Hunting Grouse In Minnesota

Even though the ruffed grouse population is back on the rise, you'll still have to hunt hard this season. But isn't that what bird hunting is all about? (September 2007)

Adam Johnson shot two spruce grouse, Justin Johnson a ruffed grouse and Dan Small a snowshoe hare on a northern Minnesota hunt.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

It started as a casual conversation at a writer's conference. Denelle Hovde, the director of the Baudette Visitor's and Convention Bureau, and I were discussing the upcoming ice-fishing season and our conversation somehow shifted to bird hunting.

Hovde then began bragging up the ruffed grouse hunting in her neck of the woods and chastised me when I got this, "Ya, right," look on my face. I was thinking the only birds in those woods that far north were spruce grouse, and I hadn't heard reports of many of those around.

"You just ask Greg," she scolded. "He'll tell you that I'm not exaggerating."

She was referring to Greg Hennum of Sportsman's Lodge on the Rainy River. Hennum is an avid hunter and he tends to under-exaggerate, so when he told me he was seeing plenty of ruffed grouse and he was predicting great hunting, I told Hovde I would check it out.

I figured if what I was hearing was true, hunting that far north for grouse should be outstanding for a couple of reasons. Hunters from the cities and even other states likely won't travel as far north as Baudette, preferring instead to hunt in the heavily promoted north-central section of Minnesota. This means less pressure on the birds and fewer hunters in the woods.

Unfortunately, Hennum was in Canada chasing whitetails when I made the trip up to Baudette for some bird hunting. However, I still had quite a posse. Adam Johnson volunteered to go and brought his producer, K.C. O'Dea, a cameraman, Casey Dingells and Dan Small from Wisconsin joined us as well. Hennum left us in good hands with two of his guides, Justin Johnson and Eric Lindquist.

We were barely 10 minutes into the woods when a half-dozen spruce grouse started shooting out of the pines. Adam dropped one and the rest took advantage of the heavy cover.

People say spruce grouse are not as wary as the ruffed grouse and sometimes you have to kick them to get them to fly. But the birds we were stumbling on were getting up quickly and high-tailing it out of there.

Since the season had been open for a couple of weeks, maybe these birds had been shot at already. I wondered how many hunters chased spruce grouse, and later I posed that question to Rick Horton, the Department of Natural Resources' Forest Wildlife Division coordinator.

"They do get picked off by predators, but not many hunters shoot them," Horton said. "They're not pressured by hunters because of how they compare as table fare. Ruffed grouse have been described as the best-eating game bird in the world. Spruce grouse have been described as the very worst. You get an adult spruce grouse that's been feeding on spruce and jackpine buds, and their meat is red and gamey."

The spruce grouse aren't as far south as the ruffed grouse are, and this shorter range means less hunting pressure.

"It's along the northern tier of counties where you see big stands of conifers that you find the spruce grouse," Horton said. "It's more of a boreal bird. Not many people pursue them. Our data shows on the order of 20,000 to 25,000 get taken each year compared to several hundred thousand ruffed grouse per year."

After we circled a swamp in the Beltrami Island State Forest, we came upon some high ground where the aspens were abundant, and sure enough, a few ruffed grouse scooted out from under our feet. Justin made a spectacular shot and dropped one as it pirouetted around a tree. The other grouse were saved by the cover they flew behind.

Reports from around our state last year showed that hunters had a good year for ruffed grouse and woodcock. If you follow the population cycle that the grouse typically have, then you know 2007 should be even better.

"We're still a long ways from the peak of the cycle," Horton said. "We're still trending upward."

However, there are so many variables that need to fall into place for grouse numbers to rise.

"This last winter might have thrown us for a loop," Horton said. "Usually, we see good survival when we have good snow. We didn't have good snow last winter. In fact, I tend to think that you can use frozen septic tanks as a barometer of the winter for grouse. If you have a frozen septic tank, it wasn't a good winter for grouse. We had a lot of frozen septic tanks.

"The thing about grouse is they need the snow to protect them from the cold and predators," Horton continued. "Now, continued research into the cycle from the University of Minnesota showed that there is a link. It's not just the snow and cold but the combination of snow, cold and predator loads. So, there is the sense that if you have a lot of predators but you have a lot of snow, the birds will do fine. They can hide from them. If you have few predators and not much snow, the birds should do fine because there was nothing to have to hide from. Worst-case scenario is a lot of predators and no snow. This can really knock down a population of grouse."

Horton said predators weren't a big problem last winter.

"We didn't have an influx of predators from Canada," he said. "We didn't see a lot of hawks and owls. So, we had the situation of not a lot of snow, but not a lot of predators. So, we should be OK. All those young from last year and the winter we had means there will be more birds that potentially made it into this year. We should see an upward swing. That is my prediction."

Moving to our second spot, the conversation was all about the abundance of snowshoe hares. Dan Small, who hosts the popular television show "Outdoor Wisconsin," put the word out that he was going to shoot a couple of hares because he wanted to try some of his recipes, and he hadn't had fresh snowshoe in awhile. The rest of us decided to stick to birds.

The first grouse off the ground in this spot was a ruff, and O'Dea made an impressive shot. We had decided as a group before the hunt began that ground-swatting was not allowed. This cost Adam and I some shooting shortly after O'Dea bagged his bird when we came out onto a clearcut and there were four ruffed grouse milling around behind some trees. They star

ted to get real nervous when we moved out of the cover, and as Adam tried slipping around behind them to get into shooting position, they all flushed in unison and all headed in the only direction possible where we couldn't get shots at them.

Leaving that clearcut and getting back into the heavy cover, Adam Johnson and I stumbled onto a pair of spruce grouse that froze about the time we both spotted them. Adam let Dingells get some footage of the birds, and when they finally flushed, Johnson's 28 gauge provided the power to add them to his meal ticket.

