By Joel Schnell September 28, 2015
It’s finally here, another Minnesota ruffed grouse season. Over three months of hunting this grand game bird. The opener starts the season of cruising the backroads of the Northwoods in search of upland birds.
A Diary of the Opener
Opening morning I met up with my number one bird hunting buddy Dave to work up some birds (everybody needs a number one bird hunting buddy). The weather was warm and sunny, but a cool breeze kept it comfortable. The dogs and I have suffered through some hot summer day openers but this one was quite pleasant. We had to drive separately but met up at a parking spot, and loaded our dogs and gear into one vehicle. After pouring over maps a few minutes we headed a few miles down the road to our first cover. A long a winding dirt forest road greeted us. We drove a couple miles down, passing parked trucks of the other hunters, and several campsites busy with dogs, atv’s, and smoldering camp fires. Finally we made it to the end of the road, unloaded a Brittany and a Gordon, and walked past our first gate. A sign proclaiming the contribution of the Ruffed Grouse Society indicated we were in the right spot.
Into the Cover
After a dusty trail walk for a spell, and getting buzzed by an atv (for whom a closed gate and prohibited sign must refer to someone other than him) we found a nice foot trail. Stepping over a couple fallen trees, we skirted the edge of a swamp and soon flushed our first three birds. A thunder of wings and gray blur were all we saw. The birds predictably didn’t want to flush over the swamp, so we stepped up to the edge to try for a re-flush. The birds obliged, but still no shots were to be had. A little further on we hit a T in the trail, and each of us took our dog and walked a spell down our own trail. Swamp edge and wrist-sized aspen was abundant. After reconnecting, we decided to continue down one of the trails to see if we could make a loop back to the truck.
A Little Lead in the Air
Soon both dogs, Maggie and Barkley, were working the trail side and beckoned us off the path into the thicket. Bell went silent, and a shot rang out after a bird. Soon several other grouse made their escape. More shooting, but no clear shots were to be had. Finding the trail again, we flushed two more birds right by the trail near the vehicle. Not a bad start to the season, probably 9 birds in the first two hours. We stopped for field lunch at the truck, folding chairs and coolers opened up. The dogs found any puddle they could lay in to cool off.
More Action Abounds
Another discussion around the map, and we traveled up a forest road we haven’t scouted before. Dave’s plat book showed abundant tax-forfeited lands, and they had been clear cut in areas. We parked at another gate, and soon I saw an overgrown trail that looked promising. I walked it a bit, as Dave followed Barkley on my left. Dave’s shot rang out, and his first bird of the season graced the game bag. We continued down the trail, taking side paths where possible, exploring a whole new area for us. A few more birds flushed, and more shots rang out. Soon our daylight was fading, and we called it quits for the day. Dave had to head back and I continued North to stay at grouse camp for another day of hunting.
Sunday Fun Day
Sunday dawned a bit warmer than before, but still a fine day for a grouse hunt. I rustled up a couple pancakes and coffee. I finished my cup on the deck, while the dogs loafed impatiently. I loaded up again and hit my first forest road a couple miles away. Last year active logging made a mess of this road, but now it was open for vehicle traffic for the first quarter mile. I parked and brought out both Maggie and Levi for the first hunt. Maggie, though slowing with age, criss-crossed the trail working either side. My springer Levi stayed with me on the road, occasionally jumping into cover to see what Mags was up to. We worked our way back to a favorite back country lake, accessible only my foot or atv. I admired this quiet spot, a flotilla of geese honking nearby. I wonder how many people get to even see this lake each year, maybe 100 at most? As we wheeled back on our return, Maggie’s bell silenced, and Levi and I searched for her. One, two, then three more woodcock flushed in a spot the size of a one-car garage, with Maggie holding point right in the middle of them. A good sign, as we hadn’t seen any woodcock yet this weekend.
On our return, I again dove off the road to work a little path I had discovered before that wasn’t visible from the forest road. Several big gray fan birds made their break for it right off the road, disappearing behind the green curtain unscathed. All too soon it was time to make it back to the truck. Maggie was overheated and struggled to keep up, yet refused to take the easy walk on the trail with me. I put a leash on her and led her back. Another fine effort by Maggie, but at age twelve she is no longer the all-day hunter of years gone by. Levi will have to take up the slack.
Back at grouse camp a few chores awaited after lunch. More cutting on the big oak that closed the driveway a few weeks ago, to get it stacked to dry for next year’s firewood. My cooking stove was acting up again, so I unhooked it from the gas line in preparation for it’s replacement. On Craigslist I had already picked up a new model, if you call replacing a stove from the ’60’s with a stove from the ’70’s “newer”. I packed up the Jeep and called it an end to grouse hunting opener 2015. The dogs and I were tired, hot and muddy but it was a grand feeling. Three more months of this awaits, only with fewer leaves on the trees and cooler temperatures. I intend to enjoy all of it.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
He can be reached at info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com