Hunters should find reasonably good small game hunting throughout east-central Minnesota this year.
Cottontail rabbits are plentiful, sharptail grouse have increased slightly, pheasant prospects look good and squirrels are abundant. While ruffed grouse numbers are down from last year's 10-year population high, the birds are abundant enough to provide some decent hunting. Rabbit, squirrel and grouse season opens Saturday and pheasant season opens Oct. 14. The duck season gets underway Sept. 30.
"Ruffed grouse hunters are going to be pleasantly surprised as to how many ruffed grouse are out there," said Gary Johnson, Little Falls area wildlife supervisor. "I think the population is holding up pretty well."
Drumming counts this past spring were down 12 percent from 1999 after six years of increases. Sharptail grouse numbers in the east-central range were up 5 percent, based on 1,106 males observed on 135 leks. "This is excellent news for this zone," said Bill Berg, DNR research biologist in charge of the yearly grouse survey. "It's an unprecedented fifth consecutive annual increase. And the average of 10.2 males per occupied lek was also a record for this zone."
Berg credits the increase to prescribed burning and shearing that prevents trees from overtaking the open brushlands sharptail grouse need to survive. "It's encouraging," Berg added, "but bear in mind that these numbers are still 70 percent below what they were in 1980. We still have a lot of brushland management work ahead of us."
The August pheasant survey showed substantial increases in pheasant numbers in most of central Minnesota. "It looks like it's going to be a strong year for pheasants, one of the best in the past 10 years," said Fred Bengtson, acting St. Cloud wildlife manager. "Hunters should be able to hunt locally and the pressure should be more evenly distributed than last year."
Around Brainerd the grouse action is expected to be spotty as drumming counts were down 15 to 20 percent, said Gary Drotts, Brainerd area wildlife manager. "I'm optimistic, but success rates will be down from last year," Drotts said.
Gray squirrel numbers appear to be down but cottontail rabbits are plentiful thanks to several easy winters.
In the Mille Lacs Wildlife Management Area ruffed grouse drumming counts were good this spring. Squirrels also appear to be abundant and a few pheasant broods have been seen. Turkeys were released in the WMA last winter and several broods were noted this spring. If the population grows there could be a turkey season in another four or five years.
While there was no change in spring drumming counts there still are many broods of ruffed grouse around Little Falls, where the population is holding steady. The August roadside pheasant counts increased significantly and pheasant prospects are much improved over the past couple of years, Johnson said.
In the Aitkin area ruffed grouse hunting should be similar to the Brainerd area -- spotty. Sharptail numbers are reasonably good but the birds will be difficult to find, said Dave Dickey, Aitkin area wildlife manager. Rabbits could also present a challenge, he added.
Ruffed grouse drumming counts are about the same as last year around Hinckley. Lee Hemness, Hinckley area wildlife manager, said he expects a season similar to last year with perhaps a slight decrease. The hatch was good but the brood survival rate hasn't been determined. Pheasant prospects are positive. Dry weather will make woodcock hunting difficult, with the birds concentrated in the few available wet areas. Rabbits are plentiful and squirrel numbers are average.
Farther southeast in the Cambridge area the outlook is positive all around. Ruffed grouse numbers are about the same as last year, with good populations in Mille Lacs, Isanti and Chisago counties. Roadside pheasant surveys indicate a nice increase from previous years and there definitely are pockets with good numbers of birds. Squirrels and rabbits also are plentiful. Hunters are encouraged to take advantage of the extended goose season.
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