Grand Slam Grouse Getaways

With Minnesota's grouse population nearing its cyclical peak, there's no better time than now to bag a three-species grand slam! (September 2009)

Minnesota hunters can encounter grouse anywhere from the hardwood forests in the state's southeast quadrant to the northwest quadrant.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Grouse hunting is a good test of wing-shooting abilities no matter which of Minnesota's three species of grouse one is pursuing. Each of the three species -- ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and sharptail grouse -- prefers unique habitats and provides hunters with different hunting experiences.

Hunters are well aware of the grand slam of turkey hunting, but perhaps some attention should be given to completing a triple play in grouse hunting -- harvesting one of each species in a season.

It's an accomplishment very attainable in Minnesota, one of the premier grouse-hunting locations in the country. "It's something that we in Minnesota almost take for granted, but people from Indiana, Georgia and the Appalachians come up here to see the numbers of grouse we take for granted," said Dan Dessecker, biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Grouse can be found from the hardwood forests of Minnesota's southeastern corner all the way up to the northwestern quadrant. The ruffed grouse in the southeast are a bit more sporadic but still offer plenty of opportunities in select locations. The northwest region is characterized primarily by sharptails, with some ruffed grouse mixed in. Move anywhere northeast of that diagonal line across the state, and you are in the heart of Minnesota's grouse country for all three species.

Veteran grouse-hunters are eager to head into the woods this fall because they know that this year or next will be the peak of the grouse's miraculous 10-year population cycle. That means at least two more years of first-quality grouse hunting. Potential grouse-hunting rookies might want to consider taking up the sport this year, because there's nothing more fun than taking up a new hunting pursuit during the peak of a population.

Picking up a new hunt during a down cycle can lead to a lot of frustration and makes it tough to learn the intricacies of the species. When there is more game to chase, there are more opportunities and it helps a hunter get through those natural downswings in the population cycle -- something grouse tend to have more than many other species.

Not only that, but veteran grouse hunters enjoy population peaks because it means more opportunities for the birds to make mistakes and more opportunities for finding birds in nontraditional areas. There are areas where you'll always find grouse, and there are areas where you only find them when they've been given the boot by more dominant birds. Either way, hunting is always more fun when the woods are full of birds.

"We should be nearing the top end of the peak of the 10-year population cycle, and this should be our fourth year of increases from the low end of the cycle in 2005," said Michael Larson, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources grouse research biologist out of the Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group in Grand Rapids.

Dessecker also believes that 2009 will be an excellent year for Minnesota grouse hunters and that this year or next should be the peak. "I'd suggest that we'll hang on for another year, but picking the precise year of the peak is a crapshoot," he said.

Larson holds grouse hunting near and dear to his heart as a native Minnesotan from Pine County, one of the state's top grousing locations. "When I was old enough to hunt, I was out there grouse hunting on our land and state forests nearby like Nemadji," he said.

You can bet he'll be in the field come Sept. 19 when the grouse season opens. Some might call it "field research," but for Larson it's a hunt he wouldn't miss for the world.

Larson's first career took him out of state for a decade, but he returned the first chance he could and became the grouse research and survey guru for the MDNR in 2004. Coming back to Minnesota was his goal, and the allure of a grouse flushing on an early fall morning was one of the big attractions. "I always make it a point to get out in the fall as much as I can to do some grouse hunting both in the area around my home here in Grand Rapids and my old hunting grounds in Pine County," he said.

RUFFED GROUSE REPORT

The ruffed grouse is the most popular game bird in the state, and each year hunters take around half a million birds. In peak years, that number goes well over a million, and in low years, it can hover around 150,000.

Dessecker said there are 15,000 members of the Ruffed Grouse Society in Minnesota, but that there is plenty of room for more. Those interested in joining can call 1-888-JOIN-RGS, or go to the Web site at www.ruffedgrousesociety.org.

Each spring, the MDNR conducts drumming counts for ruffed grouse to obtain a rough population estimate. Throughout the spring, male grouse will stand on a stump or log, puff themselves up, and rapidly beat their wings to attract a mate. This sound resembles a distant ATV or chainsaw motor but also sounds like somebody beating on a drum, hence the term. Grouse are much easier to hear than see in the spring, which is why the MDNR relies on their ears for spring counts.

