Hunting

Weiss: Back to my first love of hunting – grouse – Rochester Minnesota news, weather, sports

Putting an extra handful of 20 gauge seashells in my hunting bag before hunting grouse was a prima facie example of irrational optimism.

I have only shot a grouse twice in the past few decades and hadn’t heard or seen much of it. Yet in early December I went grouse hunting, not for a frolic in the past, but with the plausible hope of catching a bird.

You see, while hunting turkeys on state forest lands last spring, I heard at least eight male grouse drumming within a two mile radius, all near the trails.

I was stunned and knew I would be back with the deer hunters with leaves and guns gone. I wanted to hear that sudden, heartbreaking purr of the toilet, to see the flightmasters dodge the trees. Maybe I would have a good shot and maybe, just maybe, bag one.

It would be like the Golden Age, with one huge caveat – I have changed dramatically from the heyday of grouse hunting maybe 40 years ago. Back then, if I hadn’t conquered at least three bluffs from Whitewater or Snake Creek, it wasn’t a real hunt. Now a bluff is enough.

Grouse hunting was my first hunting passion when I first started roaming the blufflands in the late 1970s. We had one of the best grouse hunts in the upper Midwest. I usually hunted solo and if I didn’t get at least 15-20 flushes an afternoon it was a failure. Yes, most of the grouse were chased out of reach and on a bluff. But every once in a while – wonderful to remember – we stayed at the top. Grouse are wonderful, dodging, twisted and elusive flyers, but they are not marathon runners. They would still descend to less than 300 to 400 feet. I tagged this bird, walked slowly, and rinsed it.

At the time, the number of men playing drums was much higher. The southeast peak, according to the Natural Resources Department, was 2.5 drums per stop in the mid-1980s. Then it crashed in five years and bottomed out about 0.4 barrels ago. is ten years old; it has since fallen to 0.9 this year.

What happened, I believe, is that the misuse of land for many decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with grazing or overexploitation of much of the blufflands, resulted in left the land pretty much devoid of decent vegetation. By the middle of the last century, however, farmers began to make better use of their land. Voila – young, rejuvenated forests and lots of grouse.

The forests mature, however, making them better for deer and turkeys; with this, the beautiful years of grouse disappeared above the cliff tops. Yet I never forgot those years when I was younger and stronger and I could crash into the thickets, beat the bluffs, waiting for those sweet, sweet flashes of heat.

That’s what I thought when I loaded an extra handful of seashells into my orange vest for a hunt before the end of January 2nd.

I started to push my way through the woods. Within 100 yards, I was back to the car, dropping the gun – it kept tangling in the brush. We humans are not meant to dodge, twist elusive ones as we walk through the woods.

It took me a while to find my grouse senses, remember what to look for. I continued, walking near where I heard drums last spring, when …

VROMBISSEMENT!

A well in the woods to my right, then two more further. I went there for both because I had seen them. I walked slowly.

VROMBISSEMENT!

Another flush, this time a grouse perched high in a tree, something I’ve never seen before. I walked slowly.

VROMBISSEMENT!

I took two shots of Hail Mary because it doesn’t take much to knock a grouse down, compared to their larger cousins, the pheasant and turkey. Both missed. But I could smell the gunpowder and saw two exhausted shells smoking in the damp humus. I picked them up, smelled them, put them in my jacket.

A 20 caliber shell rests on the ground after being fired in pursuit of a grouse.

Contribution / John Weiss

I felt young again, my heart and mind went up 40 years. As I walked, the 40 years piled up on me. I learned two things: first, that I had changed a lot during these four decades; Second, the tetras have not changed, they are still sneaky, cunning and cunning survivors.

The walk on the rocky path was as difficult as I can remember the turkey hunt; gravity sent reality back to me. I gasped a bit, slowed down, something I never would have done 40 years ago.

On the crest of the cliff was a nice recreation trail and I was quickly wowed by the siren call of an easy walk. Like Ulysses, I was able to resist the call and head for the thickets, stumbling, crashing, twisting, stopping in the open in the event of a flush. This way I went, and that, in the direction of the cedars, then the dead ends. Nothing.

I renewed my expired Prickly Ash Haters Society membership and added a Lifetime Membership to the Buckthorn Stinks Club.

Nothing.

Well let’s go back to the trail to move on to better habitat.

Track?

Under the heavy gray sky, I had lost track of where I was. I was temporarily dislocated geographically. Eventually I walked around enough to come across the trail. I stayed on it because it was so much easier to walk and because the spring beaters were close to the trail. I get wiser as I get weaker.

Nothing.

After a few hours I walked down the trail, had lunch, and came back a bit more, all the way down.

That was it. But I still hunted the grouse and even got a shot.

I wonder what the Snake Creek State Forest looks like? It would be fun to hunt in the recent snow and maybe, just maybe we will have a favorite grouse dish flamed in brandy, simmered for an hour with a little wine at the end, served over wild rice.

• • • • •

I was not the only one to see more grouse.

“The drum was the same, the grouse routes didn’t reflect an increase, but we definitely shot more flush when we were in the field,” said Jaime Edwards, director of the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. “I think it’s just a good year for them.

A permanent increase or a short-term bump? “I have no idea, I have no idea,” she said. There have been no major changes in the forest, she said.

In the north, aspens are the key to a good grouse, but not so much here. Additionally, northern grouse undergo a marked cycle of around 10 years, but that does not happen here.

The MNR here doesn’t specifically manage the grouse, but other habitat improvements should help them as well, she said. For example, work done this month in the northern part of the WMA will connect a rejuvenated prairie to a cornfield and bring in more native shrubs, such as hazelnut, sumac, and native dogwood.

She said she was unwilling to deal heavily for the grouse because the young forest that could return may not be as good for the wildlife in general. “Often, it is not the oaks that come back” and the oaks are a good tree for wildlife. Instead, it could be buckthorn.

Joe Brown, forestry supervisor for the MNR Lewiston area, said this area is not considered a large grouse range, so grouse management “is not really a top priority for us.” But to the north, MNR has about 50 Ruffed Grouse management areas where trees are managed for different age classes to give the grouse the young forests they need throughout the year.

Down here they are harvesting trees and some younger trees are coming back so that it can help the tetras with other wildlife, he said. The area doesn’t have a lot of aspens, he says.

John Weiss has written and reported on outdoor topics for the Post Bulletin for 45 years. He is the author of the book “Backroads: The Best of the Best by post-newsletter columnist John Weiss”