Beyond a grouse hunter’s gear checklist – blaze-orange hat or vest, shotgun, pair of boots, small-game license – those with internet access who want to give grouse hunting a try have online tools available that can help make hunting plans a reality.
“Where can I hunt? That’s usually one of the first questions people ask when they want to get into grouse hunting,” said Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Thankfully it’s an easy question to answer here in Minnesota because we have some of the nation’s best grouse hunting, and it’s not hard to find public hunting land.”
Minnesota’s 2016 ruffed grouse season opens Saturday, Sept. 17, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 1.
“This looks to be another great year for grouse hunting, with spring drumming counts up 18 percent statewide likely as part of the rising phase of the 10-year grouse population cycle. So the birds are out there,” Dick said. “Grouse hunting is an inexpensive way to get into hunting, and it also happens to be a nice, active way to get kids outdoors.”
Minnesota has a network of land specifically managed for ruffed grouse habitat and hunting access. In all, 49 ruffed grouse management areas across northern and central Minnesota provide destinations for hunters and are located in areas with good potential for producing grouse and woodcock.
These management areas range from 400 to 4,800 acres in size, contain 184 miles of hunter walking trails and allow dogs. Search locations and find downloadable maps of ruffed grouse management areas.
“Grouse management areas are great places to start hunting, and they also give experienced hunters a way to try hunting in new regions,” Dick said. “They are well marked and the DNR maintains the trails. The Ruffed Grouse Society helped create these areas over time and last year they funded the effort to create the online tools to help people learn about them.”
Grouse hunters also can hunt woodcock using the same equipment in the same habitat, and woodcock season opens a week later on Saturday, Sept. 24.
Grouse and woodcock hunters have a wealth of public land from which to choose in addition to ruffed grouse management areas. There are 528 wildlife management areas (WMA) in the ruffed grouse range that cover nearly 1 million acres and 600 miles of hunter walking trails. State forests, two national forests and county forest lands also offer many additional acres of public land for hunting.
“You don’t need to travel to a grouse management area to find ruffed grouse, but they can be a great place to start if you’re not sure where to focus your efforts,” Dick said.
This year, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken hunters can voluntarily submit samples for study by the DNR. For more information on the study and grouse hunting in general, visit the grouse hunting webpage.
By Brad Dokken
Ted Dick could be excused for being cautious about his optimism going into Saturday’s Minnesota ruffed grouse opener after last year’s preseason forecast.
In hindsight, the grouse biologist’s prediction proved to be, perhaps, more upbeat than the reality most hunters encountered.
An example occurred during last year’s 34th annual National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt near Grand Rapids, Minn. Hunters found very few young birds in the woods, and the overall harvest was among the lowest in the hunt’s history.
The Ruffed Grouse Society has offered the hunt since 1982, and it provides biologists with some of the best opportunities available for aging and sexing the birds, Dick said.
“Last year, it seemed like reproduction, based just on our small sample size, looked pretty good (going into hunting season), and in reality, that didn’t hold true,” said Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, which pays part of his salary. “The national hunt statistics showed the lowest recruitment and harvest by people involved in that event in years.
“I’m tempering back a little bit just because of that.”
For reasons wildlife managers still don’t completely understand, ruffed grouse populations follow a 10-year cycle of boom and bust that’s fairly predictable over the long term, at least in northern parts of their range.
Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader for the DNR in Grand Rapids, said the population tends to peak in years that end in “9” or “0” and bottom out in years ending in “4” or “5.” This year, Minnesota’s spring drumming counts were up 18 percent statewide from last year.
That’s on track with long-term trends and suggests at least the potential for more young birds in the population this fall.
“That is exactly what we would expect based on where we are in the cycle,” Roy said. “We’re kind of in the middle of the cycle right now, so we’re on our way back up.”
The wild card is what the uptick in drumming counts means for production. Dick said he’s heard anecdotal reports from northern Minnesota wildlife managers who say they’ve seen well-developed grouse broods with a fair number of birds, but there’s no way to measure what that means on a broader regional or statewide scale.
Charlie Tucker, assistant manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn., said he wasn’t too excited about grouse prospects until recently, when he started seeing more broods along the roadsides in the WMA and Beltrami Island State Forest.
“Coming into the season, we were poised to make a move from average to good, but then we got just a ton of rain right during when the chicks were probably hatching so I thought we were on par for another average year like last year,” Tucker said. “But the last week or so has given me a little optimism. We will have to wait and see.”
Tucker said the young birds definitely look small for this time of year.
“They have almost no tail feathers,” he said.
Minnesota ruffed grouse hunt with guide Steve Grossman and Tom Knapp on Benelli’s American Bird Hunter