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Grouse hunting notebook: Favorable northwest Minnesota outlook; A look back at North Dakota opener, etc.

North Dakota’s grouse and partridge seasons have been open a week, and by all accounts, hunting success was mixed on the opening weekend.

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Hunters in northwest Minnesota should find some birds when the state's ruffed grouse season opens Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. People have reported seeing broods, which is always a good sign.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald
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Grouse and partridge seasons opened Saturday, Sept. 10, in North Dakota, and they get underway Saturday, Sept. 17, in Minnesota. Here are some notes about hunting seasons and prospects in the two states.

Favorable northwest outlook

Ruffed grouse hunters in northwest Minnesota have cause for optimism this fall, it seems, based on brood sightings at Red Lake and Thief Lake wildlife management areas, and Beltrami Island State Forest.

Charlie Tucker, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area
Charlie Tucker, assistant manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

Spring drumming counts were up statewide at 1.9 drums per stop, compared with a statewide average of 1.3 drums per stop in 2021, the DNR reported in July. The Northwest region had the highest spring counts, at 2.9 drums per stop – up from 1.1 drums per stop last year – and the Northeast region tallied 2.0 drums per stop, up from 1.4 in 2021.

Drumming counts at Red Lake and Thief Lake saw similar increases.

“I think we are on track for a decent season – or at least I am personally optimistic,” said Charlie Tucker, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp, south of Roosevelt, Minn.

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Staff at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area in Marshall County echoed that optimism in a newsletter posted Friday, Sept. 9. Drumming counts on both of the WMA’s two survey routes around Thief Lake and Randen Ridge were up from 2021.

“We had a wet spring, with a record amount of precipitation in May, but we began to dry out and warm up after that,” the newsletter indicated. “Staff have been observing broods while working in the field so that is a good sign for this fall.”

Barring heavy rains, access conditions should be good.

“We are relatively dry around here, so that bodes well for walking on forest trails,” said Tucker, the Red Lake WMA manager. “Folks shouldn’t have any extra worries about getting vehicles stuck or anything like that.”

Walking trails within Red Lake WMA and adjacent Beltrami Island State Forest should be accessible, but because of staffing issues, maintenance on some of those trails could be “either behind schedule or nonexistent,” Tucker said.

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“We got a good start on mowing the trails around Norris Camp, but since then we’ve had equipment breakdowns and no one around to fix anything,” he said in an email. “That’s a bummer, but we are hopefully hiring someone soon, so hopefully this will be an aberration and not the new normal.”

Mixed bag for N.D. opener

North Dakota’s grouse and partridge seasons have been open a week, and by all accounts, hunting success was mixed on the opening weekend.

“Reports from central North Dakota were positive,” both for sharptails and partridge, said RJ Gross, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “Plenty of coveys of both, and lots of young birds in the bags.”

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RJ Gross, upland game biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Dickinson, said he hunted in the western Badlands for the opener and didn’t see anyone else hunting upland game.

“I saw mainly bow hunters, elk hunters and mountain bikers using the Maah Daah Hey Trail,” Kolar said. “So, I felt like we had quite a bit of area to ourselves in the uplands, but we only flushed one covey of grouse.

Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department
Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

“The good thing was that it was a covey of 12 birds (possibly one hen and 11 chicks, but by now they sure could be amalgamated broods),” Kolar added. “The bad thing was they didn’t stop flying, so we only got one shot!”

Kolar said he only talked to one other hunter who hunted southwest North Dakota, and his report was similar.

“It took a lot of walking, but they flushed a couple nice-sized coveys,” Kolar said.

Conditions on the landscape are drier than earlier this summer, and Game and Fish recommends that hunters keep up with the daily rural fire danger index, issued by the National Weather Service, for conditions that may be conducive to accidental starting or spread of fires. As of Tuesday, Sept. 13, large portions of western and north-central North Dakota had burning bans or restrictions in place. Fire danger in most of the state remains low, however, with only Divide, Williams, McKenzie, Mountrail, Slope, Sheridan, Eddy, Foster and Griggs counties listed in the “moderate” fire danger category.

Information on current fire danger indices is available at ndresponse.gov.

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Lingering flak

Way back in 2017 about this time, Ted Dick went on record as predicting a banner ruffed grouse season in Minnesota.

