2011 MINNESOTA RUFFED GROUSE OPENER: Making inroads to hunter access | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

2011 MINNESOTA RUFFED GROUSE OPENER: Making inroads to hunter access

Hunter walking trails a groomed, growing alternative

Posted: September 16, 2011 - 7:01pm


If the success of your ruffed grouse hunt in the Brainerd lakes area hinges on the number of birds bagged, this could be an iffy season.

But if your idea of a successful hunt is basking in the September sun on accessible land groomed especially for hunters, you’re in luck in 2011.

Yes, while a wet spring could negatively impact young ruffed grouse numbers, drum averages in the area are up. So, too, is the ever-growing count of hunter walking trails. 

According to Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager in the Brainerd area, the DNR has mowed nearly 60 miles of trails in the area for the upcoming hunting seasons. He said that includes about 50 trail systems totaling about 150 miles.

“They will help hunters who want that non-motorized experience,” Drotts said.

According to Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment and retention coordinator, hunter walking trails offer hundreds of miles of easily accessible trails that wind through wildlife management areas, state forests and other public hunting lands. Many of these trails are gated, allowing foot traffic only, and offer parking lots or easy access to parking. Hunters can expect mowed routes that may follow old logging roads, are planted with clover or pass through forest openings that attract a variety of wildlife, including ruffed grouse.

The hunter walking trails link on the DNR website (www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/hwt/index.html) offers a tool that provides information on the locations of many of these trails by name and the county in which they are located. An interactive map allows the user to zoom in and out of the trail area using a compass tool. There is also a downloadable Adobe Acrobat Reader file that displays an aerial view of the trail and the surrounding area. Hunter trail maps also are available at most DNR area wildlife offices.

Maps of area trails also are available at the DNR’s Brainerd office at 1601 Minnesota Drive, Drotts said.

“Those (trails listed) on the website are just those within Wildlife Management Area. But they (hunter walking trails) are also on state forest land and county land,” Drotts said. “When you look at the bigger picture ... A hunter doesn’t care if it’s on a WMA. He just wants public access. And it is actually easier to go down these trails (because they’re groomed). If people want to stop in the office, we have a whole board of maps.”

The ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse seasons opened Saturday. In June, the DNR reported that sharp-tailed grouse counts decrease slightly across the state, with counts in the east-central region declining about 18 percent. And while ruffed grouse numbers are up, particularly in the Brainerd area — this year’s drum average of 2.1 is the eighth highest since 1966 and the highest since a 2.8 in 1998 — a wet summer could offset harvest numbers for area hunters.

“Eighty percent of what the hunters will bag are young birds from this year’s hatch,” Drotts said. “Unfortunately, it was kind of a wet summer and the first couple weeks of June were wet. So I’m being a little cautious. We should have a decent year.

“When there are good drumming numbers that means there’s a good base of adult population numbers. When you look in the fall, if you have good, dry springs and a good hatch, a large proportion will survive. But when you have a wet spring, those chicks are pretty small, and if they keep getting wet they just don’t survive. You have to have a good adult population going into the spring, which we had, and have a good hatch. So that other half is a little iffy. It’s not one of our peak years, but it’s not one of our down years, either.”

Minnesota frequently is the nation’s top ruffed grouse producer. On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, making it the state’s most popular game bird. Top ruffed grouse counties in the state include Aitkin and Cass counties in the Brainerd lakes area.

“Around Brainerd it’s getting a little marginal. There’s too much scattered ag land,” Drotts said. “You don’t get into good grouse hunting until you get to Pine River, Outing, Remer.”

But for those who don’t gauge the success of their hunt on bag numbers ...

“It’s a beautiful time to get out, Drotts said. “And hopefully you’ll take a kid with you. Hunt safe ... Enjoy Mother Nature.”


BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at brian.peterson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.


Ruffed grouse pointers

The state ruffed grouse season opened Saturday. Hunting tips from Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment and retention coordinator:

• You’ll need a small game license, 12- or 20-gauge shotgun (preferably with an open choke) and No. 7-1/2 target or field loads. 

• Round out your equipment needs with a blaze orange hat and vest, a comfortable pair of boots, a pair of gloves and shooting glasses. 

• Once you decide on the general area you plan to hunt, search the internet. Hunter walking trails and wildlife management area maps and other useful information is available at www.mndnr.gov/ grouse and www.dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/hwt/ index.html. 

• Talk to the DNR area wildlife office or visit the county courthouse to view a plat book that identifies lands open to public hunting. 

• Once you’ve pinpointed a hunting area, focus on the best available habitat. Ruffed grouse prefer young forests, especially the subtle transitional seams and edges of these forests. 

• As a rule, try to find places where the size of trees, at their base, is between the diameter of your wrist and your calf. Trees of this size will be between 15 and 30 feet high. The type of tree, although important, is less important than the size and how close the trees are together. 

• Try to hunt areas where aspen are present and avoid areas that are solid conifers. While you may find grouse in such cover, your chances of getting a shot at them are slim.

• Trails that run through cover are great places to start. Remember, grouse often relate to edges and a trail provides two edges. Grouse are often drawn to trails to feed on clover and forbs and ingest gravel for digestion.  

• If the woods you are hunting has no trails, look for any other type of edge or seam. This could include swamp edges, field edges and edges where two tree types or sizes come together. You can hunt these areas much the same way as you would a trail, but the walking will be more difficult. Hunting with a team in an area without trails makes it more difficult to work together and stay in a safe position. Be extra conscious of safety.