The next three years have the potential to produce great grouse hunting across the state. (September 2008)
Experts say 2008 is supposed to be on the top side of the grouse cycle.
Photo by Windigo Images.
"Got two," the hunter on the ATV said as he pulled next to me at the start of the trail. His son 15 yards behind him on another ATV was a dead ringer for his dad -- just a young version of the elder.
The boy was surprised when I began walking down the well-worn path and he said, "We just hunted that trail."
"I know," I replied, "but I'm betting you didn't get more than 3 feet off it."
He just nodded yes and smiled and waved as I moseyed off.
The forest I was hunting west of Grand Rapids receives plenty of hunting pressure, and hunters are realizing that getting off the well-worn trails and logging roads may raise their odds, but there were few signs that any hunters had ventured too far back in these woods.
Empty shell casings, reminders of successful hunts from days gone by, littered the trail as I made my way to my starting point. I always collect the spent shells and drop them in the left pocket of my vest. When I get home, I look to see what the most popular shells are for the moment. From my non-scientific poll, I would say the 12-gauge with 7 1/2 shot is the most popular load for grouse. I find the occasional 16- or 20-gauge casings, but most are 12 gauge. Not many hunters use the smaller calibers.
I always hunt grouse with a Model 1100 28 gauge. It's light and doesn't blow the bird to bits at close range, which is where I like to pull the trigger.
When hunting grouse I'm always on high alert. It amazes me how many times I spot the grouse on the ground before it flushes. Not many hunters do.
I look for spots that will hold grouse and anticipate the flush. I look up into the trees and see grouse more often than you might think possible. A few years ago, I watched a hunter walk right under a ruffed grouse. When I pointed out to him that there was a bird about 20 feet above him on a branch, he looked up but never saw the grouse. The bird finally became nervous and flew, and neither one of us got a shot.
I didn't have to walk into the woods very far when the first grouse flushed. I was ready and dropped it before it went into deeper cover. I was thinking the day was starting out well, but I never saw another bird. I heard one flush ahead but never saw it.
Such was hunting for grouse in Minnesota last year. High expectations because of the rise in drumming counts for the year, but the birds failed to materialize when the season opened.
"I caution people not to get hung up on the drumming counts. That's only one piece of the puzzle," said Rick Horton, DNR forest wildlife coordinator. "The drumming counts show how many made it through the winter from the previous year. The other piece of the puzzle is what happens in the spring and summer. Good survival of the brood means good hunting."
So, what exactly happened to make 2007 such an odd year for hunters? Wasn't the cycle on the upswing?
"I figured that something definitely happened to our young-of-the-year birds," Horton said. "We had good numbers of drumming, which showed we had good survival of adults through the winter, and we had some good initial brood reports, and then, nothing.
"There's a lot of speculation, but we don't really have any answers, because we can't monitor grouse like you can other birds. With pheasants, we have the roadside count. We have people reporting how many hens they're seeing and how many chicks the hens have with them, so we get this midsummer check-in that tells us how the pheasants are doing. We don't have anything like that for grouse. They're so secretive there's no method for counting. It's all anecdotal. You talk to a guy and he says he flushed a bird the other day and there must have been a dozen of them, but those stories are few and far between and really don't tell you much. There are lots of theories out there and I honestly don't know if we can design a study that would -- or a survey that would -- be cost-effective to get that data."
Asked to surmise what might have happened to the grouse in certain areas of the state, Horton said it's a thought he has, but it will take study to count his theory in or out.
"There can be a delayed effect we see with weather," he explained. "One of the things I've been investigating is whether the previous winter affects the survival of the next year's young. Look at the winter of 2006. We didn't have any snow to speak of in a lot of places. Grouse need snow and without it, they have to burn a lot of energy to stay warm. So, hens come into the breeding season light because they've been burning a lot of energy to stay warm. So, they don't have any reserves. In some cases, they may have even been burning some muscle mass. When you're starving that's what happens, you start sucking up muscle mass.
"Then spring hits and you get a little flush of catkins to feed on, and then it's time to start making eggs. And they're going to do that. They're going to nest. The problem now is they can't put as much energy into each egg, so the chicks don't have as much of a yoke sac when they hatch. They need this to live off for 10 to 12 days.
"This is all speculation, but what if the grouse chicks don't have much of a yolk sac? Now they only have a four-to five-day window to learn how to feed themselves to get enough bugs to get by or they'll be in trouble. Now, what if you're into the second year of a drought and there aren't many bugs? Initially, you see these hens and they have 10 to 12 young running around with them, but three weeks later they've all died because there are no bugs to eat."
So how does this explain good hunting in some areas and poor hunting in others? The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was decent for grouse and the south-central band of Minnesota provided good hunting.
"The thing I like about this theory is the snow was variable last year across the landscape," Horton said. "We didn't have much in this north-central range, but south of us there was good snow. I had reports of good hunting in Aitkin and Crow Wing counties and south of the Grand Rapids area. Given the snow patterns last year it makes sense. And in the boundary waters, they always get plenty of snow. That might explain the variability and what hunters actually saw last season."
With this in mind, shouldn't 2008 be pretty good?
"We had good snow in December this year, but it was sparse in January, February and early March," he said. "Fortunately, that early snow stayed fluffy because we never got a mid-winter warmup. So, it was really good roosting snow all winter. I think our birds this year are coming through the winter in fine shape."
For those that follow the grouse cycle, 2008 is supposed to be on the top side of the peak.
