Illustration by Amelia LeBarron

The wild within

September is an apex in Minnesota hunting circles like few other months, with game birds center stage. What follows gives them their due — from the ruffie boom to the challenges for pheasants in drought-stricken South Dakota — and gives tips and observations to prepare you for the wild days ahead.

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Nelson Brothers, 11, readies to shoot as ducks approach the decoys during the youth Waterfowl Opener. His father and mentor, Hal Brothers, at right.
David Denney, Star Tribune

Is Youth Waterfowl Day working?

Minnesota’s 22nd annual Youth Waterfowl Day takes place Saturday, and an estimated 5,000 youths age 15 and younger are expected to be out in blinds. The youth must be accompanied by a nonhunting adult age 18 and older. They’ll be hunting from a half-hour before sunrise to 4 p.m.

Critics and supporters acknowledge the special day hasn’t helped stem the decline in duck hunters. In 1995, when the event was launched, the state counted about 119,000 duck hunters. Last fall, an estimated 67,000 people hunted ducks, a drop of 55,000 (or about 44 percent) since 1995.

But other hunter numbers have fallen during that time, too. The number of pheasant hunters has dropped from 96,000 to 60,000 last year, a 37 percent decline. And the number of ruffed grouse hunters has dropped from 116,000 back in 1995 to 82,000 last year. That is a 29 percent decline.

But supporters say duck hunter numbers could have fallen even more without Youth Waterfowl Day. Giving young people a special day afield can’t hurt, they say.

Doug Smith

Sitting on a branch a squirrel looks down from a tree.
Sergei Grits, Associated Press
Small game

The challenge of squirrels

For past generations, squirrel hunting was the gateway to becoming a lifelong hunter. While that traditional path has been replaced by more glamorous species like deer and turkey, squirrel hunting still matters. The best multi-species hunters and all-around woodsmen arguably are squirrel hunters. Squirrels are extremely challenging to hunt. These artful dodgers have exceptional eyesight and enough speed, agility and natural wariness to challenge the most seasoned hunters. Squirrel hunting teaches the skills and temperament you’ll need to hunt other species: patience, persistence, self-discipline, as well as the art of stealth. Fewer people are hunting squirrels nowadays, which means opportunities, on public and private land, abound. Despite rumors to the contrary, squirrels are easy to clean and excellent to eat. Try hunting squirrels in early fall. The worst that can happen is spending a peaceful day in the woods.

Tori McCormick


Be wary of stress on dogs

In recent years warmer-than-usual falls mean hunters have to keep a close eye on their hunting dogs, which are susceptible to heat stroke. Back in 2003, hundreds of hunting dogs were treated for heat stroke in South Dakota after 80-degree temperatures hit on the pheasant opener. Scores of dogs died.

Most dogs, of course, kept hunting, even in the heat, and their owners didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation until it was too late.

The bottom line: Heat is a dog-killer.

Even 70 degrees is too hot for pheasant hunting. Some Minnesota ringneck hunters have delayed their hunting trips until later in the season, hoping for colder weather. Always carry plenty of water and try to keep your canine hydrated.

Dogs are more susceptible than humans to overheating; they don’t sweat. Watch for signs of overheating: excessive panting or a dog seeking shade or being unsteady on their feet. Don’t risk your dog’s life for a hunt. Find some other tips here.

Doug Smith

The hunting life

A late-fall excursion to try

Between the villages of Kelliher and Mizpah, Minn., not far from Upper Red Lake, newly upgraded walking trails await late fall grouse and woodcock hunters. You’ll have to navigate your vehicle over a route of logging roads, but that’s part of the fun when venturing with shotguns and dogs to the two-mile South Brush Wolf Walking Trail.

Pack the fishing poles, too, because this is classic cast-and-blast country. Upper Red’s abundant walleyes will be feeding before freeze-up, and the central northwoods area north, south and east of Red Lake is plush with miles of additional hunter trails — including routes through Pine Island State Forest, the largest of Minnesota’s 58 state forests.

Trail signage is good and it might pay to call ahead to the Koochiching County Land Management Office or the Ruffed Grouse Society in Grand Rapids for the best locations.

Tony Kennedy

Protect your hearing
File art

Protect your hearing

The joke at wingshooting camps frequented by hunters of a certain age — say those beyond their 50th birthday — is that you can say whatever you want, because no one will hear you anyway.

Fortunately, kids today are much more attuned to the possibility that trigger pulling and hearing loss often occur in close sequence.

