Minnesota's ruffed grouse hunters bagged 466,000 birds in 2010 -- a 30 percent increase over 2009 and the best in a decade.

And the number of grouse hunters increased, by 6 percent to 92,000, after years of decline.

Last fall's strong harvest and the increases in ruffed grouse drumming counts this spring means the population peak likely is continuing, which is good news for hunters this fall.

"It's looking like a three-year plateau of good hunting,'' said Ted Dick, Department of Natural Resources grouse coordinator. "The birds are there, the opportunity is there. I'm optimistic.''

Successful hunters averaged five birds apiece, up from 4.1 birds in 2009. Minnesota once had 140,000 ruffed grouse hunters, and had there been that many last fall, harvest likely would have exceeded 700,000 birds, Dick said.

"Hunter numbers only went up 6 percent, but at least they didn't go down,'' he said.

The 92,000 hunters was the most since 2006. And last year's harvest was the highest since 121,000 hunters shot 619,000 birds in 2000.

DOUG SMITH