Our Grouse Hunting Forecast

Our Grouse Hunting Forecast

Perhaps you have been hunting too many "memories" when you head out to Minnesota's grouse woods. Nowadays, you need to chart a new course to achieve success.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

I was comparing notes with Rick Horton, the forest wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society in Minnesota about our 2004 success hunting grouse, and we came to some interesting conclusions. We both decided hunters like to revisit spots where they had success in the past. "They hunt memories," said Horton, and he told me a story that brought this point into focus.

"I was out with a landowner and we were talking about grouse management," said Horton, "and he would say, 'This was always a good spot, but I haven't seen any here lately, and that was a good spot and we always got a bird up over here, but I haven't seen any there the past few years.' I asked him how long ago this happened and he said, 'Maybe 15, 20 years ago.' I just smiled and said, 'Fifteen years ago that was great grouse cover. Now it's not. That cover was thick back then, and now you can see all the way through it.' Things change."

Habitat changes, but hunters don't. From our experiences the past few years we both concluded that some hunters find birds no matter how tough conditions are, and others only get some shooting when grouse numbers are high.

"The people who don't do well on a down year never get off the trails and hunt the habitat," said Horton. "It's their style and they're going to work trails because they've had luck doing it in the past when the numbers were high. If they don't see birds, they just figure there weren't any."

I'm probably just as guilty as the next guy. I always feel compelled to drive up the Echo Trail from Ely to a spot by the Moose River where about a dozen years ago we found an old clearcut that was loaded with grouse. My oldest son and a couple of his buddies and I were walking through the woods getting a ruffed grouse here and a spruce grouse there. About halfway through the hunt I stepped over the top of a 4-foot rock shelf and there were three ruffed grouse sitting there. They immediately flushed. I locked on the bird to the left, squeezed the trigger, swung to the bird in the center and dropped him next. The third grouse was just getting to the thick timber when I let a third round go and he dropped as well. A triple on grouse. If I had been playing the lottery that minute, I would have won. Odds are good this situation will never happen again. But I still visit that spot, and for the past half-dozen years I haven't flushed a grouse in those woods. That's called hunting memories.

According to Horton, there is a window of opportunity when grouse will find an area satisfactory to their needs. When this section matures, the grouse move to other locations that provide better habitat.

"You have to remember that for grouse it's only good habitat for about 10 years," said Horton, who then described how a landowner can maintain good hunting on property they control. "If you want to keep a section on your land good grouse habitat, the way to go about that is to harvest sections in a rotational basis so that some part of your property is being harvested every 10 years. It's difficult to keep one patch of ground good grouse cover forever. Even if you did try to regenerate a piece, you're going to have a 10-year lag.

"Let's say you have an aspen stand that was logged off," he continued. "It's really not good grouse habitat for about eight to 10 years. Then all of a sudden it gets really good from about 10 years old until it's about 20 years old. Then it opens up naturally and it's not as good from 20 years to 40 years old. After that long a span you might get some brush coming up and it gets better, but there's a period when this habitat just isn't as good for grouse. Now if you cut it again when it's 20 years old, then you start the cycle again."

Horton's recommendation?

"The best way to maintain quality habitat on a piece of property is to clearcut a patch knowing that in 10 years it's going to be good habitat. As soon as that section gets good, you clearcut another patch, so that when that first one is going out, that second one is coming in. So every 10 years you should be cutting some of your property in order to always keep something on your land as prime habitat."

It's a bit tougher on public hunting land where there is little control over how the timber is managed. Federal management of late has leaned toward shying away from clearcutting to a more selective cutting of aspen and thinning programs. In our national forests, it's all about conifer restoration in aspen stands. The harvesters take all but a few of the aspen and then plant all conifers. The stands are then converted to pine forest. It isn't good for grouse.

The state forests are better options where some clearcutting continues.

"On public lands, it's a fight we fight daily where we're telling the managers we need to create a balance of young and old growth," said Horton. "Out East, it's all old growth, so we're always lobbying for whatever we can get. Even a 20-acre clearcut in that region is a big deal. There are thousands of acres of overmature hardwoods, and we just want a little piece to provide some habitat for the grouse. If you create habitat, it will draw these birds in from all over."

This was noticeable last year where I hunt in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On my first trip there in early October the spots we have had good luck in during previous year's hunts were not producing like they had in the past. On the second trip two weeks later we checked out the region where the wind had blown down huge swaths of trees, thus creating a natural clearcut.

The hunting was tough, but the grouse were plentiful. These birds would flush when the dog nosed them, and they would fly up onto the big horizontal trunk of a downed tree and glance back for a split second before flying off. We saw a lot of birds in this heavy cover, but even the dogs had trouble maneuvering through the heavier patches.

Hunting in a lot of spots in the northwoods of Minnesota in 2004 allowed a number of hunters to save on shotshells. There just weren't many birds there.

"The areas of the state where hunters had a tough time last year were in the northern tier, especially the northeast," said Horton. "Every time I talked to one of my connections up in the far northeast zone he would tell me that he had been out and wasn't seeing any birds, and that other hunters he talked with hadn't been seeing any birds either. The Koochiching County area also provided reports of tough hunting, along with northern Beltrami and St. Louis counties. The northern sections of those counties had bigger drops in numbers than elsewhere in th

e state.