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Ted Dick, forest wildlife habitat supervisor, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
File photo/Forum News Service

Based on spring 2017 drumming counts, which were up a whopping 57% from the spring of 2016, Dick’s assessment was reasonable. Unfortunately, drumming counts fell far short of birds in the bag and Dick heard about it.

Five years later, he’s still hearing about it, said Dick, forest habitat supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“I’m still taking a little abuse from 2017, when I told people (ruffed grouse hunting) would be great,” Dick said. “And I haven’t quite gotten over that yet on social media.”

Fast forward to spring 2022, when DNR drumming count surveys tallied an unexpected increase in ruffed grouse numbers. Dick attributes the increase to a good winter with ample snow for ruffed grouse to roost, providing protection both from the elements and predators.

Will that translate to a strong ruffed grouse season this fall? Possibly, Dick says.

“There are a lot of things involved, but the (drumming) counts were way up, so I’m optimistic as heck,” Dick said. “I took three weeks off in October because I’m grouse hunting every day.

“I’m putting my money where my mouth is – I’m thinking it’s going to be pretty good.”

More cautious view

While Dick is bullish on Minnesota’s fall ruffed grouse hunting prospects, Charlotte Roy is taking a more cautious approach. Grouse research scientist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., Roy says a wet, cold spring likely affected brood success in many parts of Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range.

“Last year, we had drought conditions, we had those warm, dry conditions, and this year we had widespread flooding and heavy rain, cold weather,” Roy said. “It was a really late spring.”

Because of that, results from an experimental brood count survey the DNR is exploring show ruffed grouse this year nested later because of the cool, wet conditions than they did in 2021, Roy says.

This year, 52 observers from across Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range – all wildlife and natural resources professionals – provided brood count data.

“Rather than seeing that big peak in broods in late June, which is typical, we’re seeing it in early July,” she said. “So, I think it’s likely that the birds started (nesting) just a little bit later, and it’s possible we’re going to have some younger birds out there this fall than usual because of those kind of marginal nesting conditions this spring.”

The challenge, she says, is managing hunters’ expectations, given the tricky science of predicting fall grouse numbers.

“If your expectations are high, and you don't get what you're wanting, you’re going to be super disappointed,” Roy said. “But if your expectations are realistic, then you have a more metered, or measured experience. And overall, I think people are happier when things turn out more closely to the way that they expect them to.”

Rules of the hunt

Minnesota grouse and partridge

  • Ruffed and spruce grouse: Sept. 17-Jan. 1, 2023; bag limit 5 combined, 10 in possession.
  • Hungarian partridge: Sept. 17-Jan. 1; bag limit 5, 10 in possession.
  • Sharp-tailed grouse, Northwest Zone: Sept. 17-Nov. 30; bag limit 3, 6 in possession.
  • Sharptail, East Central Zone: Closed.
  • Woodcock: Sept. 24-Nov. 7; bag limit 3, 9 in possession; HIP certification required.
  • More info: mndnr.gov.

North Dakota grouse and partridge

  • Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 10-Jan. 1; 3 daily, 12 in possession.
  • Ruffed grouse: Sept. 10-Jan. 1, limited to hunting units in northeastern and north central North Dakota; limit 3 daily, 12 in possession.
  • Hungarian partridge: Sept. 10-Jan. 1; 3 daily, 12 in possession.
  • Woodcock: Sept. 24-Nov. 7; 3 daily, 9 in possession; HIP certification required.
  • More info: gf.nd.gov.

NDGF seeks wing samples

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is encouraging hunters to help in the effort to manage upland game birds in North Dakota by collecting feathers from harvested birds and sending in wing envelopes.

Birds included in the Game and Fish Department’s upland game wing survey, which has been in practice for decades, are ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, turkeys and ruffed grouse.

Collecting enough pheasant samples is typically never a problem, but securing enough sharptail and partridge feathers can be.

Game and Fish biologists will take as many sharptail and partridge feathers as they can get because the more collected, the better the data. Biologists can determine if the birds are male or female, age ratios, survival, nesting success, hatch dates and overall production.

What biologists learn from samples is vital to helping manage North Dakota’s upland game birds.

Instructions for submitting wing data are printed on the envelope.

Hunters can request wing envelopes on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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