It was surprising ruffed grouse opener Saturday in my neck of the woods.

Stunning, really, given the bright forecast for this season.

A friend and I hunted for six hours on state forest lands in Aitkin County, with three Labs scouring the forest floor, and we flushed zero birds. That's right. Zero. Nada. Zippo.

We never saw a grouse. We never fired our guns.

"Wow, where are they?'' asked Tim McMullen of Delano, my hunting companion.

 Based on our conversations with other hunters, we weren't alone. One lone hunter flushed and shot at one bird on the same forest road we hunted. But that was the extent of his action by noon. Two other hunters we talked to flushed several birds early Saturday morning, failed to shoot any and also expressed dismay at the lack of birds.

We hunted hard, too, getting off trails and bushwhacking through recently logged areas with young aspen, and on edges where new aspen boardered mature trees. We hiked walking-only hunting trails. We changed locations. And still, no birds.

The one thing we did find: Swarms of hunters down every forest road -- the most I've seen on the grouse opener in years. They were everywhere. We encountered several large group camps. We also spotted several archery deer hunters (with no deer) and many squirrel hunters, usually groups of them.

All seemed to be having a good time, glad to roam the woods again. The weather was perfect, overcast and 50 to 55 degrees.

But the lack of birds was a mystery. (We did flush a flock of young wild turkeys from a roadway.) Stil, our dogs got some exercise and relished the romp in the woods. And based on the spring drumming counts, I'm optimistic the grouse are out there. Somewhere. And I'm planning on finding them.


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