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It’s for the Birds

Grouse Offer an Easy Start to Hunting


It’s for the Birds


With conservation efforts in full-force, the sharptail population is now stable.

By Matt Breuer

“It’s For the Birds,” typically refers to a less than favorable thing or situation. But not time! The highlight of a recent northern Minnesota fishing trip wasn’t about the big numbers of fish caught, instead it was all about witnessing the successful conservation efforts in Lake of the Woods County by watching the greatest show on earth.

Raised in Northern Minnesota, it was common to see a covey of sharp-tailed grouse walk through the yard on a late-fall morning while waiting for the school bus. After the horrific decline in numbers the sharp-tailed grouse have endured, it’s amazing that I still have the chance to enjoy sharptails today. With conservation efforts in full-force, the sharptail population is now stable. I get back as often as possible to experience the beauty of a sharpie in flight.

Every year I host LakeStateFishing.com’s Lake Sturgeon Frenzy at Sportsman’s Lodge on the Rainy River. It’s a wonderful event gathering anglers from around the country, all there to chase down giant lake sturgeon. It’s always a fun trip, but this past spring was not one to be forgotten any time soon.

On a cool, crisp April morning I headed north. Driving, I noticed brush-cutting projects taking place. As a board member of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society I was curious what was going on.

We like to see those kinds of projects, and have sponsored several in the Baudette area. When I arrived at the DNR offices I was kindly greeted by Ted Dick.

They were preparing the brush-land for a burning project to take place later that spring. Shearing brush is necessary for a quality fire, and a quality fire cuts down woody vegetation and encourages growth of the native grasses so desperately needed by the sharp-tailed grouse, sand-hill crane, and many other species of wildlife. I applauded Ted on their efforts, and asked about the current state of the sharp-tailed grouse in his area. He smirked and replied, “Why don’t you go see for yourself!”

The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society and the DNR together have set up areas across MN where people can go to view the mating ritual of the sharp-tailed grouse. Ted informed me that the Baudette area blind was open the next morning! After checking in to Sportsman’s Lodge, and hooking into a few sturgeon that evening, we hit the rack with high hopes for a good morning in the sharpie blind.

Waking early, a friend and I snuck quietly into the blind, and immediately heard sharptail. We had numerous birds surround us right at day-break. The females stood around observing and trying to pick a mate while the males puffed up their feathers, purred and clicked loudly, blew out the bright purple air-sacs in their neck, and ran around stomping the frosty ground determinedly. Fights between two males often broke loose. It was a beautiful crisp morning, and we had a great seat for one of nature’s greatest shows.

Chasing the many species of game fish in Lake of the Woods County and watching the magical dance of prairie game birds truly is a fantastic adventure.

Contact Sportsman’s Lodge (800-862-8602) for accommodations and fishing info, and check in at the Baudette Area DNR (218-634-1705) for sharptail dancing blind reservations. You can also go to www.sharptails.org to become a member, find out about upcoming events, and to find out about observation blinds in your area!

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Grouse Offer an Easy Start to Hunting

Grouse Hunting

DNR Photo: Jay Johnson with his English setter, Meg.

By Jay Johnson, DNR Hunter Recruitment & Retention Program coordinator

If you live in Minnesota and want to hunt upland birds, count your blessings. Minnesota grouse hunting opportunities are among the best in the nation.

It’s often said that Minnesota is to grouse what South Dakota is to pheasants. I’d argue that the grouse hunting opportunities in Minnesota are even better. For instance, most of the best pheasant habitat and hunting opportunities in South Dakota are controlled by private landowners. In contrast, Minnesota county, state and national forests provide 11.5 million acres of grouse habitat – and each acre is open to public hunting. So, if South Dakota is the Pheasant Capitol of the World, Minnesota certainly is the Ruffed Grouse Capitol of the World. Don’t believe me? Well consider this. Each year the Ruffed Grouse Society, a non-profit conservation organization focused on grouse, American woodcock and other related early successional forest wildlife, hosts its National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt in the Grand Rapids area. So, if you aren’t hunting ruffed grouse, you are really missing out on the best upland bird hunting in the state.

Have I piqued your interest? I hope so. Here is some basic information that will help you find a place to hunt and hopefully, find a few birds.

First off, you need to know that the season opens Saturday, Sept. 19 and runs through Sunday, Jan.3, 2010. The daily limit (how many you can have in the field) is five and the possession limit (how many you can have in the field and in your freezer) is 10. Cock (male) and hen (female) birds are legal game.

You do need a small game license, which you can buy separately or in combination with your fishing license.

Shotguns in 12-and 20-gauge that are light, easy to carry and have open chokes, such as an improved cylinder, are perfect for grouse. Standard target or field loads of No. 7-1/2 to No. 9 shot are all you need to effectively bring down a grouse.

A blaze-orange hat, a blaze-orange vest and a comfortable pair of boots round out the necessary equipment you need to get started. Cover may be thick and it’s crucial that others clearly see you through brush and trees.

Next, you need to know where to hunt. Top counties in the state include Aitkin, Cass, Itasca, St. Louis, Beltrami and Koochiching. But there are quality hunting opportunities across much of the northern half of the state. While not as abundant, grouse also are available in the hill country of southeastern Minnesota.

Once you decide on the general area you plan to hunt, do some Internet research, talk to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) area wildlife office, and the county courthouse and get yourself a plat book for that county that shows land ownership.

Next, you need to know where and what type of cover to hunt. Ruffed grouse are birds that prefer younger forests and really like the subtle seams and edges of those forests. Many folks look at a piece of woods and say, “It all looks the same.” The key to being a successful grouse hunter is being able to see the subtle edges, seams and transitions within any given woodlot.

As a general rule of thumb, try to find places where tree sizes at the base are between the diameter of your wrist and your calf. Trees of this size will be between 15-30 feet high. The type of tree, although important, is less important than the size and how close they are together. Try to hunt in areas where aspen are present and avoid areas that are solid conifers. While you may find grouse in such cover, your chances of getting a shot at them is slim.

When you have found a promising piece of grouse cover, where and how do you hunt? Well, if there is a trail that runs through the cover, that’s a great place to start. Remember, grouse are birds of edges and a trail provides two of those edges.

Growing up grouse hunting with my dad and others, we did the vast majority of our hunting walking old logging trails or “tote” roads as my dad called them. Many a grouse met their end as the result of their attraction to the clover, forbs and gravel that make these prime hunting spots so attractive.

If you are hunting without a dog, find a couple friends and put on the patented “partridge push”. This tactic positions one hunter 20 yards into the cover on the left of the trail and one hunter the same distance to the right of the trail. The third hunter should stand on the trail and serve as the push coordinator.

The hunting team proceeds slowly down the trail stopping briefly every 50 or so steps. The push coordinator’s job is to make sure that the team members stay abreast of each other and no one gets ahead of the others. Constant communication among team members is the key to maintaining a safe and productive hunting experience.

On the other hand, an enhanced version of the push uses the assistance of a canine hunting companion. The dog quarters back and forth across the trail in front of the three hunters, flushing any birds that might otherwise try to sit tight and let hunters without a dog walk past.

If the piece of woods you selected to hunt has no trails, then you need to try to find any other type of edge or seam. These could include swamp edges, field edges and edges where two different tree types or sizes come together. You can hunt them much the same way as you would a trail but the walking will be more difficult. Hunting with a team in a trail-less area makes it more difficult to work together and stay in safe position. Be extra conscious of safety.

Hunting linear cover such as trails, seams and edges is a great way to begin your journey grouse hunting.

Have a great hunt and always remember to be sure of your target and what is beyond before taking the shot.

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