But listen up: It’s never too late to protect the hearing you have left, no matter how much or how little. First lesson: At gun ranges where shooters are in proximity to one another, maximum ear protection is required. This can mean using foam or similar ear inserts, together with a quality pair of shooters’ earmuffs.

Second lesson: Ear protection used while pursuing game should allow a hunter to hear his partners’ voices, as well as the sound, for example, of a grouse or pheasant flushing — while at the same time blocking the explosive clatter that follows the collision of a firing pin against a cartridge primer.

These good sound/bad sound ear protectors can be molded to an individual’s ears, or bought as one-size-fits-all models.

Dennis Anderson

Snipes in flight.
Andrew Howe, Getty Images

Overlooked snipes and rails

Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the DNR, spends most of his time talking about ducks. But if you want to get him really excited, mention hunting snipe (found in shallow marshes) and sora rails (found in wild rice lakes). Both species are abundant in Minnesota, yet few hunters target them. “As far as a sporting bird for wingshooting, there’s really probably nothing more challenging” than snipe, Cordts said. And rails? “Hunting them is just downright fun.” Hunters target the birds with shotguns — 12-, 20- and 28-gauge versions will suffice — and small shot.

Joe Albert


On the move, or in a tree?

Sitting in a deer stand affixed to a tree — or that stands on its own — is pretty much synonymous with hunting deer. It is a great way to get a better view of the landscape around you while also staying out of the line of sight of deer. But let’s be honest: Though many of us want to spend all day in the woods during the season, sitting still from before dawn to dusk isn’t easy.

It’s OK to get down and walk around. Just make sure you’re sitting still during the prime times of the day: the first two hours or so after it’s legal to shoot, the last couple hours it’s legal to shoot, and any time you know people will be moving around and could push deer by your stand.

Joe Albert

Duck decoys

Use motion in the decoys

Duck hunting has many time-honored tips and tricks to coax ducks into shotgun range. One is incorporating motion into your decoy spread, especially on windless, cloudy days. Spinning-winged decoys work well and create the illusion of ducks landing in the decoys. Duck are attracted to and home in on the spinning-winged motion, sometimes from great distances. That’s particularly helpful on cloudy days when decoys are harder for ducks to see. Another option is using a jerk cord for water setups. Affix several feet of decoy cord to the keel of a floating decoy and run it back to your blind. Jerk the cord as ducks appear. Ducks are rarely static on the water; the more movement, the better.

Tori McCormick

The prospect of ending a day's outing with a three-bird limit of rooster pheasants has kept tens of thousands of non-resident hunters returning to Sou
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

Harsh times for birds in South Dakota

If you’re a pheasant hunter who has a relationship with South Dakota, you understand the bad news.

Grasslands on either side of the northern Missouri River were parched to the extent of driving down insect populations, leaving birds hungry. The drought was so bad during April, May and June that some land never greened up. Later, farmers were allowed under emergency rule to mow down critical pheasant habitat to feed livestock.

In short, the persistent blight wreaked havoc on reproduction and left the birds vulnerable to predators.

But before you cancel your trip, it’s still worth checking on local conditions. Plenty of landowners manage agriculture with pheasants in mind. In some pockets, wheat fields were left in place to provide cover and food.

Tony Kennedy


Proper guns for young hunters

Children serious about deer hunting can enjoy a special two-day season each fall in Minnesota and Wisconsin when they are 10 to 15, accompanied by an adult. But part of the mentoring means supplying them with a gun they can handle.

Local firearms dealers say youth model shotguns and rifles can do the job in the price range of $400 to $600. All the better if full-sized firearms fit. Here’s two popular firearms being sold at Minnesota gun counters for the youth deer hunt.

• 7 millimeter-08 Remington rifle. This gun is an alternative to the .243 bolt-action centerfire rifle. There are devotees of both sporting guns, but the 7 mm-08 crowd likes to say their gun shoots flatter, has more punch, is more reliable and leaves a better blood trail.

• Savage .220 bolt action shotgun with scope and fully rifled barrel. Adult deer hunters, too, are turning more often to 20-gauge firepower in a nod to improved ballistics. Better accuracy and far less recoil than a 12-gauge. Not a pea shooter.

Tony Kennedy

Ruffed grouse
Brian Peterson, Star Tribune
Upland birds

Ruffies are peaking

Minnesota’s 82,000 ruffed grouse hunters should find plenty to smile about this fall. The ruffie population is up a whopping 57 percent from last year — and might be the highest in decades — according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annual survey.

