By Bill Marchel
The ruffed grouse is my favorite game bird. Therefore I feel fortunate to live in Minnesota, a state that is consistently No. 1 in the nation in annual ruffed grouse harvest.
And, get this: Minnesota's landscape includes about 30 million acres of forest land; even more exciting is 11 million acres of it is open to public hunting. Included in the expanse of public land are 50 ruffed grouse management areas and over 600 miles of hunter walking trails.
"Minnesota in fall is an upland hunter's paradise," said Meadow Kouffeld, Minnesota and Western Upper Peninsula regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. "Northern Minnesota should be a bucket list destination for anyone looking for a great grouse and woodcock hunting experience."
It's no secret ruffed grouse and woodcock thrive in young forest habitat. Minnesota's forests feature more regrowth forests than Wisconsin and Michigan combined.
There is more good news: Although the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has not released the results of the 2017 spring drumming counts (at the time this went to press), anecdotally drumming grouse numbers are up this spring.
Where to Hunt
Where does a newcomer find a place to hunt grouse and woodcock in Minnesota?
"The Minnesota DNR hunting website should be your first stop," said Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Minnesota DNR. The DNR website provides multiple resources on the what, when and where for grouse hunters, with plenty of links to explore.
Dick added, "If you are new to grouse and woodcock hunting, ruffed grouse management areas are good places to start."
The website also features maps and links to the ruffed grouse management areas, hunter walking trails, and state and federal lands open to public hunting. And don't forget ideal ruffed grouse habitat also is attractive to woodcock, especially during the peak of migration, which occurs roughly in mid-October. The above-mentioned website also features information on how and where to find woodcock.
Recognizing Ideal Habitat
Renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote: “One way to hunt partridge (ruffed grouse) is to make a plan, based on logic and probabilities, of the terrain to be hunted. This will take you over the ground where the birds ought to be. Another way is to wander, quite aimlessly, from one red lantern to another. This will take you where the birds actually are. The lanterns are blackberry leaves, red in October sun.”
I contest a better plan—at least if you are hunting ruffed grouse in northern Minnesota—is to wander from one “maroon” (not red) lantern to another. This ploy will take you where more birds are than when chasing the red lanterns to which Leopold referred.
The maroon lanterns are not blackberry leaves, as in Leopold’s writing. Instead, they are the leaves of gray dogwoods. You can’t miss the head-high shrubs once September frosts have transformed the summer green leaves into a rich red-wine color. The maroon lanterns will contain small white berries that hang in clumps on red stems. Ruffed grouse find the fruit irresistible. Thus the prudent grouse hunter should “wander quite aimlessly” from one maroon lantern to another.
Gray dogwood grows in damp areas and is prevalent in the transition zone where alder lowlands rise and meet an aspen forest. Also look for gray dogwood along creeks, especially those with an open canopy. Ruffed grouse may be found feeding on dogwood fruit throughout the day, but the best time to hunt is during late afternoon, since grouse typically fill their crops before going to roost.
Woodcock can also be found in and around gray dogwood. The clean forest floor under thick clumps of gray dogwood allows woodcock to easily walk about during their search for earthworms.
Usually by mid-October, most of the gray dogwood fruit will have been consumed by grouse, and a variety of other birds such as robins and waxwings. Then ruffed grouse will concentrate around other food sources.
Ruffed grouse consume a variety of foods. Hazel brush catkins are high on the list. So are the catkins of birch, ironwood and aspen buds.
If there is such a thing as a classic ruffed grouse covert, it would have to include an area that was logged a decade or so ago. Add mature aspens and alder lowlands to the mix and you have ideal grouse habitat.
The late Gordon Gullion, a ruffed grouse expert, claimed that ruffs preferred the clear cuts as brood rearing cover. His theory was that the stem density of regenerating aspen, and the resulting overhead canopy, provided protection against predators. Whatever the reason, decade-old clear cuts do hold grouse. Small openings in the clear cuts, like log landings and natural meadows, that allow sunlight to reach shrubs such as hazel, birch and dogwood make a good spot even better. Ten-year-old clear cuts are also good areas to find woodcock, especially in mid-October when the birds are migrating through Minnesota.
Hunting Seasons & Resources
- Ruffed Grouse: Sept. 16, 2017, through Jan. 1, 2018. Barring any late changes, the daily limit on ruffed grouse is five, with 10 in possession.
- Woodcock: Sept. 23 through Nov. 6, 2017. The daily limit is three, with nine in possession.
Read more about why Minnesota hunters have a passion for grouse.
Click here to review the current MN DNR Grouse Hunting Report and Survey.