Ted Dick hunted ruffed grouse for 30 years before he got a dog. And part of the reason for that acquisition was he’d had so much fun and decided a dog would increase his enjoyment. Today, neither Bruce Mills of Elk River, nor Lloyd McKissick of Parker, Colo., have hunting dogs, but every fall they traipse around the forests of northern Minnesota, generally meeting with success in their search for grouse.
To a man, they credit the hundreds of miles of maintained pathways in the state’s forest region known as hunter walking trails as being integral to their success.
Hunters can find the trails, which are open for anyone to use, on a wide variety of public lands, including those managed by federal and local governments. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains perhaps the most extensive and well-known of the trails, which meander through lands such as state forests, and wildlife and ruffed grouse management areas (RGMA) throughout Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range. Those on RGMAs generally offer the best grouse hunting.
“We had fun for years without hardly knowing how a pointing dog worked,” said Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator.
Unlike Dick, whose office is in Grand Rapids, neither Mills nor McKissick have ruffed grouse-hunting opportunities right outside their door. Mills heads north with friends each fall, while McKissick flies in from Colorado to visit his father-in-law, who lives on Lake of the Woods. Both men rely on hunter walking trails with good grouse habitat to maximize their time afield.
“They’re usually mowed, and it’s nice and easy walking,” said Mills, who has used the trails since the early 1970s. “I’m 65 years old now, so I’m concerned about my knees and ankles and stuff. You can see holes, and you can also see the [birds]. Boy, if you like to get away and be quiet by yourself, it’s a great thing to do.”
Said McKissick, 58: “The trails seriously tip the scales toward a much more huntable situation for guys who don’t have dogs. I enjoy the peace and quiet, just slinking along. If you’re attentive and walking along and have your senses in top order, when you hear a putt or something, you can generally get ready for a shot before they flush.”
McKissick and Mills tend to focus most of their efforts on the northwestern side of the state, but hunter walking trails are widely available. Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager in Tower, Minn., has about 75 miles worth of trails in his work area. A wildlife technician in his office had been allocating four days a week since mid-August to getting the trails mowed and ready for Saturday’s ruffed grouse hunting opener. Mowing the trails not only makes them easier to hunt, but also promotes clover growth. It’s not uncommon for hunters, especially if they’re walking quietly, to happen upon a grouse that is feeding on clover in the middle of a trail.
Typical ruffed grouse habitat includes young to middle-aged stands of aspen. While not all trails cut through ideal grouse habitat, those on RGMAs tend to be fine examples of where grouse live. There are 49 such areas in northern Minnesota, covering more than 100,000 acres. They contain more than 180 miles of hunter walking trails, according to the DNR.
“We get a lot of calls about them,” Rusch said. “The biggest benefit is for people who are not familiar with an area or who are new to an area.”
A good start
That is how Mills’ affinity for hunter walking trails began. In 1972, two friends of his were looking for new places to hunt. They stumbled upon a designated trail — they don’t allow motorized access, and most of them are clearly marked with space to park a vehicle — and “couldn’t believe how beautiful and wild it was,” Mills said.
The next year, he went along. And he’s been all in since then. “I can’t explain how attached we are to that little section of woods,” Mills said. “It’s like an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time. Summer goes by and when the fall comes I go up and walk there. It’s just refreshing.”
It’s possible to hunt nothing but walking trails all fall. But Dick and Rusch, both avid grouse hunters, advocate a different strategy. Rusch advised hunters to make note of the habitat on a trail or two, and then strike off on their own and hunt old skid trails or edges between two types of timber. It’s vital they carry a compass, he said. “Even if you stay on the trails, some of them can get back in there and go all over the place,” Rusch said.
Said Dick: “They’re good places to start. If you’re new to an area and see a sign, stop and check it out. They can be good and handle heavy pressure. After you’ve tried one trail, maybe leave it for someone else and check the neighborhood for something that looks similar. It makes sense to try a variety of places and get off the trail.”
That is something to keep in mind given the increasing popularity of the trails.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t see anybody [on the trails],” McKissick said. “Now you go to a trail and it’s common to see somebody parked there.”
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.