of my favorites, a hamburger and a bowl of chili. And from the looks of all the ice fishers off Lisa’s boat landing across the road on the Big Eau Pleine Flowage, the bluegills and walleyes must have been biting.
We visited one final hotspot along the east end of the Mead. A clear cut of major proportions along a deserted snowmobile trail. As we exited the truck I noticed some more tracks in the snow. A pair of tracks heading west along the trail. Not very fresh, but very distinct. I’ve seen them before. And it seems the frequency in which they appear has increased over the years. Clearly canine in nature and nearly six inches in length, they could only mean one thing.
A pair of wolves were sharing our space, and Buster and I gladly relinquished our place in line to the other hunters. They were probably long gone, but perhaps hanging out in an area littered with deer and rabbit tracks in the snow. It was indeed an interesting and memorable way to end our season.