GAYLORD, Mich. -- In a couple of weeks Tony Petrella will be guiding cast-and-blast trips on which anglers fish for salmon and trout from his Au Sable River boat and hunt grouse behind his English setters, Ghost and Heart.
Until then, he's content to do his bird hunting at places such as Jim Avery's Wild Wings pheasant preserve near Elmira, Mich., getting the dogs in shape and their noses sharpened for the grouse opener Sept. 15.
"I've been seeing a fair number of grouse just driving around the two-tracks," said Petrella, who lives on the upper Manistee River during the summer and spends his winters in Sarasota, Fla., guiding for tarpon and other saltwater game fish. "I have intentionally avoided taking the dogs out in the woods because it was such a late spring that I didn't want to stress the young birds."
Petrella keeps careful records of his fishing and hunting trips and believes that this year will be as good as last for grouse, when he averaged 6.5 flushes an hour. As for woodcock, whose season is Sept. 20-Nov. 2, Petrella said he hasn't seen as many but expects about the same numbers as last season.
"Last year grouse were up, but woodcock numbers were down 20%. That surprised me, but I had been told by some of the biologists before the season that woodcock numbers would be down, and they were right," he said.
Grouse season runs Sept. 15-Nov. 14, closes for the 15-day firearms deer season and opens Dec. 1-Jan. 1. Bag limits are six per day and 10 in possession in the UP and northern Lower Peninsula and three per day and six in possession in the southern Lower. Woodcock limits are three per day and six in possession statewide, and woodcock hunters must plug semi-automatic and pump shotguns to hold no more than three shells, the same as when hunting waterfowl.
Tim Jennings has a hunting camp in Montmorency County, Mich., and on a recent morning he and a friend flushed 16 grouse and 15 woodcock while working their dogs. Most of the birds were found in patches of ripening blackberries, he said.
A little farther south, Tom Hume drove and walked an area of state land where he has hunted grouse for years and came away pleased.
"I was surprised how many males I saw strutting alongside the road," the Ypsilanti, Mich., hunter said. "They didn't seem to be around any particular cover. We flushed quite a few grouse from mature woods when we were walking in to some places where we are going to put tree stands for the deer season. "We didn't see any woodcock, but we were in pretty dry woods."
I've been unable to do much preseason scouting for the past month because of some medical problems, which have now been cleared up. But in July I was surprised by the number of grouse I flushed while walking through the woods to various trout streams.
Serendipitous grouse flushes have always been one of my indicators for the coming season, and based on those numbers I'd guess the grouse numbers are at least as high as last year or perhaps a little better.
Getting back into the woods this week, I noticed that grouse had taken V-shaped notches out of the first flush of fall mushrooms. I often see that in fall, but I suspect that mushrooms don't hold any great appeal for the birds because they seem to be ignored after a bite or two.
What they are stuffing themselves on is soft mast such as blackberries, viburnum and chokecherries, and harder foods like beechnuts and acorns (white oak preferred). When those foods seem to be in short supply, I like to hunt areas around birch stands, because grouse turn to birch buds right through the snowy winters when other foods are buried (in spring they feed heavily on the birch catkins that emerge from the leaves ).
Petrella's and Jennings' grouse counts undoubtedly are higher than most hunters because their dogs are in the woods so many days each year compared with the average grouse hound.
"We'll hunt about 45 days out of the 60-day season, and we do a lot of training out of season," Petrella said. "I have some clients who like to bring their own dogs, but the dogs usually have a tough time with grouse. They enjoy the hunt, but they usually don't smell enough grouse and woodcock to find as many as dogs that are hunted a lot."
But that doesn't mean that hunters with young or inexperienced dogs won't be able to find grouse.
"If you spend time with the dog, and you hunt what traditionally has been good cover, you'll see grouse," he said. "But you do have to get out and look for them."