Going Deep and Dirty for Minnesota Ruffs
Author: John D. Taylor
Minnesota's 640,000-acre Chippewa National Forest, near Deer River, is part of the reason the state calls itself "The House of Grouse."
Minnesota is as close to Tranquility as it gets. Aspens glow golden in late-afternoon October sunshine. The rich scents of damp earth and leaf humus ride a breeze straight from Canada. Grandfather's side-by-side is velvet smooth between the hands. Of course there's an orange belton DeCoverly Kennels English setter coursing acres of forearm-thick saplings, spread out like a banquet in front of you. Pads patter on leaves. The bell jingles its happy song. And when liquid dog--suddenly--becomes a chiseled canine statue, well, you've crossed into the Promised Land, son. Nope, I can't ever get enough of Minnesota.
Bowen Lodge, near Deer River, on Lake Winnibigoshish, owned by Bill, Gail and Bob Heig is usually my Minnesota home-away-from-home. Gail is a fantastic hostess--try a perpetual smile mixed with portabello mushrooms, grouse kabobs, steaks and really good wine for dinner after a day's bird hunting. Quiet Bob has all kinds of neat stories from South Dakota during the Depression, if you listen, and Bill is the quintessential North Country grouse man. Part biologist (he was), part humorist (he tells great jokes), and smart enough to know when to just suggest a direction to go in, or pinpoint a particular covert for those having a hard time. He's precisely the kind of hunting partner any grouse person worth their salt would love to share that sacred time with.
Bill and Gail hosted our group for dinner one evening, on last fall's adventure. Jerry and Betsy Kotter were there. (Jerry's setter, "Little", won the 2001 Wisconsin Woodcock Championship the next day.) There was Bill and Sally Searle, who have hunted nearly everything across the entire planet. Yet, they keep coming back to northern Minnesota for grouse. Habitat, challenges and the traditions make grouse hunting the "most interesting hunting we've found," Bill Searle said. Sapphire and Bang, black Labs, seemed to agree. After a couple of glasses of wine, Bill and Gail Heig were gently ribbing Sally, in a slight shooting slump, about having to go "deep and dirty" into the puckerbrush in the morning if she wanted to shoot some birds. Sally, smiling, gave it right back to them.
Going "deep and dirty" is not the traditional way to hunt Minnesota grouse.
"Our state provides ruffed grouse shooting that hunters in other states only dream about," says Dan Desseker, forest wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. "During a high-population year, such as 1997, a Minnesota hunter can flush up to 40 ruffed grouse on a good day. During an excellent year in other ruffed grouse states such as Vermont or Virginia, hunters are thrilled, during a day of hunting, to see even 10 birds. Many Minnesota grouse hunters don't know just how good they've got it."
Minnesota has about 140,000 grouse hunters, compared to 150,000 grouse hunters in Wisconsin, or 200,000 grouse hunters in Michigan. Dessecker maintains Minnesota gunners get more flushes and more birds bagged per hunter. More public land for grouse hunting than in any other state doesn't hurt either.
Typically, Minnesota hunters walk the logging trails through aspen cuts to find grouse. When the grouse cycle is high, this is a productive technique. In prime habitat, there are many birds that live near trails. Also, young grouse, drawn by clover planted along the trails after logging, often use habitat adjacent to logging trails.
Last fall, however; the cycle was on its way down. Also, 640,000-acre Chippewa National Forest experienced June snows in 2001, which seriously reduced the number of young grouse produced, Bill Heig told me. By mid-October, grouse season was nearly a month old. Trail-oriented birds played the game often enough to know better, and with fewer young birds around, trail hunting wasn't panning out.
When I'm not dreaming about Minnesota, I'm chasing grouse in the Pennsylvania hinterlands, where going "deep and dirty" is the preferred technique. Here, only hunters willing to go deeper and dirtier bag birds. In addition, my DeCoverly setter Shana has never been trail-oriented--whither she and her choke-bored nose go, she expects me to follow. So when she led me deeper and deeper into the Chippewa's cuts, it wasn't surprising that we were finding better bird numbers than trail walkers.
I won't forget Shana sliding into one beautiful grouse point after another that day--several pretzel twists, a crouched quick affair, and one bird pinned from 30 yards out in strong wind. (Had my shooting--in a woodcock-induced slump that afternoon--only matched her bird work, we would have had another bird for the bag.) It's a good thing dogs are patient and have short memories.
Are there special considerations when going "deep and dirty?"
Sizing up good grouse off-trail cover takes a more careful eye, and a sense of how grouse and habitat come together, because the way pieces of cover come together often make one covert better than another.
Daily grouse cycles are important, too. Grouse feed first thing in the morning, head for dense, protective cover to loaf the day away, then make a serious effort at tanking up for the night a few hours before sunset. Knowing this schedule, pay attention to a covert's forest types and how they overlap. Grouse use each area differently. In autumn, when grouse are switching from a forb-, berry- and insect-oriented diet to a bud-oriented diet, aspen is the prime Lake States food source. Tangled alder swamps and young conifer patches are typical midday loafing areas. Coverts with all three of these areas close to one another are prime grouse areas. Work the aspens early and late in the day. And if you're up for a gunning challenge, try booting grouse out of a tamarack swamp or a pine grove at midday!
I like to think of logging trails as interstates, and deer trails as secondary roads--paths to secret honey holes-- in grouse coverts. Deer travel the path of least resistance, and following a deer trail makes for easier walking and smoother shooting, because the brush around deer trails is less dense. If you have a sense of how a covert is put together, follow deer trails to get where you want to go, or as an adventure.
Also, going "deep and dirty" requires excellent woodsmanship--or the ability to use a compass or GPS system to navigate. Like the captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald, you don't want your good ship and crew to perish in the gales of November and have to spend a night in the woods. Getting tangled up and turned around is easy, especially in flat, Lake Country woods. I nearly did it this fall using a shortcut around a beaver dam in a new covert. I ended up circling the dam. I knew the direction I wanted to go, and stumbled into a main trail, but the long walk out was scary, especially since I wasn't sure the trail I was on would arrive back at the truck.
Maybe I should have tried an air horn, like an old Michigan grouse hunter and his old pointer had years back. I was their guide. Before we left, he plugged a power cord into his car's lighter, set a timer for three hours, and put a magnetic-mount air horn on his car roof. It would baaaooogaaa until he turned it off, or the battery went dead. It worked, but it was really loud!
In the grouse woods, being flexible and imaginative is often the key to success. Try going deep and dirty this season and see if you don't agree.