Published October 23, 2011, 12:00 AM

Duluth woman goes all in to become a grouse hunter

NORTH OF DULUTH — Maria Jacenko is a rare commodity. At a time when the number of ruffed grouse hunters is declining in Minnesota, Jacenko is just plunging into the popples.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

NORTH OF DULUTH — Maria Jacenko is a rare commodity. At a time when the number of ruffed grouse hunters is declining in Minnesota, Jacenko is just plunging into the popples.

Duluth’s Jacenko, 45, will be the first to tell you she’s green at this grouse-hunting business. She has shot just a handful of birds. This is just her second year of grouse hunting. But already you can see that her commitment to the hunt runs deep and that she’s likely to be here for the long haul.

On a recent October morning, Jacenko and her wire-haired pointing Griffon named Madison worked through a stand of young popples just off the Fox Farm Road near Duluth. The pair had been in the woods for less then five minutes when a grouse flushed wild.

Jacenko shouldered her Browning BPS 20-gauge and offered a shot as the bird weaved among the phalanx of tree trunks.

True to her training, Madison stood stock still until Jacenko released her.

“Let’s see if we can find it,” Jacenko said. “I think I might have winged it.”

They worked out through the edge of a bog, Madison snorting and snuffling for a whiff of grouse. But apparently it had escaped unscathed.

Jacenko first sampled hunting five hours southwest of Duluth in Lac qui Parle County — for pheasants. That was seven years ago.

“We started walking the fields, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful,” she said. “When that light hits those roosters …”

She let the sentence trail off, but every pheasant hunter knows what the amber afternoon light does to a pheasant’s iridescent plumage. But pheasants live a long way from Duluth, and, at the urging of friend Rona Everson, Jacenko took up grouse and woodcock hunting.

She bought her own shotgun and she bought Madison. She knew she would have to reach out to others to learn the grouse game. She went to the Proctor Gun Club to sharpen her wing-shooting.

“Those guys up there were really helpful,” she said.

Jacenko relied on the advice and dog-training help of Duluth’s Everson, an ardent grouse and woodcock hunter. Jacenko spent a week at a training seminar for pointing dogs in Wisconsin and later did an apprenticeship there.

“She’s very determined to learn as much as she can and have her dog be as good as she can be,” Everson said. “That dog wouldn’t be what she is if Maria hadn’t worked so hard with her.”

Success comes

Jacenko shot her first grouse last year and just a couple of weekends ago shot her first couple of woodcock. In the woods, Madison never ranges far from Jacenko. The bell on her collar tinkles softly as 50 pounds of chocolate brown energy flows across the forest floor.

It’s clear the two have worked out a good partnership, and Jacenko has found the training rewarding.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed every minute of it. She’s steady to flush, wing, shot and fall. She honors other dogs.”

Unlike retriever breeds, which usually break for the bird upon the shot, a well-trained pointer stands still at the flush and shot, awaiting a word from its handler to be released. Honoring means that one pointer, seeing another on point, stops wherever it is until a bird is flushed over the pointing dog.

“The neat part of the training is that it’s more how I’ve trained myself,” Jacenko said. “I’m training myself how to communicate with the dog.”

Tools of the hunt

Jacenko has equipped herself with the tools a serious grouse hunter needs: A county plat book, state hunting atlases, a dash-mounted GPS unit and a hand-held GPS. She isn’t one to stay on trails, and having the GPS allows her to always find her way out of the woods. But she always carries a compass as a backup.

Her biggest challenge, she says, is learning good grouse and woodcock habitat.

“I’ve had a hard time learning where they live, what to look for,” she said.

Jacenko hunted for about five hours on this October day, flushing four grouse — all wild. Madison didn’t get a chance to point any of them, nor did she bump them. Jacenko forged through the brush, swatting branches, stepping through alders.

At one point, walking an old trail, she saw an alder bottom she couldn’t resist.

“Just for giggles, I’m going down into that dense stuff,” she said.

Within two minutes, a grouse flushed up ahead. Jacenko might have taken a shot but decided it wasn’t good enough. The lucky bird flew up a ridge and disappeared among some balsam firs.

One can see, though, that even this early in the game, Jacenko has much going for her. She’ll bust brush. She’s at home in the woods. She has a good grouse gun. And she has a skilled hunting partner.

That’s how you become a grouse hunter.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at “”