SOUDAN, Minn. – At the intense urging of his dog, Guinness, Greg Solberg scampers off the trail. Despite his blaze orange cap and vest, he quickly disappears into a thicket of young aspen and birch trees.
Two shotgun blasts later, he snaps and crackles his way back toward the trail, re-emerging with a smirk on his twig-scraped face and a ruffed grouse lying floppily in his palm.
Grouse hunting can be as easygoing as driving down the road or as workhorse as bushwhacking through bramble, as Solberg and I did on a recent outing, along with LeRoy Forstrom, a local resort owner who also guides.
Regardless of your method, there are grouse to be had this year – but their numbers appear to be falling and are expected to drop more in coming years, part of a cyclical population pattern that isn’t well understood.
This was supposed to be a great year for ruffed grouse. Spring population estimates by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, based on listening for the well-camouflaged birds’ distinctive drumming, suggested densities higher than in 2010.
However, the reality of the 2011 season, based on numerous field reports from throughout the state – and our own experience on this hunt – is that fewer birds are being flushed and far fewer young birds are being seen than in recent years. DNR officials suspect this is the result of a cold, wet spring that likely killed many hatchlings.
The DNRs of Minnesota and Wisconsin have forecast that the 10-year population cycle has crested, and numbers likely will drop for the next five years before rebounding.
Of course, none of that should matter too much to grouse hunters.
“I just like walking through the woods,” remarked Solberg, a Roseville resident and active member of the Ruffed Grouse Society. “Don’t you?”
I do. And though the only shots I fired were with my camera, a ramble through the bramble with the added anticipation of a flush only makes it that much more of a good time. That’s not to mention the infectious joy of Guinness, Solberg’s Gordon setter, and Mocha, Forstrom’s chocolate lab.
After Solberg put me up for the night in his wall tent, we began the day on one of the nearly countless public trails that can be found throughout grouse country, soaking our thighs as we strode through tall grasses and drawing our senses tighter each time a dog took an interest in something.
“She’s looking grousey,” Forstrom said as Mocha picked up a scent not far from a stretch Forstrom and Solberg like to call “Woodcock Alley.” And sure enough, within the next several hundred yards we had flushed three grouse – one taken down by Solberg – and two woodcocks, the sandpiper-looking ground-dwellers of the forest who add variety
to a grouse hunt.
That turned out to be the hottest action of the day, although Forstrom took another grouse before we broke for lunch back in the kitchen of Forstrom, who owns Glenmore Resort on Lake Vermilion.
Driving the area’s backroads, we found plenty of slow-driving vehicles with blaze-orange occupants practicing the other end of the grouse-hunting spectrum: road hunting, which is legal (although you must exit your vehicle to load and fire). A recent report suggests a third of grouse hunters at least occasionally road hunt, a practice seen by some as less sporting.
But it’s neither sportingness nor even number of birds seen that makes grouse among the most popular quarries in Minnesota.
More than 115,000 hunters targeted ruffed grouse last year, according to a survey by the University of Minnesota’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
The report, “Summary of Grouse Hunting in Minnesota 2010,” which was published last month, paints a picture of grouse hunters whose priorities are family, tradition and enjoying a walk in the woods.
Nearly half – 48 percent – hunt with children, according to the report. When posed with the proposition that low grouse numbers in previous years meant they hunted less often, nearly 72 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. When asked how important various aspects of grouse hunting are, just under 4 percent responded that bagging a grouse was very important, while 67 percent said enjoying nature and the outdoors was very important.
And this explains why so many grouse hunters like Solberg are so likely to leave the trail, even though the shooting is more difficult when the thick stuff prevents you from even swinging your weapon.
That afternoon, Solberg and I worked his nearby property, a 100-plus-acre parcel he’s been restoring to grouse habitat by thinning the monoculture of aspens that shade out berries and clovers loved by grouse. There were few birds and even fewer trails.
At one point, he nearly kicked a grouse that hadn’t been detected by Guinness or us. It was in the smallest of clearings, but enough for Solberg to take aim and get off a round before the bird flapped off out of sight. The steel shot found nothing but bark and air.
“That’s what happens,” he chuckled. “You really don’t expect to get a clear shot back in the woods. But OK, I guess that’s one I should’ve gotten. Did you see where he went? Let’s go find him.”
Dave Orrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GROUSE AT A GLANCE
What you need: Small-game license, shotgun
When: Now thru Jan. 1
Where: Ruffed grouse: northeastern 2/3 of the state, but better farther north; Sharp-tailed: northwestern and east-central
Habitat: Ruffed: young aspen and birch, roadsides. Sharp-tailed: open grasslands
Taste: Like chicken – but good