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2011 MINNESOTA RUFFED GROUSE OPENER: Making inroads to hunter access

If the success of your ruffed grouse hunt in the Brainerd lakes area hinges on the number of birds bagged, this could be an iffy season.

But if your idea of a successful hunt is basking in the September sun on accessible land groomed especially for hunters, you’re in luck in 2011.

Yes, while a wet spring could negatively impact young ruffed grouse numbers, drum averages in the area are up. So, too, is the ever-growing count of hunter walking trails. 

According to Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager in the Brainerd area, the DNR has mowed nearly 60 miles of trails in the area for the upcoming hunting seasons. He said that includes about 50 trail systems totaling about 150 miles.

“They will help hunters who want that non-motorized experience,” Drotts said.

According to Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment and retention coordinator, hunter walking trails offer hundreds of miles of easily accessible trails that wind through wildlife management areas, state forests and other public hunting lands. Many of these trails are gated, allowing foot traffic only, and offer parking lots or easy access to parking. Hunters can expect mowed routes that may follow old logging roads, are planted with clover or pass through forest openings that attract a variety of wildlife, including ruffed grouse.

The hunter walking trails link on the DNR website ( offers a tool that provides information on the locations of many of these trails by name and the county in which they are located. An interactive map allows the user to zoom in and out of the trail area using a compass tool. There is also a downloadable Adobe Acrobat Reader file that displays an aerial view of the trail and the surrounding area. Hunter trail maps also are available at most DNR area wildlife offices.

Maps of area trails also are available at the DNR’s Brainerd office at 1601 Minnesota Drive, Drotts said.

“Those (trails listed) on the website are just those within Wildlife Management Area. But they (hunter walking trails) are also on state forest land and county land,” Drotts said. “When you look at the bigger picture ... A hunter doesn’t care if it’s on a WMA. He just wants public access. And it is actually easier to go down these trails (because they’re groomed). If people want to stop in the office, we have a whole board of maps.”

The ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse seasons opened Saturday. In June, the DNR reported that sharp-tailed grouse counts decrease slightly across the state, with counts in the east-central region declining about 18 percent. And while ruffed grouse numbers are up, particularly in the Brainerd area — this year’s drum average of 2.1 is the eighth highest since 1966 and the highest since a 2.8 in 1998 — a wet summer could offset harvest numbers for area hunters.

“Eighty percent of what the hunters will bag are young birds from this year’s hatch,” Drotts said. “Unfortunately, it was kind of a wet summer and the first couple weeks of June were wet. So I’m being a little cautious. We should have a decent year.

“When there are good drumming numbers that means there’s a good base of adult population numbers. When you look in the fall, if you have good, dry springs and a good hatch, a large proportion will survive. But when you have a wet spring, those chicks are pretty small, and if they keep getting wet they just don’t survive. You have to have a good adult population going into the spring, which we had, and have a good hatch. So that other half is a little iffy. It’s not one of our peak years, but it’s not one of our down years, either.”

Minnesota frequently is the nation’s top ruffed grouse producer. On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, making it the state’s most popular game bird. Top ruffed grouse counties in the state include Aitkin and Cass counties in the Brainerd lakes area.

“Around Brainerd it’s getting a little marginal. There’s too much scattered ag land,” Drotts said. “You don’t get into good grouse hunting until you get to Pine River, Outing, Remer.”

But for those who don’t gauge the success of their hunt on bag numbers ...

“It’s a beautiful time to get out, Drotts said. “And hopefully you’ll take a kid with you. Hunt safe ... Enjoy Mother Nature.”

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to For his blogs, go to