Minnesota's ruffed grouse season begins this Saturday a half-hour before sunrise.
Most hunters know ruffed grouse numbers have been down in recent years according to the Minnesota DNR's annual spring drumming counts. The good news is, counts were up 34 percent this spring in parts of northern Minnesota. Counts remained stable in southern Minnesota.
Ruffed grouse populations peak about every 10 years. Then they fall dramatically before a gradual upturn over several seasons. Biologists still don't fully understand the reason for this cycling up and down. Minnesota's last ruffed grouse population peak occurred in 2009. The 2014 count seems to verify that the population has started to rebound.
Will the increase in drumming counts result in more ruffed grouse flushes this fall? That remains to be seen.
A wet June might have been tough on young grouse. The tiny balls of fluff are vulnerable to wet weather during their first week or so of life, when they can succumb easily to hypothermia.
But the situation isn't hopeless for those willing to stomp the forests on opening day. Despite a population that swings up and down, ruffed grouse populations are generally healthy in Minnesota. In fact, we're usually the nation's top producer of ruffed grouse, even during low population cycles.
Throughout most of the forested regions of Minnesota, the ruffed grouse's favorite fall food 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 late afternoon. That's when grouse will be filling their crops before going to roost.
Here's the bad news: There's a dearth of dogwood berries in Minnesota this year. I've observed a nearly total crop failure in central Minnesota. This will probably scatter the grouse around other food sources, making it more difficult to find grouse during their late afternoon feeding sessions.
Opening day hunters should look for ruffed grouse by walking logging trails or the edges of meadows and other forest openings. Ruffed grouse also like feeding on sun-loving plants. Dogwood, chokecherry, hazel, high-bush cranberry, clover, wild strawberry and other grouse favorites grow along logging roads or along the edges of forest openings. Ruffs also like logging roads because they can gather gravel for their gizzards or take a dust bath in the sandy areas.
If there is such a thing as ideal ruffed grouse covert, it would have to include an area that was logged a decade or so ago and has since regenerated into thick aspen. Even better if the area also has mature aspens and alder lowlands nearby.
Opening day hunters should find at least a few birds if they focus on prime habitat.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.