Last year's drumming count showed the third year of increases, and reports from 2009 suggest a continuation of that trend. This is consistent with the 10-year cycle biologists have found in the grouse population. Drumming counts are broken up by region of the state, including the northwest, central hardwoods and southeast.

The highest number of drumming counts was in the northwest, while the central hardwoods showed the largest gain over the last two years. Drum counts in all portions of the state increased in 2008, which is good news for hunters.

RUFFED GROUSE LOCATIONS

Grouse can be found throughout public and private lands. State forests and forestland owned by any of the big paper companies are some of the top locations for grouse. A good public hunting land map is the best tool, and there are a wide variety of resources available to hunters.

The MDNR publishes Public Resource Information Maps, which can be purchased online or at a number of retail outlets. There is also the "Recreation Compass," which be found on the MDNR Web site and utilized for free. On the MDNR Web site, there are also detailed maps of public lands, including a downloadable link to Google Earth complete with the outlines of all wildlife management areas -- a useful tool for any hunter who relies on public lands.

Tony Roach is a hardcore fishing guide who runs Roach's Guide Service on Lake Mille Lacs and spends most every day of the year on the water or on the ice. In the fall, he always takes time off the water to hit the woods and do some grouse hunting. "My Lab will wake me up early in the morning during the fall to get me into the woods for some grouse hunting, and after a few hours I'm back on the lake."

Downing a grouse or two is secondary, he said, to watching his dog work. That sentiment is shared by most anybody who has ever grouse-hunted over a dog. While it is not necessary for a successful outing, once a hunter has hunted grouse with a dog, it's difficult to go back.

Part of the reason for that is grouse are very ground-oriented, making them resistant to flushing simply from human proximity. Without a dog, it's amazing how many times a grouse will flush behind you just inches from where you stepped.

We think about grouse flushing through the air, their wings beating like crazy, as the hunter tries to get into a position to shoot after bending every which way to get through the thick cover grouse love to live in. Dogs move much more adeptly through thick undercover and have magnificent noses for detecting grouse.

Hunters working an area without a dog need to move slowly and remember that it's the way they walk that will flush a grouse. "When you are hunting without a dog, you take a few steps and then stop. The grouse can hear you, but it can't always see you. When you stop, it thinks you are a fox that has detected its scent. The grouse gets nervous and flushes," Roach said.

Larson has spent a lot of time in the woods studying grouse behavior for research purposes, and his studies have helped him better understand grouse from a hunter's perspective. During the daylight hours, grouse are constantly on the move, Larson said.

"They only fly when absolutely necessary," Larson said. "They are walkers that like it down in the cover where it's quieter. When they fly, they draw more attention, so they only do it when they flush and when they are heading in and out of their roosting tree."

One of the biggest lessons Larson said he's learned from his research is that juvenile birds account for two-thirds to three-quarters of the harvest. Part of the reason for that is that they are bumped from one area to another by more mature birds. If you find a grouse in an area where you've never seen a grouse before, most likely it's one of those younger birds on its way from point A to B.

KNOW YOUR GROUSE WOODS

Aspen provide magnificent habitat for grouse, and where aspen is a significant portion of the landscape, you'll find the best hunting locations. "We have a lot of good quality grouse habitat right now, but we are seeing some trends suggesting that aspen harvest and management is declining. As it does, we'll see future declines of grouse habitat," Dessecker said.

Aspen stands are excellent grouse habitat, but there are a lot of other mixed hardwood stands that provide good alternatives. "The issue of conifers and spruce trees come up with ruffed grouse habitat quality, but in clumps of the understory, conifers aren't a bad thing in a hardwood stand," he said.

Large contiguous stands of pure pines don't provide much in the way of grouse habitat, but there's a lot of variance from that extreme. "Ruffed grouse respond more to forest structure than to species composition, and it just so happens that aspen offers high-quality habitat throughout its varying stages," said Larson.

One general feature to look for in quality ruffed grouse woods is a thick, younger stand of woods. As the leaves come down, grouse rely on dense woody stems for cover rather than cover in mature open stands. "They need thicker woods like hazel, alder and the shrubby growth found along the edges of more mature stands and openings," he said.