BIRD CONNECTION

There is a correlation in the amount of pheasant stamps sold relative to how healthy the population of roosters is. More pheasants, more stamps. I thought that could also hold true for grouse, and even though we didn't see any other hunters in the woods those few days we were in Baudette, I thought the hunter numbers may rise in the other more popular parts of Minnesota.

"You see a little more up tick as people talk about how good the hunting is," Horton said. "But then last year was a good pheasant year, so given the rise in gas prices, those who might make a couple of trips up north probably decided to stay closer to home and chase roosters. I didn't see a huge influx of hunters last year like you might have thought would happen.

"What we do tend to get more of when the ruffed grouse hunting is good is the out-of-state hunters," Horton continued. "They watch the reports and there are quite a few people from the eastern United States who used to have great grouse numbers and they don't have those numbers anymore. New York and Pennsylvania used to be considered great for grouse. Not anymore. They don't have the timber management, so they don't have the birds. So, now they come to Minnesota when the hunting is good."

The hunting was good just about anywhere you went last year in Minnesota. I didn't make it up to the annual Gator & Grouse Hunt in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness this past October, but Adam Johnson and his crew went up to shoot some television footage.

"That was an interesting trip," Johnson said. "When we got to Ely, Bill Slaughter had everything ready to go. We motored and portaged the boats up to Basswood Lake and the weather was perfect -- high 40s and low 50s the first couple of days with sunshine. The grouse were flying and hunting was great. The day before we were to leave, it started snowing and never stopped."

The 14 inches of snow that fell on this crew of hunters, coupled with the high winds, shut down the hunting and made it a real chore to get back to the landing on Fall Lake.

"It was like someone threw a switch," Johnson said. "The birds hunkered down, the fish quit biting, and we were glad to get out of there."

THE WOODCOCK

This was the second year in a row woodcock hunters had some success. Unlike the ruffed grouse, the woodcock population doesn't swing on a cycle.

"No, woodcock numbers aren't cyclic," Horton said, "but they have been trending down for years. That's primarily due to loss of prime young forest habitat. Minnesota is unique because we do have active timber management. In the last couple of years, our woodcock numbers have stabilized. In other parts of the eastern United States, the numbers just continue to spiral downward."

As usual, it's all about habitat.

"It's about creating that young forest that these birds need," Horton said. "Look at Pennsylvania. Their forests have gotten very old, to the point where they're recognizing they have to do some management for game species as well, or they're going to lose them. We're fortunate because we have a vibrant forest products industry, which helps us manage those habitats."

What is the outlook for woodcock in Minnesota this season?

"I don't think it will change much. It will reflect last season," Horton said. "We saw birds coming north with the early thaw and then we had a cold snap. Those woodcock want to get here early and get established, so they'll run into a situation like this once in awhile. It hurt them a little, but there will still be plenty of birds to hunt. It's always a gamble you'll get a winter that just drags on, and some of the woodcock will starve to death. It happened this year, but it wasn't bad."

SOUTHEAST GROUSE

While we think of ruffed grouse as a northern phenomenon, when you toss in the southeastern Minnesota factor, it kind of blows that theory out of the water. As a matter of fact, the woods around the river bottoms is not only receiving accolades for the phenomenal turkey comeback that has occurred there in the past few decades, but in the last few years, there's been some buzz about the grouse population rebounding.

The one drawback to hunting grouse in southeast Minnesota is that once you've hunted them up north where public land stretches for miles, you quickly realize there is a limited supply of public-hunting options downstate. When you look at a map, you see the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, but that is pounded pretty hard by hunters. There is also the Richard J. Dorer Hardwood State Forest, but some of the land within the boundaries of Dorer is private, so take a Public Recreation Information Map (PRIM) along. They are available through the DNR. Pay close attention to the signage as you drive from one WMA to the next.

On my last trip to the woods south of Winona, I found the landowners were very gracious, and while over half of them refused to grant me permission to walk their woods, I received access to enough good cover to shoot at a half-dozen birds and actually hit one. My two hunting buddies fared about the same.

THE NORTHWOODS

If there is anyplace in Minnesota where you should do your homework before making the trip, it is to The Arrowhead region of our state in the northeast.

Those woods north of Grand Marais took a heavy hit for ruffed grouse a few years ago when the predatory birds from Canada moved in and the winter survival was not good. It is an area that should show signs of improvement in the future, but it would be a smart move to make some phone calls to find out if there are many birds flying. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking some long walks in the woods with little success.

I'm always asked if I hunt the Grand Rapids region of the state. This is one of the most highly touted sections of the country when it comes to grouse hunting, and hunter pressure is high. I do hunt this region because you will find the textbook cover there and plenty of birds if, yes if, you are willing to just work a little harder than the average hunter. It has gotten to the point where many grouse hunters like to hop on an ATV and ride down trails looking for dumb birds that are on these paths. These hunters get some good hunting the first few weeks of the season and after that the grouse are either educated or dead.

With that in mind, I save the Chi

ppewa National Forest and the premier hunting there until late in the season when all the ATV hunters are gone. At this point, you just have to spend a day deep in the woods to find birds that may not yet have even seen a hunter. Some of my best ruff hunting is the last week of the season on a huge tract of woods north of Deer River. I have the waypoint where I park my truck in the GPS, and I just take off walking. The farther back I go, the more birds I see.

Minnesota is the gold standard when it comes to ruffed grouse hunting. We may cuss some when the cycle is at a low point, and we grouse hunters always hope for more habitat that suits the production of our favorite game bird. But when the cycle is on the upswing, like it is now, there's no better excuse to take a walk in the woods than a shot at a speedy little brown bird dodging through the trees!

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