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.”
Ruffed grouse are birds of wooded country that is difficult to survey. The birds can be tough to spot, and there’s no reliable method for estimating preseason populations other than the spring drumming count survey.
The survey, which tallies the number of male grouse heard “drumming” as they rapidly beat their wings in an effort to attract a mate, follows the same routes every year. The count provides a reliable index of population trends, but it doesn’t measure production.
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.
“People always wonder how the population is doing, and other than that drumming count, we don’t know much,” Dick said. “It’s always anecdotal and speculation.”
Adding to this year’s mystery is the potential impact of widespread heavy spring rains that in many areas persisted throughout the summer. Grouse chicks hatch in early June, and weather conditions in the following weeks are crucial to survival.
“We think the rain fell early enough so that during the critical part of chick reproduction, they should have made it through those big rains in June,” Dick said. “There were a lot of rains after that, but hopefully the birds were big enough to fend for themselves without suffering exposure to the cold.”
Dick said he has gotten reports of grouse broods with birds that are smaller than usual for this time of year. That could suggest hens renesting after losing their first clutch of eggs.
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.
Top grouse state
Ruffed grouse traditionally are Minnesota’s most popular upland game bird, and harvest during peak years can approach 1 million birds. Minnesota hunters last year shot nearly 268,000 ruffs, a decline of 11 percent from 2014. The DNR estimated about 79,000 hunters pursued ruffed grouse last year, a decrease of 5 percent from the previous year.
Hunter numbers traditionally fluctuate depending on population forecasts.
The beauty of ruffed grouse hunting is much of it occurs on public land so access isn’t an issue. According to DNR statistics, Minnesota has more than 600 miles of hunter walking trails, 528 designated hunting areas in ruffed grouse range covering nearly 1 million acres, more than 40 designated ruffed grouse management areas and 11 million acres of public hunting land.
Included in that mix is an abundance of the young aspen habitat ruffed grouse favor. Navigating through the thick brush and face-snapping branches of a young forest can be challenging, Dick concedes, but it’s the kind of habitat ruffs need to thrive.
“Particularly during brood-rearing season, that thick stuff is something ruffed grouse really favor,” Dick said.
“People come from around the country to hunt grouse here,” he added. “There’s all this public land and all this freedom.”
North Dakota’s ruffed grouse population mostly is limited to aspen woodlands of Rolette, Bottineau, Pembina, Walsh, Cavalier and portions of McHenry counties. The population remains low, but Game and Fish Department biologists say the birds are on an upward cycle. If production is good, hunters should encounter more birds this fall.
Minnesota’s ruffed grouse limit is five daily, 10 in possession; North Dakota has a daily limit of three and a possession limit of 12.
Ask anyone who hunts ruffed grouse, and chances are they’ll talk about the allure of being in the woods on a crisp fall day, breathing in the dank aroma of decaying leaves and experiencing the “rush of the flush” when a ruff explodes from cover at warpspeed.
“You can make it as rigorous or difficult or strenuous as you want, but a lot of people just look at it as a nice walk in the woods,” Dick said. “Some old biologists and writers have talked about it as being a mellow, quiet, refreshing, stress-reducing walk through the woods punctuated by some incredible excitement and thrills when you get on birds.
“I think it’s the ultimate. … I could go on and on.”
Regardless of the reports and prognostications, there’s no substitute for getting out in the woods and experiencing the hunt firsthand.
“People should notice an uptick from last year, but we won’t know until we get out there a little bit,” Dick said. “I enjoy it even when the numbers are painfully low—and they won’t be that way this year.”