Ruffs of the Frozen Marsh

When central wisconsin's Marshland freezes, unpressured grouse are within reach at last

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Nova disappeared under a large oak blowdown, the last bit of cover on the wooded island. For a moment, the only sound was the tinkling of the bell on my springer spaniel's collar. Then the blowdown erupted with a burst of snow as three grouse hammered out across the frozen marsh. I snapped off two quick shots and watched the threesome sail unscathed into the next woodlot.

John Brennan popped out of the woods in time to witness my poor shooting. "That's okay," he laughed. "We'll get them up as singles."

John and I heeled our dogs and crossed the marsh, then eased into the oak and aspen thicket where the grouse had flown. Thirty yards into the cover, John's Brittany, Newton, locked up and stepped gingerly forward, his nose testing the frigid air. A grouse flushed, twisting through the pole aspen in front of John, who dropped it neatly. Newton retrieved our first grouse of the day.

Another ruff thundered out of an alder tangle and banked sharply to my right. My second shot tumbled it, and Nova raced to where it had fallen. Two hours of high-stepping over sedge hummocks and fallen trees had finally paid off with a flurry of action.

** Island Hopping**
We were hunting the bed of Glacial Lake Wisconsin, an expansive region of flat, marshy land that sprawls across seven central-Wisconsin counties. Nearly a century ago optimistic farmers drained the marshes, but poor soils, an inhospitable climate and finally the Great Depression put them out of business. Today, tens of thousands of acres of this land are open to public hunting under federal, state and county management.

The marshland is dotted with upland islands, which have become reforested through natural succession with a mix of hardwoods, aspen, pines and brushy shrubs. Miles of agricultural ditches and the open marshland itself make access to the uplands difficult throughout much of the year. In winter, though, the marshes and ditches freeze over, opening vast areas of upland to anyone willing to walk a mile or two for a crack at grouse that have never seen a hunter. That doesn't make the grouse any easier to hit, but it's certainly a treat to hunt virgin cover after most hunters have quit for the season.

Go Prepared
The upland islands vary in size from a few acres to a square mile or more. In winter, the birds often bunch up in small coveys in the thickest cover. They move only early and late in the day to feed, leaving few tracks and little scent. A close-working dog that will explore every brush tangle is an asset.

Rugged boots, brush pants and a briarproof jacket or vest are essential. Wear silk or synthetic long underwear to wick away perspiration and a wool or chamois shirt for warmth. But don't overdress, as you'll work up a sweat walking miles of uneven terrain, even in zero-degree weather. A map, compass and handheld GPS unit will help you get your bearings if you wander far from a road in this flat country.