column By: Dr. Hank Clemmons | July, 20
The third week of October is perfect for hunting ruffed grouse in northern Wisconsin: Cool temperatures make walking comfortable, the underbrush has opened up, and the trees have shed many of their leaves; the few remaining paint the canvas with flecks of brilliance. The crunch of dry leaves and frost-stiffened grass had announced our presence in the woods as Bell, my Drathaar, and I walked down an old two track under a bright blue midmorning sky.
We were hunting a short trail of about two miles that followed a creek downhill to a low, bowl-shaped alder thicket surrounded by young aspen. Bell ran up and down the trail working the kinks out as we headed toward the base of the hill where the bird hunting would get serious.
From about a half-mile in front us, a low, short, deep howl drifted up the trail. It was quickly followed by whining and yipping — and then silence. I knew immediately what it was: A wolf pack had finished its predawn kill and the troops were assembling to go find a nice sunny spot to sleep and digest.
Bell didn’t object when I reversed my direction and double-timed it back up the path we had just come down. Intellectually, I knew the wolves wouldn’t attack me and would leave my dog alone if I kept her close. But still, I had no desire to test that theory. I walked quickly up the trail, scanning both sides and behind me. The woods were thick and crowded with undergrowth that came right to the edge of the narrow trail. It was hard to see very far in any direction. In spite of the cool temperatures, I broke into a full sweat.
Then I heard it: Wolf behaviorists describe it as a two-note sequence somewhere between a quiet bark and a low whine. I call it a “chortle.” I’d heard it before in previous wolf pack encounters. It’s the call the wolves make to locate each other in dense woods. Each individual makes the noise once almost simultaneously so that it encircles you like surround sound.
The pack knew where each member was. They were in the woods all around me. Bell was about 40 yards ahead up the trail.
A large wolf suddenly appeared on the trail about halfway between Bell and me. I stopped, checked the safety on my shotgun, and my right hand unsnapped the holster strap of the .38 revolver I always carry when hunting alone.
He showed no aggression; in fact, he looked a little bored. He stood broadside in the trail looking at me. Bell moved; he looked at her. I yelled “Whoa” to stop her, and he sharply refocused on me.
The wolf was beautiful. It looked to be a well-fed, healthy, large mature male with a flawless full winter coat. I reached into my hunting vest pocket for my camera.
He turned and started walking toward Bell, and for some reason all fear left me, and I yelled, “That ain’t gonna happen!” and started walking toward him.
He turned, looked at me briefly and in three strides disappeared into the woods.
Leaves crunched behind me, and I turned to glimpse the rest of the pack disappearing into the woods on both sides. At that point, I realized that I was no smarter than the average white-tailed deer.
I had known the whole pack was around but had still fallen for a hunting technique wolves commonly use: They put a decoy in front as a distraction while the rest of the pack surrounds the prey to cut off possible escape routes. I knew about this technique, I was aware the rest of the pack was close, and yet I still fell for it. No wonder they are successful hunters.
The whole encounter had taken no more than a minute. I waited and listened as the sounds moved off heading up the hill. I took a deep breath, called Bell in to heel and cautiously continued up the trail back to Dave’s truck. This was one story he was really going to like.
My buddy Dave’s emphysema has worsened to the point that he is permanently attached to an oxygen tank. Yet Dave refuses to miss a day of hunting, even if it means sitting for hours in his truck, reading and napping, waiting for me to come back so he can experience the hunt through my descriptions of the dog work and bird behavior and then laugh at my endless excuses for missing easy shots. He had introduced me to grouse hunting and had spent 20 years teaching me how to read the woods and find birds even in low bird number years.
I opened the truck door to see Dave literally vibrating in his seat.
“You won’t believe what I just saw,” he chattered. “A whole pack of wolves, at least six or seven of them, came out of the woods and walked right in front of my truck. I was kind of dozing, thinking you’d be hunting for a while, and they snuck right up on me. I felt kind of silly when I locked the doors, but they scared me. Did you see them? Is that why you’re out so fast? I might need a clean pair of underwear.”
If you spend much time in the woods of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you’re going to see wolves. For the most part, they will avoid getting close to you and will not act aggressively toward you. In fact, in the lower 48 states, the only wolf attacks on people in the past 100 years have been made by captive wolves.
Unlike attacks on people, wolf attacks on dogs are not uncommon. Bear hunters who use tracking dogs suffer losses every year. Occasionally, pets as well as bird dogs are also killed.
Hunters should learn a few things about wolf behavior that will decrease the chances of wolves attacking their dogs.
Most dog attacks happen from late August through September. This coincides with the emergence of the wolf pups from the den as they start moving around with the pack. All of the adult wolves in a pack are fiercely protective of the pups during this stage. If a dog is anywhere near a pup, the pack members will attack it.
As the pups mature, the pack members become less protective. Usually by October, the wolf pups are old enough to protect themselves, and the pack members are less concerned. Unfortunately, however, September is when bear hunters have their dogs in the woods, and bird hunters are starting to get their dogs and themselves in shape prior to hunting season.
Minimizing possible wolf contact during those critical months is imperative to avoiding attacks on your dogs. Every year I move into my cabin in northern Wisconsin in mid-September to start getting my dogs and myself ready for the October hunt. If I see wolf sign such as fresh scat, paw prints or fresh urine dripping from bushes in the areas where I exercise the dogs, I leave the area immediately and find a different spot. You should, too.
If you encounter a wolf, don’t run. Raise your arms and make yourself look as big as possible. If the wolf is fixated on your dog, throw rocks and sticks at it while making a lot of noise. If the wolf appears sick or starving (this is rare) or cornered with no escape route, back away slowly while making noise. Wolves are wary of humans and will run away if given half a chance.
Wolves live where the deer are; deer like transitional growth forests, and so do ruffed grouse. It’s inevitable that grouse hunters and wolves will eventually cross paths. But if we educate ourselves about wolf behavior and avoid putting ourselves in risky situations, perhaps we’ll learn that wolves and humans can actually hunt the same areas without conflict.