Grouse hunters should expect success in peak year

A male ruffed grouse holds court on his drumming log in May 2017 in Beltrami Island State Forest. The Minnesota grouse season continues until the end of the year.

I’ve only done a little grouse hunting so far this season.

Up until this week, my efforts to bag some birds has been more of a side note to my more pressing goal of scouting back forties for deer sign and some new places to throw up stands.

The shotgun has been in hand during these off-road adventures, but my focus has been choke points and well-worn trails.

Of course, since I haven’t been focused on spying the little guys and gals before they spy me I’ve been startled half to death at least a dozen times over the past two weeks as I’ve flushed birds from their hiding spots.

Up until this week, the leaves and foliage were pretty thick still in the woods so I never did get a shot off but the fact that I’ve had so much action so early in the season has me pumped up for the next few week as I get serious about chasing my second-favorite game.

Actually, grouse hunting might be my favorite hunting season (don’t tell the deer). And I’m not alone in that as the sport is extremely popular in Minnesota. Hunters bag anywhere from 250,000 to 1.4 million birds every year here depending on where the population cycle is at.

Grouse numbers ebb and flow over a 10-year cycle, where the population hits a low and then slowly climbs until it peaks at the 10-year mark and then slowly drops again. Of course weather plays a part in just how steady that up and down slide it.

Wet springs can do damage to the population, as the bird nests on the ground.

Although I started hunting grouse later in life, I’ve seen the up and down nature of the sport first-hand and how the pre-season predictions sometimes don’t follow any particular rules. Even predicting the peak year under perfect conditions is near impossible so wildlife managers usual set a window.

My first real foray into grouse hunting came in 2008 which was, I believe, a year or two before the last peak. I had a lot of sightings and a little luck that first year, but the following two falls were spectacular.

Interestingly enough, Department of Natural Resources officials believe we should be peaking again here soon – setting 2018-2020 as the optimal years.

I’m guessing that is pretty close to reality.

One indicator – besides seeing plenty of birds so far this fall – is spring 2019 drumming counts were virtually unchanged from in 2018.

The drum count is a tool the DNR uses to get some idea how many grouse are in the woods. The surveys are done in April or May by DNR wildlife biologists and others, including U.S. Forest Service officials, tribal biologists and wildlife students.

Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting.

According to the DNR, ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.

Drumming counts are an indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population. The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.

This year the state-wide average was 1.5 drums per stop.

Tom Rusch, DNR Wildlife Manager for the Tower Area, said earlier this fall that field staff reported broods throughout the area this summer and that reproduction and nesting conditions were normal in Northern St. Louis County.

While June was wet, July and August were drier and heavy rainstorms were not an issue. Temps were warm or above average.

What that means for you and me and anyone interested in chasing this tasty game bird is this year is as good as any to get out and try your luck.

And make sure you bring a kid. It’s a great sport to introduce them to hunting because besides spending some quality time in the woods during the most beautiful season of the year, grouse hunters know a little secret: The bird often offers up some nice shot opportunities.

Grouse are skittish little chicken type birds that spook pretty easily and many times they like to explode out of their hiding spots (the ground or in low lying branches on pine trees) before a hunter even knows what’s happening.

But other times when they hear a hunter coming and don’t move at all. In fact, they are sometimes known to just sit still hoping hunters don’t notice them until the very last second and then they make a little clucking sound before taking off into the air, giving young and novice hunters a sweet opportunity to get a good shot off.

Another secret I’ve discovered over the years is right around this time of year through mid to late October, grouse like to pair up or even find three or four buddies to hang with. This also offers hunters an even better opportunity because for whatever reason, then they are paired up, usually only one takes off as you get near them and the other sits there all confused waiting to wind up in tin foil and freezer bag.

So if you are out and about at this time of the year and you flush one, stop and look around. There’s bound to be a second or third hanging out.

The grouse season runs through Dec. 31.

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Area DNR wildlife officials are reporting the 2019 bear harvest to date is still 36 percent higher than year at this time.

Through Sept. 20, Minnesota hunters bagged 2,198 bears.

That number is about 18 percent higher than 2017 but below the harvest of 2016 by about 14 percent.

The ratio of males to females killed is 61 percent to 39 percent.

Cool and rainy conditions combined with fall food shortages in some areas made for great bear hunting in the early season. The late acorn drop – one to two weeks where acorns are produced - has slowed harvest in recent days.

Places with local food shortages are having the best success.

The harvest projection for the season is 2,300–2,400 if current trends continue.

The season ends Oct. 13.

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