Growing up in Fertile in northwestern Minnesota, a young Earl Johnson had a fascination with such birds as ruffed grouse and woodcock. In fact, by the time he was 11 or 12 years old, he’d declared his intention of making a career of working with wildlife. Now 68 and retired after a nearly 40-year career with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Johnson still retains a boyish enthusiasm for the birds he loves.

Care to characterize your passion, Earl?

“An addiction,” said Johnson, who spent the final 29 years of his career as the DNR area wildlife manager in Detroit Lakes, where he still lives. He is a member of the board of directors for the ­nonprofit Woodcock ­Minnesota.

Johnson spends much of the fall following his English setters through the woods in pursuit of grouse and woodcock. And he makes annual trips to states like Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota to hunt prairie grouse. But his passion is on full display during the spring, when he spends countless hours in the woods with his dogs looking for woodcock hens and their recently hatched chicks not with a gun but with tiny metal bands. He slips the bands around the birds’ legs, and when hunters shoot them later and report the bands, wildlife managers learn more about the species, including their migration ­patterns.

Johnson expounded on a variety of woodcock-related topics in a conversation. Here are edited excerpts:

On what about the long-billed bird is so fascinating

A big part of it is their willingness to sit in front of a dog on point. Any bird that will honor a pointing dog that way is somewhat addictive. But when you can use the dogs to find them in the spring and band hens and chicks, that’s probably the aspect that has really driven my addiction to them.

On hunting for woodcock, populations of which are stable in Minnesota

I enjoy shooting woodcock, I enjoy eating woodcock, and I’m not afraid at all to admit that I love them too much to not shoot them. I enjoy the bird enough that I don’t need to shoot every one, and I don’t need to kill three birds a day when I’m hunting. They can make a hunter’s day more enjoyable, especially as we have seen in the past couple of years when ruffed grouse numbers have been on the low side. And because of it, most of the birds we encountered were old educated college graduates that are able to avoid the two-legged predators who oftentimes cannot shoot well to begin with.

On how finding woodcock to band differs from finding woodcock to hunt

It’s not just being a hunter who is willing to go out in the woods in May and June. It’s having a dog with the ability to find a hen and her brood. We always think it’s the same as fall hunting, but it isn’t. The woods in spring have a different smell and feel associated with them. There is a learning curve for these dogs. Woodcock hens know how to pick spots to evade predators, or pick spots where predators can’t find them.

On why he remains active in conservation even after retirement

Some addictions never die. I’ve got four grandsons and one granddaughter and I hope I can “addict” them to pointing dogs and the conservation ethic, as well as the killing and eating of wild food. In reality, I’m not ready to quit. I’m not quite ready to let one foot slip in the grave and really slow down. I firmly believe that if I’m going to be a part of the picture for the future, then I owe it to the critters that I love to stay involved.

On how he’d spend a day afield if he knew it was his last

I’d have a very difficult dilemma choosing whether to hunt prairie grouse in pasture lands or whether to hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock throughout the clear-cuts of Minnesota. I’d probably say it’s a tossup. There’s not much that’s more enjoyable than walking those prairies of North Dakota and Montana for sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge. But woodcock and ruffed grouse are kind of my first love because they are the things I hunted as a 12-year-old.

 

Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. Reach him at writerjoealbert@gmail.com.