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Paul A. Smith: National hunt takes pulse of ruffed grouse, woodcock populations [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - To say a 10-year-old stand of aspen is thick is an understatement.

At the moment, our hunting group was painstakingly picking through a popple growth that was a virtual wall with some cracks to let light through.

To make it even harder to navigate, every few feet we encountered an old stump or blowdown.

"Health clubs don't have workouts like this," said Jim Hayett of Hartland as we clambored over and through the brush. "One of my favorite places, just the same."

Hayett was expressing his fondness for the fall woods, home of the ruffed grouse and American woodcock.

As far as the specific spot, we knew we were close to Grand Rapids. But truth be told we would have been challenged to find the truck.

More important at the moment, however, we were following Bella, Hayett's 9-year-old English pointer, and Gypsy, the 2-year-old German shorthaired pointer owned by Jerry Snetsinger of Cohasset, Minn.

The dogs were our divining rods and our compasses.

"Bella's on point to the north," Hayett said. "Let's get up there."

WIth that, our group, which included the father and son team of Randy and Ramus Berryhill of Calumet Park, Ill., Hayett, Snetsinger and me, spread out and moved toward Bella.

The five of us were participating in the 2017 National Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock Hunt organized by the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society.

Ramus (also known as Ray), 16, was this year's recipient of the Under Broken Wings award. The RGS program, co-founded by Snetsinger and with Hayett as a board member, hosts a young hunter with disabilities at the national event in Grand Rapids.

Ramus was born with adenosine deaminase deficiency (ADA), a condition also known as bubble boy disease that affects the immune system. Treatments in recent years have allowed him to resume a fairly normal lifestyle, including playing in his high school band and some outdoor activities.

This mid-October outing was his first upland bird hunt.

As we moved closer to Bella, we saw she was stock still in a tangle of alder and aspen. Her head was angled toward the ground, her tail arced to the sky.

Snetsinger had Ramus load his shotgun; the two walked slowly toward Bella.

"Easy," Hayett said from the right flank.

The dog held the point for more than a minute. As Ramus got about 10 feet behind Bella, a woodcock burst from the forest floor.

The bird flapped and dodged trees, then turned slightly left into an opening.

Ramus' shotgun barked twice and leaves tumbled. So, by golly, did the woodcock.

Seconds later Gypsy led us to the bird and Ramus picked up the first timberdoodle of his hunting life.

Snetsinger pulled out a report card and recorded the point, flush and harvest.

Then it was onward after the dogs through the dense popple stands on public land near Grand Rapids.

The record-keeping is an integral part of the RGS/AWS national hunt. Held annually since 1982, the event is respected as a gauge of grouse and woodcock population trends. This year's hunt was held Oct. 12 and 13.

Science is at its core, as data is rigorously kept on hunter effort and birds seen. Harvested birds are analyzed, too, to provide information on bird health and productivity.

"Not only has the (event) been an important celebration of grouse and woodcock hunting for over 35 years, but it provides an unparalleled opportunity to study the population ecology of ruffed grouse and American woodcock," said RGS President and CEO John Eichinger.

The information accumulated throughout the history of the event represents one of the longest, continuous efforts for collecting scientific data of a target species within a specific region, according to the conservation organization.

Held in the same locale and at the same time each year and using the same methods, the event was recognized by Gordon W. Gullion, the late ruffed grouse expert, as an "outstanding opportunity" to study the annual variation of the local ruffed grouse population and how that variation relates to the 10-year cycle.

The event also upholds the highest ethical traditions of hunting.

Each team is accompanied by a Huntsman who enforces rules and keeps score. The number of times a dog goes on point, number of birds flushed and number of birds harvested are all recorded.

Participants are automatically disqualified for game violations or unsportsmanlike conduct. Shooting that endangers dogs and shooting too near buildings is not tolerated.

Birds can't be "ground swatted" or shot while roosted in trees, either.

The teams are assigned hunting areas at random each day of the event. Prizes are awarded in several categories at the end of two days of hunting.

But most participants are chiefly interested in contributing to conservation, camaraderie with other hunters and time spent in pursuit of these royal, native birds.

This year's event featured 108 hunters from 20 states, including from New England, the Southeast, Texas and the West Coast. Joe Chandler, an RGS board member, traveled all the way from Anchorage, Alaska.

As normal, Wisconsin was well-represented. In addition to Hayett and me, the Badger State contingent included RGS national board member Seth Dizard of Wauwatosa, Gregory Fritsch of Wauwatosa, husband-and-wife Dan and Peggy Ongna of Stevens Point and Paul Seul of Menomonee Falls.

Seul served as a Huntsman at the event, while the rest of us hunted.

Snetsinger was Huntsman for our group, as well as primary guide for Ramus.

Over two days of hunting in sunny, breezy weather, the woodcock proved their reputation as the "gift to pointing dogs." We had more than 30 timberdoodle points and flushes and harvested 12 birds. We did not take a grouse.

Overall, hunters at the 2017 national gathering harvested an average of 0.5 grouse per day, lowest in the 36-year history of the event. Last year hunters took 0.86 grouse per day; the long-term average is 1.3.

The grouse recruitment ratio was 3.33, with 45 percent of harvested birds being adults and 55 percent juveniles. The color phase breakdown was 44 percent red, 20 percent intermediate, 14 percent split, 11 percent brown and 10 percent gray.

With regard to woodcock, hunters harvested an average of 1.54 birds per day, down from 1.9 in 2016 and 2.1 long-term. The recruitment ratio was 0.5125; 75 percent of woodcock taken were adults, 25 percent were juveniles.

The results of this year's event showed a disappointing drop in recruitment. Over the previous 35 years of the event, the grouse harvest averaged 72 percent juvenile and 28 percent adult.

"It's becoming increasingly apparent we had relatively poor survival of chicks this year," said Meadow Kouffeld, RGS regional biologist.

Wet and cool weather can be deadly for young grouse and woodcock.

Over two days of hunting, our group saw good numbers of woodcock and were treated to great dog work.

We also had some nice back-and-forth among our human members.

"The bell is so Mr. Hayette can follow us," Snetsinger said at one point, explaining to Ramus some of the dogs' equipment.

"And the GPS is so Jerry doesn't get lost," Hayett retorted.

Snetsinger said he really has a good sense of direction, but there was a day his truck got lost.

Notably, we didn't flush a single grouse despite hours of hunting through high-quality young forest habitat.

We still enjoyed every minute.

After Bella locked up on another point on the second day, Ramus made good on his shot at a woodcock that flushed straight away.

Gypsy quickly found and retrieved the plump bird.

"Ray, this is what it's all about," Snetsinger said, handing the timberdoodle to the young hunter. "Do you like it?"

"I love it," Ray said.

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