RICE LAKE, Wis. — The midmorning sun shines on the Blue Hills, a yellow peg doing its best to fit through the vertical slots of a 10-year-old aspen stand.
The slanting rays of light make marginal penetration — even the power of El Sol has its limits.
For visitors made of flesh and bone, passage through the popples is something else entirely.
“See if you can get around left, I’ll try to head through here,” says Dan Dessecker of Rice Lake.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But such mathematical theories clearly weren’t devised on a ruffed grouse hunt.
Our will is strong. Thirty yards ahead, Blu, Dessecker’s 3-year-old German shorthair, is on point.
Our way will have to be circuitous. Even the University of Wisconsin offensive line couldn’t clear a direct path to Blu.
Dessecker and I take separate routes, squeezing, ducking and weaving through the young forest that rises like an upright maze of 20-foot-tall baseball bats.
After a minute of hand-to-tree combat, Blu’s blaze orange collar becomes visible.
She stands nose down, tail up, in a portrait-worthy pose. The grouse, however, is done with stillness. “Thwup, thwup, thwup, thwup, thwup!”
As in many grouse flushes, the bird is unseen.
“Close,” Dessecker says as we regroup in an opening ringed with hazel and viburnum. “This is a good cover, so there’ll be more.”
Dessecker, 53, grew up in Hales Corners, the son and grandson of newspaper pressmen.
After a college career that took him to UW-Stevens Point and Penn State for undergraduate and graduate degrees in wildlife management, he returned to Wisconsin to work for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
He has worked for the RGS for 25 years, half of the organization’s history. The conservation group is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.
Its 15,000 members and staff pack a large punch for conservation. The RGS focus: improving forest management practices to benefit wildlife species that depend on young or “early successional” forest. That includes the ruffed grouse, but also woodcock and many species of songbirds and nongame wildlife.
Before European settlement, North American forests were subject to natural disturbances, principally fire, that created a rich mix of wildlife habitat.
Today, fire is mostly suppressed and forests must be actively managed through timber harvests to produce a healthy mix of habitat.
Some public agencies do a better job than others at meeting multiple forest management objectives. The Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, for example, has not met third-party certification for “ecological, social and economic sustainability.” But 2.4 million acres of Wisconsin’s county forests are certified and offer diverse habitat.
This rolling stretch of the Blue Hills, for example, is part of the Rusk County Forest.
The higher, drier ground is spiced with oak and maple. The lower, wetter areas feature alder, cherry, ironwood and viburnum. Scattered throughout are stands of variously aged aspen.
Grouse find ample food and cover in this forest, Dessecker says, especially in the roughly decade-old stands of popple with a mixed understory of hazel.
We continue our push into the cool, sunny morning. A frost overnight has yielded to mid-40-degree temperatures. Drops of moisture glisten on fallen leaves.
The tamarack trees along the creek have turned gold, the viburnum berries are a deep purple and fresh buck scrapes dot the wooded edges.
After a drink of water, Blu runs ahead, angling toward a creek bottom. Dessecker has lived in Rice Lake for 22 years. Over that time, he’s become intimately familiar with the areas’ public land.
We pass a stump where he spread the ashes of Bette, one of three shorthairs he’s raised and hunted with and buried in his time in the area.
Blu, his fourth, is coming into her prime. She bounds effortlessly through the forest, tongue and tail wagging, senses on “high.”
For human hunters, travel through prime grouse cover is something less graceful. Dessecker calls it “the glide,” but he says it with a wry smile.
To hike for miles through grouse country is to stumble, limbo, squeeze, squat, lean, hurdle and, yes, occasionally fall on your face.
After working the creek bottom for five minutes, Blu’s collar signals another point. As Dessecker and I converge, a grouse rockets up and over the top of the aspen.
Dessecker swings and takes a shot; the bird flutters earthward.
In seconds Blu is on the grouse, a yearling, and we have our first bird for the bag.
Aldo Leopold famously said: “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed grouse hunting.”
As many forms of American hunting become more sedentary and commercial, ruffed grouse hunting retains the best aspects of fair chase and demands the highest levels of hunter effort, skill and dog work.
The flush of a grouse resonates in your chest like the roar of a low-passing fighter jet. On the table, the ruffed grouse offers unsurpassed fare.
The wild, native ruffed grouse is a feathered treasure in the Wisconsin woods.
Dessecker, Blu and I worked two covers for a total of three hours. Five arduous miles of hiking were rewarded with 18 grouse and three woodcock flushes.
Our seven shots yielded two grouse and one woodcock for dinner.
As we hike out on a two-lane dirt forest track, wood thrushes flit among the leaf litter, a fuel stop on their southerly migration.
A series of hazel bushes line the opening, each bearing hundreds of catkins that will fortify grouse in the coming months.
The warm sun and cool breeze form an autumn equilibrium in the hills.
Every day in grouse country is a good day. Some are better than others.