“It could be ridiculously good this year,’’ said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator in Grand Rapids. “In some areas, the numbers are the best we’ve seen in the last 20 years.’’

The grouse population usually tracks a 10-year boom-to-bust cycle, and it appears the population is near the peak.

“I’m saying [to hunters] get out there this year. It’s looking like this is the peak. Don’t pass this one up,’’ Dick said.

While the spring drumming counts were impressive, Dick said weather during the birds’ reproduction, which can affect newly hatched birds, should have been good.

Translation: Hunters should flush plenty of birds this fall. Hunters bagged 309,000 ruffed grouse last year, up 15 percent from 2015.

Doug Smith


A tool for finding public land

One of the most useful tools for finding public land is the DNR’s Recreation Compass, which is an interactive map (here) available on the agency’s website. It’s easy to zoom in and find the locations of wildlife management areas, state parks, national wildlife refuges, public boat accesses and more. It’s also possible to overlay bear, deer and wild turkey permit area boundaries on the map, and to view aerial images of potential hunting grounds.

Joe Albert

copper ammunition
Rouzes, Getty Images/iStockphoto
The hunting life

Time to consider copper bullets, too?

Waterfowl hunters have been required for decades to forswear lead cartridges in favor of nontoxic shot while pursuing ducks and geese. But rifle hunters still have the option of using traditional lead bullets or switching to less toxic bullets, such as those made of copper.

However, arguments in favor of lead bullets are becoming harder to make, considering their possible adverse effects on eagles and some other wildlife.

In Minnesota, beginning in mid-November, after the firearms deer opener, eagles suffering from lead poisoning are brought into the Raptor Rehabilitation Center at the University of Minnesota. Other eagles similarly afflicted, and an untold number of other critters, don’t get a chance to be rehabilitated. Instead they die unfound when they eat the internal organs of deer after the animals were field-dressed by hunters.

Because lead bullets fragment when striking deer, they often spray throughout a felled whitetail’s body cavity. For carrion eaters such as eagles, and for people who eat venison, this can be a toxic cocktail.

Historically, cartridges with copper bullets have been relatively expensive and limited to a handful of calibers. Now prices have come down and copper is available for a wider range of loads.

Time to hop on the copper-bullet bandwagon?

Dennis Anderson

Ted Dick, DNR grouse coordinator, hunteds a stand of young aspen -- prime ruffed grouse habitat.
Doug Smith, Star Tribune

What to know about public, private land

In many states, finding a place to hunt can be problematic because public land is in short supply or nonexistent.

Not so in Minnesota.

Consider: The state’s Wildlife Management Area system is the envy of the nation. Hunters can tromp over 1,500 WMAs covering more than 1.3 million acres. They are especially popular for pheasant and waterfowl hunters.

Another 4 million acres of state forest and 4.5 million of federal forest are available, as are 2.8 million acres of county forest. Deer and ruffed grouse hunters especially appreciate those lands.

And there are thousands of acres of federal Waterfowl Production Areas and refuges in Minnesota.

Sure, some of the public lands get hunted hard. But there’s virtually no excuse for a Minnesota hunter to say he or she has nowhere to hunt.

The DNR website helps hunters find all of those public lands. Go here.

Access to private land

Minnesota’s walk-in access program, which was launched in 2011, will offer hunters access to 249 sites covering nearly 26,000 acres of private land this fall.

The program has been well-received by landowners, who are paid to allow public access to their lands, and hunters. Pheasant hunters, in particular, covet the acreage, which often is blanketed with prairie grass.

But paying for the program has been an issue since inception. A federal grant will carry the program to 2018. And state money could support the program for two years after that, said Scott Roemhildt, DNR grassland programs coordinator.

Current funding sources include a $5 surcharge on nonresident hunting licenses, donations of $1, $3 or $5 made by hunters when they buy their deer and small game licenses, and a $3 validation that is required to access the WIA lands.

But long-term funding remains elusive.

Officials are hoping the 2018 federal Farm Bill will include money to sustain the walk-in program here and in other states.

The DNR publishes an atlas showing the location of the lands, and the sites also can be viewed online here.

Doug Smith

Constructed in 1965, this hunting shack consistuted "cabin #1" for the Lean-To-Boys.
File photo
The hunting life

About the shack aesthetic

Arguments can be made, and have been made, about the benefits of indoor plumbing. Central heating can be a plus, too, as can the ready availability of drinking and cooking water.