Locations with heavy stem densities and a healthy supply of food sources, such as birch tree buds, green clover stands and berry patches, are excellent for ruffed grouse. Lower areas, such as alder swamps, are also good because they tend to hold green vegetation longer, something grouse rely on as a food source as late into the fall as it will last.

Another professional fishing guide, Bryan "Beef" Sathre, knows a thing or two about grouse hunting. He takes plenty of time away from the waters around Bemidji in the fall to walk the woods in pursuit of the raucous ruffed grouse and said after a dozen or so grouse hunts you get a sixth sense of whether a stand is holding a grouse or not. "It's like you get the nose of your dog and you can look at an area and know there are birds in there. Of course, just when you least expect it, one explodes from underneath your feet and you can barely crack off a shot as you recover from the shock," he joked.

Sathre does a lot of grouse hunting as he scouts his deer-hunting woods, and when he's deer hunting, he scouts the woods for grouse. "That time period tends to be the beginning of the long winter up here, and I find that grouse are moving into their winter locations. Pay attention to where you flush them and see them during deer hunting, and then go back to those locations once the deer season is over. You'll have a great time with a mid-November grouse hunt."

Northwestern Minnesota has plenty of grouse for Sathre to locate. Southeastern Minnesota used to have denser populations of ruffed grouse, but those numbers have declined for a variety of reasons, namely the continued maturation of the forests. There are still scattered grouse-hunting opportunities in the southeast, and the best places are in stands of brush, oak and hazel. "Those brushy edges are good, especially in the late season when the birds head into their winter cover," said Don Nelson, the MDNR's wildlife manager in Rochester. "Working conifer stands on the edge is also productive."

SHARPTAIL OPPORTUNITIES

Minnesota's sharptail grouse are beginning to get more attention as they present a completely different hunt compared with ruffed grouse. There are two distinct ranges for the sharptail, one in the east-central part of the state and the other in the northwest. The east-central region runs west to east from St. Cloud to Pine City and north to a line extending from Grand Rapids to the Iron Range. The northwestern range begins in northern St. Louis County and runs west to the Crookston area and north to the border.

Sharptails can be found in brushlands that often form along transition zones between forests and grasslands. Sharp-tailed grouse are considered a valuable indicator of the availability and quality of brushlands for wildlife. The annual harvest has varied from 8,000 to 30,000 birds, and the number of hunters has varied from 6,000 to 13,000.

Population reports from both the northwest and east-central regions were significantly up in 2008, and that trend should continue into 2009. "Our spring sharptail census showed a fair number of birds, and (things) are looking up right now," said Dave Kanz, the MDNR's assistant wildlife manager in Aitkin.

Located in the heart of the east-central range, the Aitkin area offers some of the finest sharptail hunting grounds in the state. Kanz said most of the premium sharptail lands are privately owned, but many landowners are receptive to hunters who ask permission and treat the land with respect.

Public land opportunities exist, but Kanz said they are best later on in the season after things freeze up a bit. "Typically, on the public land the best locations are winter cover in lower marshy areas, so folks wait until they can walk through the frozen ground," he said. Cattail sloughs and marshes are also good but offer tough walking for hunter and dog alike.

DON'T OVERLOOK SPRUCE GROUSE

Spruce grouse can be found in the northern slice of Minnesota along the border region all the way to the western border. The coniferous forests of the Arrowhead are what most hunters think of when talking about spruce grouse locations, though their range is a bit broader, extending west to the North Dakota border.

While spruce grouse and ruffed grouse do share some of the same areas, they are largely separated because of their different habitat preferences. Spruce grouse eat more spruce needles and hang out in conifer stands.

In areas where the two coexist, you can find them together -- especially in microhabitats with plenty of preferred habitat for both. "I've seen a spruce grouse on a trail with a ruffed grouse on the other side, so there's not a perfect separation between the two," Larson said.

Score a triple play of Minnesota's grouse this season? Send a photograph to Minnesota Sportsman showing off your trifecta. Don't forget to contact writer Ron Hustvedt to tell him how you did it and have your interview air on the WriteOutdoors.com podcast.

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