Northwestern Wisconsin is perfect setting for tracking woodcock

Nov 2 2010 - 5:53pm

MINONG, Wis. -- The Totagatic River wears a necklace of skim ice, stalks of sweet fern curl under mantels of frost.

As dawn spreads across northern Washburn County, it's clear the sun has some work to do.

"It'd be nice if things slowed down right about now," said Mike Bartz, nodding at a vista of bogs and forests. "It's just about perfect."

The leading indicators of winter have made an overnight appearance, prompting questions about how long autumn -- and some of its gifts -- would remain.

At the moment, that included the scenery, marked by golden-hued tamarack trees, and the fall flight, highlighted by the woodcock.

I joined Bartz of Shell Lake, Wis., and Bob Ciulla of Jackson, Wyo., for a day of upland bird hunting last week on public lands in Douglas and Washburn counties.

The leaves had mostly fallen, providing better-than-average visibility in the woods. And with a good number of migrating and local woodcock enhancing the resident ruffed grouse opportunities, the day held promise as bright as the sunrise.

The gang roused early from the "Field Mouse Hilton," a cabin owned by Jens Fossum along the Totagatic.

The canine contingent was comprised of Bess and Mr. Bean -- owned by Bartz -- and Ciulla's Ryman and Willie. All four are Ryman setters, a line of English setters.

Bartz and Ciulla are proponents of pointing dogs for upland hunting and find the Rymans tops for field work and home life.

The dogs circled excitedly as we downed mugs of hot coffee, scraped windshields and loaded the vehicles for the day.

Upland bird hunting is typically more civilized than waterfowl or turkey hunting and doesn't require the participants to be in the woods before 0-dark-thirty.

But with a lack of recent precipitation, we headed out before the sun had crested the tree line, hoping to allow the dogs to work while some moisture -- and better scenting condition -- was still present.

Bartz, 55, has hunted grouse and woodcock from an early age.

He still clearly remembers the first time he shot a bird over a dog -- 43 years ago.

Ciulla is an avid hunter who travels North America each year in search of upland birds.

He had a chance meeting with Bartz in Arizona on a quail hunting trip. After an initial invitation from Bartz, this is Ciulla's sixth annual visit to Wisconsin for grouse and woodcock hunting.

"It's a spectacular place, to see so many birds and have so much public land to explore," Ciulla said of Wisconsin.

Bartz and Ciulla are the type of hunters who hunt long and hard, are deadly accurate with their firearms and speak baby- talk to their dogs.

"When I die, I want to come back as one of my dogs," Bartz said.

After a 20-minute drive, we arrived at a stand of 5-year-old aspen.

Such young forest is critical to many species of wildlife, but especially to grouse and woodcock. The birds need the early, successional forest for cover and food.

As forestry management practices have changed in recent decades, resulting in more fire suppression and less clear cutting, species like grouse and woodcock have declined in number.

But areas like this, which was recently cut, can still offer good populations of the birds.

We hunt one dog at a time, which means three bouts of depression and one of unbridled happiness.

Mr. Bean got the call and we set out behind, listening to the tinkling of his bell.

He bounded through the maze of downed trees, slash and vertical popple trunks. The thick growth limited visibility to 20 yards.

The dog's bell, though, let us know where he's worked. Even more, its cadence told a story. A steady "tink, tink, tink" meant the dog was moving steadily. A broken series of notes might mean the dog is getting "birdy," pausing occasionally to work a spot, Bartz said.

Silence either meant the dog is on point or out of range.

After 20 minutes of walking, Mr. Bean's bell went quiet.

"He's on a bird," Bartz said.

Sure enough, 30 yards ahead Mr. Bean was curled around the base of an aspen, still as a statue, pointing at a woodcock.

The bird was 5 feet from his nose. Pretty impressive stuff for a 10-month-old dog.

We closed ranks and the bird flushed, dropping to Ciulla's shot.

Moments later we admired the first bird of the day, a plump-breasted, short-tailed, long-billed species often called "timberdoodle."

The bird uses its long bill to probe soft soil for earthworms, which comprise about 75 percent of its diet.

As the ground freezes in autumn, the birds migrate south. A wave of birds is passing through northern Wisconsin.

The points and flushes continued as we worked Mr. Bean, Bess and Ryman through the day. At least 15 grouse flushed, mostly well out of range.

Some say woodcock are "God's gift to pointing dogs" due to their propensity to sit tight. Several helped lend credence to that axiom over the next six hours. Three woodcock ended up in the bag, and on the grill later that evening.

Clouds obscured the sunset, but it will take time to dim the memory of blazing tamaracks and twittering woodcock in the swamps of northwestern Wisconsin.

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