– At a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday, Sept. 14, the 2013 Minnesota hunting season for ruffed grouse will commence.

It's no secret that ruffed grouse numbers are down this year. The Minnesota DNR conducts annual springtime ruffed grouse drumming counts, and this year's tally was down slightly from last year's.

Ruffed grouse populations peak roughly every 10 years, then fall dramatically before beginning a gradual upturn. Biologists still don't fully understand why grouse populations cycle up and down. The last ruffed grouse population peak came in 2009.

But all is not lost for those willing to stomp the forests on opening day. Despite the somewhat gloomy reports, Minnesota is commonly the nation's top producer of ruffed grouse, even during low population cycles.

During population lows, grouse hunters will want to concentrate their efforts in the absolute best habitat. Here are a few tips on finding them.

Throughout most of the forested regions of Minnesota, the favorite fall food of ruffed grouse is the fruit of gray dogwood. This head-high shrub produces small white or light green berries that ruffs find irresistible.

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 around food sources is during the late afternoon, since grouse will fill their crops before going to roost.

Opening-day hunters can also find ruffed grouse by walking logging trails. Many plant species on which ruffed grouse forage are sun-loving plants, and logging roads create openings in the forest, allowing certain plant species to prosper that would otherwise be unable to compete. Dogwood, chokecherry, hazel, high-bush cranberry and other grouse favorites grow along logging roads or on the edges of log landings.

Ruffed grouse are also attracted to logging roads because many have been planted with clover, another favorite grouse food. Ruffs are further attracted to logging roads because there they can gather gravel for their crops and take a dust bath in the sandy areas.

If there is such a thing as a classic ruffed grouse cover, it would have to include an area that was logged a decade or so ago and has since regenerated into thick aspen. If the locale also has mature aspens and alder lowlands nearby, so much the better.

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 regenerated aspen, and the resulting overhead canopy, provided protection against predators. Whatever the reason, decade-old clear-cuts do hold grouse. Small openings in a clear-cut — like natural meadows — that allow sunlight to reach shrubs such as hazel and dogwood make a good spot even better.

Opening day grouse hunters will find at least a few birds if they focus on prime habitat.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.