But, alas, hunting shacks worthy of their names boast none of these.

Which is the way it should be.

True hunting shacks, whether with straight walls or leaning, roofs leaking or sealed, are scattered throughout Minnesota, from Worthington to Warroad. Nods to a past both glorious and inglorious, these hovels — and some are that — are gathering places each fall for reconnection and revitalization.

Some are outfitted with gas cooking stoves, which is OK.

But for a welcome escape from civilization’s eternal rat race, the inside heat must be supplied by the warm embers of crackling wood, be they hot coals lining the bottom of a 55-gallon drum, distilled ashes in a Franklin stove or a single oak log aflame in a highly efficient soapstone.

The interior décor of these retreats screams hillbilly. Nails for coat hooks have been machine-gunned into walls. Bunk beds lean and creak. Food crumbs, card decks, tattered copies of Field & Stream and an arsenal of .30-06s, .270s and .243s suggest either the onset of hunting season, the utter illusion of human progress, or the impending intervention by uniformed authorities.

Critical to this aesthetic are outhouses, or what the British refer to as “thunder boxes.” The best of these, with reading material featuring tales of big bucks and bear attacks, are located neither too far from, nor too near to, the headquarters shanty.

So, yes. Hunting season.

Come in. Don’t mind your boots.


Dennis Anderson

DNR Conservation Officer Greg Verkulen (Left) of Garrison and Spotter Tim Marion, an assistant Wildlife Manager from Cambridge, walk a tree line in se
Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Blaze options change

Thanks to state lawmakers making a change during this year’s session, hunters have the option of wearing either blaze orange or blaze pink clothing. Whenever there’s a firearms or muzzleloader deer season underway, all hunters — waterfowl hunters notwithstanding — must wear blaze orange or pink on their cap and on clothing above their waist (not including gloves and sleeves). Blaze orange or pink camouflage patterns are allowed, so long as each square foot is at least half blaze orange or pink. When not in firearms or muzzleloader deer seasons, small game hunters must ensure at least one article of clothing above their waist is blaze orange or pink. See the hunting regulations here for complete details.

Joe Albert

Yogi, a springer spaniel, retrieves a rooster shot by his owner, Dan Hasz of Marshall.
Doug Smith, Special to the Star Tribune
Hunting dogs

Picking hunting companions

Looking to buy and train a pheasant-hunting companion? Consider these canine candidates:

Springer spaniels. Pros: Very active in the field. Will turn themselves inside out looking for birds. Excellent retrievers. Exciting to watch. Cons: Long hair can collect burs. Sometimes a bit small to slog through some western Minnesota cattails. Lovable but can be excitable as house pets.

English setters. Pros: Elegant movers through woods and fields. Make excellent upland dogs, for grouse as well as pheasants. Cover a lot of ground, increasing their chances for bird contact. Lovable as pets. Cons: Coat feathering attracts burs and debris. Exercise needs can be considerable — setters like to run. Important to select correctly from setters that run big and those more accustomed to a foot-walking pace.

English pointers. Pros: Short hair, therefore they shed little and collect few burs. Most, with training, are extremely efficient bird finders. Like setters, they cover a lot of ground, maximizing bird contact opportunities. Breeding lines are important to consider, but can make great pets. Cons: Some (not all) can be a handful to live with and manage, in that they need running room to exercise. As with any sporting dog, careful selection from proven parents is important.

Labradors: Pros: Multiple uses afield, from hunting pheasant and grouse to waterfowl. Big enough to handle most Minnesota sloughs and other heavy cover. Most Labs hunt close and make good house pets. Cons: Don’t run as big as setters and pointers, therefore as pheasant and grouse dogs are less likely to contact as many birds. Stamina afield with some Labs might be less than springers, setters or pointers.

Dennis Anderson

Mike Porter of Minneapolis bathes his golden retriever, Bo, with a solution of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and detergent to try to rid the dog of s
Doug Smith, Special to the Star Tribune

The one way to de-skunk

Few things in bird hunting are more satisfying than hunting behind a well-trained gun dog. However, if you chase birds long enough, ol’ Fido will eventually run into a skunk and get sprayed. And if you’re not prepared, the encounter will ruin your day. That’s why bird hunters should never, ever leave home without their de-skunking kit. The magic formula is one quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, a half-cup of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid dish soap. In a bucket (which can double as a storage container), mix the ingredients together with a pair of rubber gloves (or elbow-high gutting gloves), wash your dog with the solution, wait 10 minutes, and thoroughly rinse with water. Then repeat the process. Unlike tomato juice, this magic recipe neutralizes the skunk stink as well or better than any elixir sold by your veterinarian.