"If you look at the calendar and the timing of everything we should be trending upwards," Horton said. "But people sometimes hang their hat on that 10-year cycle, and if you look back, it's an 'about 10-year' cycle. There is some variability there."
So, what causes the cyclical nature of grouse? Why do some years show high numbers and some years low, and why do these fluctuations seem to follow a predictable pattern?
"We still haven't come up with the perfect answer," Horton said. "There's some research around that I was involved with that looks at the combination of winter weather, snow and predators and it says there is something there. It's the best fit because there is just no one thing to explain the cycle. There are a number of factors that come together and make the cycle work. Look at ducks and pheasants. There are years when they come and go and it has everything to do with economics and farming practices and rainfall patterns. It's not one variable. If we get decent survival through the summer, we'll have good hunting. If you have good conditions for chick survival, you can get such a big jump in the population. Even though drumming counts aren't that good, you will still have great hunting."
Usually when it comes to wildlife, all eyes are on the state and federal legislative branches. This year, the Farm Bill changes kept many conservation groups on the edge. When it comes to grouse, though, farm legislation isn't much of a factor.
"It doesn't affect grouse at all," Horton said. "There's some money in the farm bill for cost-sharing on forestry practices and we do promote some of that for private individuals with the forest, but it doesn't play a big role.
"That's the difference between forest and farm practices," Horton explained. "What you do on a farm this spring will affect what birds are going to be there next fall. What you do in a forest this spring isn't going to affect the game birds for 10 years. There's a huge delay, so what we see right now in our birds is the result of what was going on in the forest eight to 10 years ago."
While state and federal government bodies manage large swaths of forest in Minnesota, it is still the private companies that control the majority of our wild places up north. Horton keeps his eye on these concerns because he feels their decisions will affect hunters.
"I get more nervous watching timber industries and mill closings and things like that, because if we don't have the infrastructure to manage our forests, we're going to get in trouble," he said. "The new players on the block when it comes to the forests are the investors. We have timber investment groups and real estate trusts, and these guys are coming in and buying big blocks of timber from hurting industries. They manage the land to turn a profit for their trusts and retirement funds and they expect a return on their dollar. That return comes from what you can cut and sell to the mill, or you bought 300,000 acres and now you need to sell 5,000 acres to make your profit on the land. They're using this purely to make money, so you can't know for sure if they're going to do the right thing with the land when it comes to wildlife."
According to Horton, hunters also should consider land access as an issue that will affect many hunters in the near future.
"It's the number one issue when it comes to our forests," he said. "It's not how many trees we cut or how we cut them or where we cut them or what kind we cut. Our number one deal right now is access, and we have a very narrow window of opportunity to deal with this issue.
"We're trying to deal with it with federal forest legacy money, state and private forest legacy money, land exchanges and sales and we're trying to do some outright fee title acquisition of little parcels. We need to buy that stuff that's on the market before it becomes a huge problem. It's about hunter access. If we can't get to it, it doesn't matter what we have for habitat."
The program that Horton speaks of is limited to private forest landowners. To qualify, landowners are required to prepare a multiple resource management plan as part of the conservation easement acquisition. The federal government may fund up to 75 percent of project costs, with at least 25 percent coming from private, state or local sources. In addition to gains associated with the sale or donation of property rights, many landowners also benefit from reduced taxes associated with limits placed on land use.
One thing is for sure. The outlook for grouse is good. This winter from a grouse standpoint was very good. There was good roosting snow statewide and decent snow conditions in most of the grouse's range. We had some cold weather during the middle of winter, but that was no big deal; these hardy Minnesota grouse are used to it. The extended winter didn't hurt them. They'll always drum, they'll always breed, and they'll still nest.
Will this grouse peak seem as good as some of the others? Probably not. The 1970 and 1971 peak will always be remembered as the best of the best. It was the perfect combination of variables that led to a banner year of grouse hunting. Even southeast Minnesota experienced phenomenal grouse hunting during this period.
From 1979 through 1881, there were high expectations, but the cyclical peak didn't peak as high as we spoiled grouse hunters would have liked it. Too many memories of the hunting 10 years ago made some decent hunting seem less than desirable.
The 1989 and 1990 seasons were good. The birds were plentiful, but so were the hunters. All the hype about a big peak brought plenty of hunters, and while the success ratio was high, it was tough to find a spot that wasn't being pounded by shotgunners on ATVs.
In the early 1990s, I made the transition to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to hunt grouse. Legendary guide Bill Slaughter and I portaged boats up to Basswood Lake where the hunting was decent considering the grouse were on the low point of their cycle. I discovered the Boundary Waters don't follow the deep valleys and high peaks of the cycle as much as the central part of the state. I've been going up there every year to chase grouse and have never been disappointed.
In 1998 and 1999, the grouse cycle was high again and hunting was great. It was phenomenal in the Boundary Waters. In general, 2001 through 2005 were awful years, but now we're back on the rising leg of the cycle. Once again, my best hunting on those down years was in the Boundary Waters regions around Ely. East of there, even in the wilderness areas, was tough.
This year we will be on the front end
of the cusp when it comes to grouse numbers. The next three years have the potential to produce some great grouse hunting if all the conditions come together. If you're a grouse hunter who can remember that period almost 40 years ago when the hunting was too good to be true, well, we can only hope for something that good again. If you're too young to remember, then the best for you may not have happened yet. So, get off the trails, stay intense whether you are seeing birds or not, and if you can get the gun up as fast as I do when a bird flushes, consider resting that 12 gauge and getting something smaller.