GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Minnesota’s ruffed grouse drumming counts were statistically unchanged this spring after jumping 34 percent from 2013 to 2014, but a potentially strong hatch could make up the difference when hunters go afield this fall.
Minnesota’s ruffed grouse and sharptail seasons open Saturday.
Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said lack of snow for roosting likely hampered grouse survival last winter, and so the spring’s stagnant drumming counts weren’t a big surprise.
On the upside, he said, spring weather this year was more favorable for production than in 2014, especially in June, which is a critical time for grouse chicks. June wasn’t dry by any means, but it wasn’t particularly cold, either.
The combination of rain and cold is the biggest detriment to grouse production, he said, and June 2014 offered an abundance of both.
“We’re still optimistic here that grouse had a good hatch, good recruitment,” Dick said. “I’m hearing reports of people seeing broods and seeing birds.
“I’m willing to go out on a limb and say hunting is going to be pretty good.”
Time will tell
Ruffed grouse populations traditionally ride a 10-year cycle of boom and bust, and after peaking in 2010, Minnesota now appears to be moving back toward the top of the cycle.
“We’ll be able to tell a lot once we get out there,” Dick said.
Wet conditions persist across much of northern Minnesota, but Dick said he doesn’t expect that to have a big effect on hunters. As always, patchy habitat where aspen and conifer trees intersperse will be good starting points.
“I have a tougher time in really dry years,” Dick said. “The birds seem to concentrate in unusual spots. I look for the places that are almost too thick to walk, whether it’s pool cue-size aspen for broods or larger aspen for winter feeding and nesting. They like to stay where all habitat types are found in close proximity.”
And if berry-producing shrubs are in the vicinity, all the better.
“In the fall, they like to eat a lot of berries, so dogwoods and other berry producing” plants will attract grouse, he said. “If you can find most of those ingredients in fairly close proximity, there’ll be grouse around.”
Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn., said Dick’s predictions are on track with what she’s seeing in the WMA and Beltrami Island State Forest.
“I am cautiously optimistic the season will be better than last year,” Mehmel said. “We didn’t have too much rain in June, and we’ve been seeing broods here and there throughout the summer. The cycle should still be on the upswing from the low we had a few years ago.”
She said conditions, while not dry, aren’t too wet, either.
“There were just a few wet areas on some of our walking trails where we couldn’t get the tractor through, but not many and those areas are pretty short,” Mehmel said.
Woodcock are another favorite among many ruffed grouse hunters, and this year, woodcock and grouse seasons open the same day in Minnesota. Woodcock are a migratory species regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and most years, Dick said, the woodcock season opens about a week later than ruffs.
This year, the calendar falls in such a way that the openers coincide in Minnesota.
Dick said locally hatched woodcock tend to dominate the early part of the season, with migratory “timberdoodles” becoming more abundant into October.
“We generally tell people the best odds of finding birds on the move migrating is about the second week in October,” Dick said. “That’s when you get the best movement. After that, numbers seem to dwindle, but the first couple of weeks are good.”
Sharptails, a prairie grouse mostly limited to northwest and parts of east-central Minnesota, aren’t as popular as ruffies among hunters in the state, but counts this past spring were similar to the previous year. Spring surveys of male sharptails on their dancing grounds tallied an average of 9.8 birds per lek, the DNR said, which is similar to the long-term average.
The index has been as low as seven birds per lek in the past 25 years, the DNR said, while the 2009 average of 13.6 was the highest since 1980.
Dick said Thief Lake and Roseau River wildlife management areas and areas from Kittson County east to Baudette, Minn., traditionally offer good sharptail hunting opportunities in northwest Minnesota.
“There’s fewer hunters, and people don’t pay as much attention to the lek surveys as (ruffed grouse) drumming surveys, but generally, conditions favorable to ruffs hold true for sharptails,” Dick said. “If it was good for ruffed grouse in Minnesota this year, it probably for the most part was good for sharptails.”
Not just talk
As a grouse and forest biologist, Dick said neither he nor other DNR colleagues try to talk up hunting prospects just to get people excited without good information to back up those predictions.
On the down years, they’ll say so, said Dick, whose salary is partially funded by the Ruffed Grouse Society in a partnership with the DNR.
Considering drumming counts are on par with last year, when Minnesota hunters shot an estimated 301,190 ruffed grouse — a 4 percent increase from 2013 — the optimism isn’t unfounded, especially if production is strong.
And even in the so-called “down” years, Minnesota offers some of the best ruffed grouse hunting in the country, Dick said, most of it on public land.
“People who have been here for awhile and haven’t experienced grouse hunting other places don’t realize how fortunate they are to be hunting here,” Dick said.
“We like to manage expectations when it’s not great, and we then say it’s still better than other places. But this is a year we’re saying, from what we’re seeing and what we know about the weather and how grouse work, there’s reason to believe it’s going to be good.”
For more information on grouse and woodcock seasons, including season dates and bag limits, check out the 2015 Minnesota Hunting and Trapping Regulations handbook, available at license outlets throughout the state or online at mndnr.gov.