Numbers point to favorable ruffed grouse season
By the numbers, at least, ruffed grouse hunters in Minnesota should be in for one of their best seasons in years. Spring drumming counts in the heart of Minnesota's grouse range in the north were up 57 percent from last year and appear to be moving toward the peak in their 10-year cycle of boom-and-bust.
"It's tough to beat a 57 percent increase," said Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn. "Pretty much across the board in main grouse ranges they showed significant increases, including Beltrami County, Roseau, Norris Camp, all those areas. So everything is up."
Weather conditions during the crucial part of nesting season in late May and early June generally were favorable, with no widespread rain or extended cold periods. That's all fine and good, but there's no easy way to measure brood success for ruffed grouse because the forest birds occupy habitat that's too thick for visual surveys.
For hunters, that means the only way to know for sure is to get out there and pound the brush. Minnesota's season for ruffed grouse and other upland game opens Saturday, Sept. 16.
"I think both factors—the drums in the spring and brood-rearing conditions in the early summer—look pretty good for this year," Dick said.
Ruffed grouse drumming counts tend to peak in years ending in 7, 8 and 9, so an increase from last year wasn't entirely unexpected, Dick said. The size of the increase, though, was a surprise, considering last winter's scant snowfall, he said.
Ruffed grouse roost in the snow to stay warm and avoid predators, and lack of snow can hamper survival.
"We saw increases last year and were hoping it would go up for this year and maybe next, but you never know," Dick said. "I thought with the low snow cover—there was just enough white to make them vulnerable so they lose their camouflage but not enough to roost in or hide—it would be tough on them.
"Obviously," he added with a laugh, "I don't know what I'm talking about."
Parts of northwest Minnesota, including Beltrami Island State Forest, fall within the DNR's northeast survey region considered the heart of ruffed grouse range. Areas such as western Roseau County and Kittson County are in the northwest survey area. The spring survey tallied 2.5 drums per stop in the northeast and 1.6 drums in the northwest, and the statewide average was 2.1 drums per stop.
Drumming counts vary from about 0.6 during years of low grouse abundance to 2.0 during peak years, the DNR said.
Hedging her optimism
Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn., said spring drumming counts in the WMA and adjacent parts of Beltrami forest rose from an average of 2 drums per stop last year to 3.4 drums per stop this year.
Less certain is how that increase translates to brood success. Earlier in the summer, WMA staff saw broods with young grouse that appeared large enough to withstand heavy rains that fell in mid-June, Mehmel said, and it's been dry ever since.
"They should have dealt with that just fine," she said. "You can say that I'm hopeful.
"We had a really good summer. It's been dry, and we didn't any June frosts and so we're really hopeful for good brood survival. But we just haven't seen much for broods the last several weeks because all the leaves are up."
Therein lies the challenge in predicting ruffed grouse hunting prospects.
"It seems to be that way every year," Mehmel said. "We just don't see much before season starts, and then you get some good frosts in early September and birds start appearing. I have a hard time forecasting other than I think it's going to be pretty good. I just can't say I've been seeing a lot of broods because we haven't."
Despite the uncertainty in predicting brood success, Dick says he's confident hunters this year will shoot more grouse than they did last year. In 2016, spring drumming counts were up 17 percent from the previous year in the heart of grouse range, and last year's harvest was up a similar percentage from 2015, both in DNR small game hunter surveys and during the Ruffed Grouse Society's annual national hunt near Grand Rapids, Dick said.
"There generally is a good correlation," he said. "I'm not saying everyone is going to be up 57 percent, but I'm saying the harvest is going to be up this year and could be up significantly."
An estimated 82,348 grouse hunters went afield last year in Minnesota, an increase of 4 percent from 2015, and shot an estimated 308,955 grouse, up from 267,997 in 2015.
Time was, Dick says, when grouse hunter numbers would rise with high drumming counts, but that trend is less apparent in the past decade; hunter numbers have declined.
"We think habitat is still good, we think the numbers are still good and right now, there's a big increase in the drumming survey so this would be a good year to check it out," Dick said. "We will get some more hunters but it won't be the big increases like we got 40 years ago when the counts were up."
The abundance of public land in Minnesota's grouse range means hunters generally don't have a problem finding land to access. The DNR offers an extensive network of hunter walking trails and ruffed grouse management areas, and maps with GIS overlays showing habitat types are available on the agency's website at mndnr.gov. The maps can be downloaded to smartphones and GPS units or printed out.
"Nobody in the lower 48 states has better grouse hunting than in Minnesota," Dick said. "Just the abundance of public land we have, whether county, federal or state. A lot of these northern counties just have acres and acres. It can almost be to the point where it's a little bit daunting, and there's hundreds of thousands of acres at your fingertips, but really, all you have to do is find a side tote road, two-rut sort of trail and just park there, and people just generally leave the spot if you're there and they'll go find another spot on their own."
Ask anyone who hunts ruffed grouse about their reasons for going afield, and you'll likely hear about the earthy smell of decaying leaves on a crisp fall afternoon, the explosion of wings as a bird erupts from cover and the enjoyment of walking in the woods with a good dog or good friends.
"It's a cool experience beyond just killing the birds," Dick said.
Here's a look at hunting seasons for ruffed grouse, sharptails and woodcock in Minnesota and North Dakota:
• Ruffed and spruce grouse: Sept. 16-Jan. 1; limit 5 daily combined and 10 daily combined.
• Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 16-Nov. 30 (northwest), Oct. 14-Nov. 30 (east-central); limit 3 daily and 6 in possession.
• Woodcock: Sept. 23-Nov. 6; limit 3 daily, 9 in possession; HIP certification required.
• More info: mndnr.gov.
• Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 9-Jan. 7; limit 3 daily and 12 in possession.
• Ruffed grouse: Sept. 9-Jan. 7; limit 3 daily and 12 in possession.
• Woodcock: Sept. 23-Nov. 6; limit 3 daily and 9 in possession; HIP certification required.
• Info: gf.nd.gov.