"There are multiple reasons for this," continued Horton. "There wasn't a lot of snow there that winter and that was harsh for the birds without that snow, and when the predators come down from Canada and the grouse don't have good cover, the predators only come down far enough to find what they need to survive."

Will it get better there in this section of Minnesota in 2005? It should. There was ample snow over the winter that helped many of the grouse that were left there to make it into the nesting season. Some hunters thought the great grey owl migration from Canada that was at a never-seen-before level this winter might have an adverse affect on the number of grouse in the region south of the Canadian border, but Horton is optimistic on that front.

"On the positive side we had a lot of ideal roosting snow for grouse during the time when the owls were coming through the northern part of the country," said Horton. "Those great greys came through in December and early January, and we had great levels of snow where the owls were. It wasn't until early February when we had some melting and the snow crusted. By then the owls had moved farther south because the snow was too deep for them to be feeding efficiently. So most of the owls were down in that band of the state that crosses Aitkin, Pine and Crow Wing counties in those spruce bogs, and the grouse farther north didn't bear the brunt of their foraging. So I don't think those owls had too bad of an affect in the northern portion of Minnesota, at least that's what I'm hoping for."

There was also good snow cover in the north-central section of Minnesota that helped carry over more grouse. This section of our state had fair hunting in 2004 and should improve this season. Like most grouse hunters, they watch the cycle and hope for the best. I asked Horton how he views the grouse cycle and where we might be on that sliding scale.

"I've always said about the grouse cycle that it may never be fully understood," said Horton, "because there is no one thing that we can point to and say that it causes the grouse cycle. The cycle is a blending of several different factors, including the predator/prey relationship, winter weather, spring nesting conditions, habitat and many other situations that develop every year. It's a big picture and there are a lot of things going on at the same time."

As far as where we should be in 2005, Horton said, "The basic story with the grouse population is we hope this is the year it's going to turn. We're six years past the 1998/'99 peak so it's time for it to start turning around."

I made it a point to test some high-potential areas in the southeastern section of Minnesota in 2004 and was pleasantly surprised. There was a lack of snow there this past winter, but even if grouse numbers hold in this part of Minnesota, hunting should be good. I plan on getting back there this season, and with some luck I might hit the woodcock migration at the right time. I was about a week late last year, and asked Horton if it's possible to time that so you can get into a situation where you might hit both woodcock and grouse at a particular time.

"Woodcock seem to migrate with a north wind because they're not strong flyers and they fly low to the ground and need some help from that wind," said Horton. "So on those October days when you have one of those northwesterly winds blowing down, you know those woodcock are moving. If you get a sudden turn in the wind and it's coming from the south, it will hold them because they don't want to fly into the wind. That will make them stay put in one spot for awhile."

Horton described how this affected his woodcock hunting in a negative manner in 2002 and '03.

"Those previous two years they hung up in Koochiching County and northern Itasca County, and hunters I knew up there were telling me they were seeing woodcock everywhere," he said. "I wasn't seeing them at all. Then the wind changed direction and they blew right by me in two days and were gone. If you're not hunting your area in those two days, you don't see them.

"Last year it worked out perfect. We had some wind that brought them to me and then it switched to the south for about eight days and I was into woodcock everywhere I went."

As far as habitat, Horton explained that woodcock and grouse are prone to using some similar haunts.

"The habitat for both grouse and woodcock is very similar," he said. "The difference is that you find woodcock in cover that is younger than the grouse prefer. After a clearcut you see the woodcock move into this area seven or eight years after the cutting. Grouse won't move in until 10 or 11 years after the cutting. Grouse like their cover a little older than woodcock."

Remember that if you do decide to hunt woodcock, they are a migratory bird and you will need a HIP certification on your hunting license.

Both Horton and I laughed a lot when we swapped stories about the shots that were missed. I had to tell him about the two friends that came up from Iowa that had never hunted grouse before. They brought a pointing dog that was absolutely outstanding, which is unusual for a dog to make the transition from pheasants to grouse so quickly. When he pointed that first grouse early, I knew we might see enough birds to make it a good hunt. Six birds flushed by noon and neither of these two had connected. Since they were my guests I was holding back and not shooting. By midafternoon we had flushed three more and none had dropped, even though there was a lot of lead flying.

The boys were getting a bit tired, but the dog was working well, and when he went on point, I could see a grouse getting nervous as it paced under the cover of a small pine. There were two dead trees right at the edge of this pine, and when the grouse flushed, it flew almost straight up in the air right between these two dead trees and two guns started barking.

Dead branches were falling out of the air and dropping on my head. Wood chips were filtering down on a light breeze, and when that grouse was about 3 feet from the tops of the trees, it turned and flew behind us, crossed the road and landed in a patch of grass. I could see that every shot was way behind that bird.

I looked at the hunters and asked them if they wanted to backtrack and flush that grouse again. My old buddy Vern looked over at me, smiled and said, "That one deserves to live. My gun is empty. Let's go home."

As always, the grouse hunting will be good for those who find birds, and there will be some to shoot at again in 2005. The far northeast will likely produce tough hunts, but the part of the grouse cycle we're on this year tells us we should have it a bit better than last year.

The bottom line is, don't get in a rut and keep hunting spots where you're not seeing birds. Grouse habitat changes, and spots get cold while others heat up. Instead of hunting those old memories, try to create some new ones.

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