A guide's life: Wisconsin guide Damian Wilmot offers his clients grouse, woodcock and steelhead
NEAR BRULE, WIS. — The high-pitched tone blaring from Casper's beeper-collar told hunting guide Damian Wilmot all he needed to know.
"Casper's on point," Wilmot hollered through the stand of doghair aspen.
John Rodelli, 72, began working toward the sound, carrying his 16-gauge double-barrel. Rodelli was Wilmot's client on this mid-October morning, prime time in the grouse and woodcock woods near Brule. Rodelli had driven up from Inverness, a Chicago suburb, to spend three days with Wilmot, of Superior, Wisconsin, fly-fishing for steelhead on the nearby Brule River and busting brush for grouse and woodcock. He has hunted and fished with Wilmot in previous years.
Before Rodelli could get close to Casper, Wilmot's 3-year-old German shorthair pointer, the woodcock whiffled up through the popples.
"Woodcock your way!" Wilmot yelled.
Rodelli, a veteran upland hunter, picked up the flight of the woodcock just over the treetops. He mounted and swung his shotgun in one motion and squeezed off a single shot. The woodcock tumbled from the blue October sky.
Hunting and more
This is how Wilmot, 50, spends many days each fall — putting clients from Madison, Wisconsin, or Chicago or Milwaukee into Douglas County's best public grouse coverts, or alternately putting them onto the Brule River's fall-run steelhead or brown trout. Some clients come to hunt, some to fish. Some, like Rodelli, sample both in the same trip on different days.
Wilmot began guiding Brule River anglers in 1989, first on the upper river for brook trout and browns, later adding steelhead. He began using pointers for his own grouse and woodcock hunting and started offering hunts to clients about eight years ago.
Woof, his 9-year-old German shorthair, worked in tandem with Casper on this hunt with Rodelli on Tuesday. Wilmot grew up in Superior, fishing streams and lakes with his dad, hunting in the fall. All of this came naturally to him.
His first guiding job — fishing the upper Brule — was accidental. Another guide had an emergency medical issue in his family and had to abandon his client for the day. Wilmot was standing nearby as this evolved and offered to take the man fishing — with no expectation of payment. They had a good day on the river, and the man offered to pay him.
"Here I am, almost 30 years later," Wilmot said.
Much of his fly-fishing on the upper Brule is done on summer nights, thus the name of his guiding service — Fly by Night.
The appeal of pointers
If you want to know why some grouse and woodcock hunters use pointing dogs, spend a day with Woof and Casper. During the course of the full day, Wilmot and Rodelli witnessed 32 woodcock flushes and 19 grouse flushes. Most of them came just off the noses of the dogs. Rigid as statues, Woof and Casper froze in statuesque points, eyes riveted a few feet ahead, their stub tails stock-still.
Early in the day, the two dogs were side by side when they located a woodcock simultaneously, and they locked up as if they were a matched pair. Wilmot moved just past them, and the woodcock flushed low, offering no shot. But it might have been the loveliest moment of the day, watching the tandem point, both dogs guaranteeing that a bird was close by.
This not to say that hunting over pointers, or any breed of upland dog, guarantees a heavy bag at day's end. Many of the birds escape unscathed — the cover is too thick, or to shoot would endanger a companion, or the gun barrel smacks a tree, or the hunters simply miss. There are a lot of ways to not shoot grouse and woodcock.
Why not then, as perhaps the majority of Northland hunters do, just putt down a trail on a four-wheeler and shoot grouse that stand or flush along the edge? It's physically less taxing. It works. The riding hunters likely enjoy being in the woods just as much on an October day, and they probably shoot more birds. But for those who prefer the company of dogs to internal combustion engines, it isn't so much a matter of birds taken as it is the joy of working with another sentient being toward a common purpose.
Awaiting the flight
Ruffed grouse, of course, are native to the Upper Midwest. Some woodcock nest here, and many more pour down from Canada's boreal forest each fall, headed for Texas and Louisiana. Woodcock hunters wait for this migration. One day, a popple cover might hold just a few woodcock. The next, it might be full of them. Mid-October usually marks the big push, but it hadn't arrived when Rodelli came to hunt with Wilmot.
"I don't think the main woodcock migration has come in yet," Wilmot said during the hunt. "My theory is that when we get these warm falls, without the cold weather up north to push them down, they just kind of trickle down."
Still, 32 woodcock flushes in a day isn't bad. The hunters would end up with four woodcock and no grouse for their eight-hour effort.
"We didn't have a clean look at a grouse all day — well, one," Wilmot said.
Several times, Rodelli, a retired banker, would fire at a fleeing grouse or woodcock and file his report: "I shot a tree," he'd say, or "I'm pretty sure I scared that one."
Grouse numbers seem a bit down to many hunters this fall, and, so far, Wilmot would agree.
"Drumming counts were up in the spring," he said. "It's easy to feel disappointed. But we put up seven grouse in a morning. That's certainly not horrible. Last year I think we'd have put up twice as many birds as this year by now. But I'm not ready to say there are only half as many birds."
One more look
On their way back to Lake Nebagamon after the hunt, Wilmot slowed his truck for a bird in the dirt road up ahead. It was a red-phase ruffed grouse, taking its sweet time. The truck stopped, waiting for the avian pedestrian to clear. It was the best look either Wilmot or Rodelli had had at a grouse all day. But nobody made a move for a shotgun.
The grouse walked to the edge of the road and flushed over a clearcut. The low sunlight lit up the bird's tail feathers as if it were in a painting.
In the morning, Rodelli would be swinging flies for Brule rainbows.