Tori McCormick

Upland birds

Finding pheasants

Several years back, a group of friends and I spent a lot of time hunting ring-necked pheasants in southern Minnesota. While shimmering fields of grass are what pheasant hunters tend to think about when they picture a hunt, there were few available where we hunted. No matter. By talking to landowners and obtaining permission to walk the vegetated buffer strips that separated their crop fields from ditches, we flushed and shot plenty of birds. And since the available habitat was relatively narrow, having a dog wasn’t a requirement (though watching good dogs work is about the most enjoyable part of upland bird hunting).

Joe Albert

The hunting life

Shore lunch equivalent

Unlike shore lunch for anglers, hunters far too often forgo eating what they kill in the field. They shouldn’t. A post-hunt, on-site celebration of preparing and eating wild game is satisfying — and easy to do if you prepare in advance. Before you depart on a hunt, find a large plastic storage container and fill it with pans, plates, utensils, a cutting board, spices, oil and other essentials. You’ll also need a small grill or camp stove. It’s also good to have a card table, although a tailgate is a fine substitute.

Tori McCormick

Crossbow use during deer firearm season is more commonplace across the United States.
The hunting life

Crossbow surges in Wisconsin

Minnesota’s big-game managers have stood their ground against the idea of mainstream crossbow hunting of deer. But in Wisconsin, where anyone can buy a crossbow deer-hunting license, the choice is increasingly popular.

Heading into the fourth season of crossbow license sales, Kevin Wallenfang of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said usage of crossbows is growing every year in extension of a much longer trend of more archery in the state.

If you choose to share the Wisconsin rut this year with vertical bow hunters, you’ll be joining about 100,000 deer hunters with crossbow license authority. Last year, Wisconsin’s crossbow-only deer hunters scored slightly higher than gun hunters with a 32 percent success rate killing a deer.

Tony Kennedy

Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen, a Ruffed Grouse Society wildlife biologist, hunted ruffies and woodcock last year north of Grand Rapids, Minn
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
The hunting life

The joy of hunting alone

Here’s a conundrum:

Deer hunters often sleep with other deer hunters in deer hunting shacks. Yet they hunt alone.

Bird hunters, conversely, usually sleep at home or in motel rooms, sans other bird hunters. Yet most bird hunters hunt with other bird hunters.

Furthering this minor bit of irony, deer slayers and would-be deer slayers often celebrate the many benefits of hunkering unaccompanied in the woods ostensibly to fell a whitetail, but also to meditate deeply about nature and politics, religion and family — the whole metaphysical enchilada.

Bird hunters by contrast — those solo sleepers — usually hunt in groups, and happily so, chattering among one another mindlessly about the beauty of the day, the work of the dogs and the relative merits of pump vs. semi-auto vs. over-and-under.

Here’s the point (finally):

To dial up the satisfaction quotient of bird hunting, do like deer hunters do: Hunt alone. Meaning, in most instances, alone with your dog.

Whether the quarry is ducks over decoys or woodcock over a setter, when you’re alone, your senses are more acute, your ratio of good decisions to bad improves markedly and, importantly, your aim is truer.

Also, like your deer hunting pals, at day’s end, you, the bird hunter, will find yourself waxing poetically (if endlessly), about the benefits of going afield alone.

Dennis Anderson

Grace Rodemann, 11, of Carver eyed a Canada goose winging over Carver Marsh on her first-ever waterfowl hunt. Calling the goose was her mentor, John W
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
The hunting life

Calling all mentors

As more baby boomers get older and leave hunting, wildlife managers are calling on experienced hunters to become mentors. The goal is to teach new and inexperienced hunters (young and old) the finer points of small and big game, hoping they become lifelong hunters. How you mentor is more important than being a mentor. The best mentor focuses on the pupil’s needs and makes a commitment to him or her beyond a single day afield. Think about how nervous you were, and how little you knew, when you started hunting. Hunting can be intimidating and, for the novice, has a substantial learning curve. Consider adopting a new hunter for an entire hunting season, which will likely be as rewarding for you as for your pupil. Wise mentors limit expectations and assure students that frustration (missing a shot, etc.) is just part of hunting and no big deal. The best mentors provide a nurturing (and fun) learning environment, encourage questions, and are patient teachers.

Tori McCormick