GRAND FORKS -- Trying to predict ruffed grouse hunting prospects is never an exact science, given the thick wooded cover in which the birds are found, but all of the signs this year point to an average season in Minnesota – or perhaps slightly better than average.

Minnesota’s season for ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and Hungarian partridge opens Saturday, Sept. 19. Sharptail season opens Sept. 19 in the Northwest Zone and Saturday, Oct. 10, in the East-central Zone.

Based on spring drumming count surveys, which were abbreviated this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, surveyors from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other cooperators tallied a statewide average of 1.6 drums per stop along their listening routes.

That’s on par with or better than the past five years with the exception of 2017, when the spring survey count was 2.1 drums per stop statewide, a number that didn’t translate into better hunting success that fall and left many DNR experts shaking their heads.

“It’s a good news-bad news situation around here this year,” said Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, just southeast of Warroad.

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Drumming counts in Red Lake WMA and adjacent Beltrami Island State Forest were down to just over 1 drum per stop, Mehmel said, compared with 2.1 last year.

That’s the bad news; on the upside, summer conditions have been favorable for production.

“I think we are at or near the low of the 10-year grouse cycle,” Mehmel said. “We’ve been seeing grouse broods, but it’s only been average to low numbers. The good news is we have had dry weather most of the summer, so we had good brood-rearing conditions, and the chicks that hatched have likely mostly survived.”

By the numbers

Biologists tally spring ruffed grouse abundance by following set routes and stopping to listen for the “drumming” sound male ruffs make as the birds rapidly beat their wings in an effort to attract a mate.

By region, this year’s survey tallied 1.7 drums per stop in the Northeast, which encompasses the core of Minnesota grouse range; 1.2 drums per stop in the Northwest, down from a statewide high last year of 2.1 drums per stop; and 1.2 drums per stop in the Central Hardwoods.

The Southeast survey region wasn’t sampled this year. The DNR didn’t conduct a sharptail survey this past spring because of the pandemic.

Historically, drumming counts in Minnesota, which tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle, vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low abundance to about 2.0 during peak years. While drumming counts can indicate strong populations, the success of the hatch and ultimate brood survival play a bigger role in grouse numbers come hunting season.

With the exception of far northwest Minnesota, where heavy June rains may have affected production, brood survival should be decent, managers say.

Barring heavy rains like those that fell last year in late September, access should be good, as well. As of early September, conditions in Beltrami Forest and Red Lake WMA were “excellent” with the drier weather, Mehmel said, and DNR staff were wrapping up mowing all of the hunter walking trails.

“The leaves on the birch trees have already started to turn yellow, shorebirds have been seen starting on their migration and the flickers have been gathering on the roadside,” she said. “These are signs of the end of the summer and the beginning of fall.”

Cause for optimism

Farther east, Ted Dick, forest wildlife consultant for the DNR based in Grand Rapids, Minn., said the brood reports he’s gotten from area wildlife managers have been “pretty good.” DNR staff continue working from home during the pandemic.

Ted Dick, forest wildlife consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (Forum News Service file photo)
Ted Dick, forest wildlife consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. (Forum News Service file photo)

“It seems like when everybody is working from home, you’d have more chances for conversation and things, but I think there's fewer people out in the field so I don't have as many reports,” Dick said. “That being said, the ones that I've heard have been pretty good but you know how that goes.”

Drumming counts last year were “nothing special,” Dick said, but the season turned out to be pretty good. With similar drumming counts this year and mostly favorable brood conditions, that could be the case this year, as well.

“We have reasons to believe (based on) some anecdotal reports that the summer season was pretty good and some broods survived,” Dick said. “And no reasons to think it's gone poorly since June.”

Ruffed grouse hunter numbers have been on the decline in Minnesota in recent years, despite the abundance of public land and the accessibility of the sport to newcomers. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Ruffed grouse hunter numbers have been on the decline in Minnesota in recent years, despite the abundance of public land and the accessibility of the sport to newcomers. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

Traditionally, Minnesota hunters shoot 250,000 ruffed grouse even during mediocre years, and the tally has surpassed 1 million during good years. Hunter numbers, though, have been declining, Dick said, from a range of 85,000 to 90,000 during the previous decade to an estimated 67,765 in 2018, the lowest in more than 40 years, DNR statistics show.

“That’s a pretty significant drop,” he said.

Minnesota’s season for ruffed grouse and spruce grouse continues through Jan. 3; daily limit is 5 combined with a possession limit of 10 combined. Sharptail season closes Nov. 30 in both the Northwest and East-central zones; limit is 3 daily and 6 in possession.

More info: mndnr.gov/birds/ruffedgrouse.html.

RUFFED GROUSE NOTEBOOK

West Nile holds steady

The prevalence of West Nile virus last year in Minnesota ruffed grouse was similar to 2018, the DNR said, based on testing done in each of those years. According to the DNR, antibodies consistent with virus exposure were detected in 12.3% of the 317 samples submitted by hunters in 2019. That compares with a 12.5% antibody rate in the 273 samples submitted by hunters in 2018.

West Nile virus has been present in Minnesota since the early 2000s, but the DNR conducted the study in an effort to learn more about its potential impact on ruffed grouse.

Perfect hunt for beginners

Ruffed grouse hunting is an easy sport to get into, and newcomers can get started with as little gear as a single-shot shotgun, sturdy footwear and an orange vest. That makes grouse hunting a perfect fit with the DNR’s “R3” mission to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters, said Ted Dick, forest wildlife consultant for the DNR.

“We think it’s a great sport and a great tradition,” he said. “Grouse hunting really funds a lot of what we do as area managers and DNR staff. Most of the field staff funding comes from license sales so without that, we're really hamstrung as far as being able to do prescribed burns or other things.”

‘Where to hunt’ resources

With some 600 miles of hunter walking trails in Minnesota and 49 designated Ruffed Grouse Management Areas, finding a place to hunt shouldn’t be a problem, and there’s room for more hunters, Dick said. The DNR’s Hunter Walking Trails web page offers a listing of trails, with detailed information on each, and PDF maps that can be printed or downloaded.

Minnesota has more than 600 miles of hunter walking trails across the state for hunters to access, whether they're hunting ruffed grouse, deer or other game. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Minnesota has more than 600 miles of hunter walking trails across the state for hunters to access, whether they're hunting ruffed grouse, deer or other game. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

A variety of smartphone apps also are available to access the information.

“So, from knowing virtually nothing in the morning, as long as you have the right licenses and certificates, you can be out there and shooting a grouse on your own in the afternoon,” Dick said. “Those trails are all over the state. They're easy to find with those maps, and they're generally nonmotorized, so you don't have to worry about a lot of ATV or truck traffic.”

More info: mndnr.gov/hunting/hwt/index.html.

mndnr.gov/rgma/index.html.