Minnesota grouse opener: Grouse territory isn't what it used to be

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2011 - 12:06 AM

Though sometimes it's not obvious, habitat changes, and so must the methods of the hunter.


Axel, a Deutsch Drahthaar, posed with two ruffed grouse bagged on opening day Saturday. At 11 years old, Axel has witnessed change in the hunting grounds.

Photo: Special to the Star Tribune, Bill Marchel

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

CENTRAL MINNESOTA - Since the early 1970s, I've hunted grouse in this part of the state. Three dogs have come and gone, and a fourth dog, now riding with me in his kennel in the back of the truck, is 11 years old. Axel, a Deutsch Drahthaar, is gray in the face. His right rear hip causes him pain. Let's face it; his hunting days are numbered.

I thought about this at dawn on Saturday morning, opening day of the 2011 Minnesota ruffed grouse season. I was driving along familiar roads toward celebrated grouse haunts. A lot more than just dogs has changed during the almost 40 years I've tromped these woods hoping to flush a grouse or two.

The habitat has changed. So have the inhabitants.

During my drive I saw two flocks of wild turkeys. A decade or two ago I would not have imagined, even in my wildest of wildlife dreams, that turkeys would live and thrive here.

En route to my grouse haunts, I also saw sandhill cranes. Oh, there may have a been a crane or two around back in the '70s, but now the large, battleship-gray birds are common. If you don't see them, you've surely heard their loud, prehistoric-sounding calls.

Timber wolves now live here, too. During December grouse hunts I see their huge prints in the snow. Their deer-hair-filled scat is a common sight, though I rarely see the wolves themselves. Back in the '70s this was primarily coyote country.

Perhaps, though, the biggest change that has occurred since I began hunting this area is the habitat. The change is not noticeable unless you look through the eyes of a grouse hunter.

As grouse hunters know, Old Ruff likes aspen forests. Much to the delight of the grouse, loggers like aspen, too. When an aspen forest is just right for cutting, it's mostly beyond the ideal age to support a thriving ruffed grouse population.

My first stop of the morning illustrated this very well.

During the '70s and '80s this chunk of state land was a haven for ruffed grouse. It contained all of the habitat variables needed by the forest birds. There was an alder and willow slough that gradually rose to the ideal ruffed grouse fringe habitat containing a mix of gray dogwood and hazel that grew beneath a canopy of mixed-aged aspen. Higher still was a ridge of jack pines where, on a blustery December day, a grouse hunter could often find his prey seeking refuge.

Slowly but surely the forest matured. As a grouse hunter, I didn't notice it at first. "This spot just isn't as good as it used to be," I'd say to my friends. But we'd hunt the land anyway.

Then it hit me. Gone were most of the dogwoods, shaded out by the maturing aspens. The sun-seeking hazel was gradually thinning, too. I eventually realized the once-prime grouse hunting location had aged to a point beyond what a ruffed grouse prefers to call home.

Now, on Saturday, as I loaded my shotgun and prepared Axel for the hunt, the habitat was totally different. A decade or so ago, the loggers had arrived. They accomplished, in one winter, what Mother Nature would have taken years to perform. Now the dogwood and hazel are back, and so is a nice mix of young aspens. The loggers left enough mature aspens to feed winter grouse.

Axel and I hunted three such spots on Saturday. Although we flushed only five ruffed grouse (two ended up in the bag) in about three hours of tromping the woods, our low flush rate was not a product of hunting "old" spots that are no longer able to supply a ruffed grouse with the necessary components to live. A poor hatch this summer might be to blame. Or perhaps we simply zigged when we should have zagged.

I, like Axel, am getting a bit gray, too. With those gray hairs comes the wisdom that as ruffed grouse habitat changes, so must the hunter.

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

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


Toronto - LP: D. Hutchison 2 FINAL
NY Yankees - WP: M. Tanaka 5
Washington - WP: S. Strasburg 2 FINAL
Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 1
NY Mets - WP: J. deGrom 10 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: E. Santana 2
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 3 FINAL
Baltimore - LP: M. Gonzalez 2
Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta 0 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: V. Worley 1
Chicago WSox - WP: J. Danks 10 FINAL
Tampa Bay - LP: N. Karns 5
Cleveland - WP: C. Kluber 7 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: A. Swarzak 2
Detroit - LP: R. Porcello 2 FINAL
Kansas City - WP: J. Guthrie 5
Seattle - LP: H. Iwakuma 3 FINAL
Houston - WP: C. McHugh 8
Los Angeles - WP: C. Perez 8 FINAL
Chicago Cubs - LP: J. Turner 5
Texas - WP: S. Tolleson 2 FINAL
LA Angels - LP: H. Street 1
Philadelphia - LP: M. Gonzalez 6 FINAL
Oakland - WP: S. Doolittle 8
San Francisco - LP: R. Vogelsong 2 FINAL
San Diego - WP: I. Kennedy 8
Arizona - LP: W. Miley 3 FINAL
Colorado - WP: C. Bergman 8
Cincinnati - WP: A. Simon 7 FINAL
St. Louis - LP: L. Lynn 2
San Diego 22 FINAL
Buffalo 10
Dallas 34 FINAL
St. Louis 31
Washington 34 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
Houston 17 FINAL
NY Giants 30
Minnesota 9 FINAL
New Orleans 20
Tennessee 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 33
Baltimore 23 FINAL
Cleveland 21
Green Bay 7 FINAL
Detroit 19
Indianapolis 44 FINAL
Jacksonville 17
Oakland 9 FINAL
New England 16
San Francisco 14 FINAL
Arizona 23
Denver 20 FINAL
Seattle 26
Kansas City 34 FINAL
Miami 15
Pittsburgh 37 FINAL
Carolina 19
Chicago 7:30 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Columbus 4 FINAL
Carolina 3
Buffalo 0 FINAL
Washington 1
St. Louis 3 FINAL
Columbus 4
Calgary 1 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Edmonton 0 FINAL
Calgary 1
Old Dominion 45 FINAL
Rice 42
Troy 0 FINAL
(12) Georgia 66
Georgia Tech 27 FINAL
Virginia Tech 24
Eastern Mich 14 FINAL
(9) Michigan State 73
Iowa 24 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
Bowling Green 17 FINAL
(19) Wisconsin 68
Maryland 34 FINAL
Syracuse 20
Tulane 13 FINAL
Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
(23) East Carolina 70
Army 21 FINAL
Wake Forest 24
Virginia 33 FINAL
(20) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
Rutgers 31 FINAL
Navy 24
Central Mich 10 FINAL
Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
(3) Alabama 42
Louisville 34 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 19 FINAL
Wyoming 20
Indiana 31 FINAL
Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
(14) Miss State 34 FINAL
(17) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(13) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(21) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(25) Kansas State
Tennessee 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(12) Georgia
Vanderbilt 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Wyoming 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(9) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Tulane 9/27/14 11:00 AM
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Colorado State 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Akron 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
Kent State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Temple 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Cincinnati 9/27/14 5:00 PM
(22) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Missouri 9/27/14 6:00 PM
(13) So Carolina
Boise State 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Air Force
North Carolina 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
New Mexico St 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(17) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
Duke 9/27/14 6:30 PM
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
(8) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(21) Nebraska
Oregon State 9/27/14 9:30 PM
(18) USC
Nevada 9/27/14 9:30 PM
San Jose St
Chivas USA 0 FINAL
Toronto FC 3
Toronto 40 FINAL
Brt Columbia 23
Edmonton 23 FINAL
Hamilton 25
Calgary 15 FINAL
Montreal 31
Ottawa 32 FINAL
Saskatchewan 35
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question