At one-half hour prior to sunrise on Saturday, Sept. 19 the 2020 Minnesota hunting season on ruffed grouse will commence.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducts annual springtime ruffed grouse drumming counts, and this year's tally was roughly the same as last year’s, with 1.6 drums per stop.

A ruffed grouse hunter and his dog admire a grouse taken in ideal habitat consisting of new-growth aspen interspersed with forest openings. Photo by Bill Marchel
A ruffed grouse hunter and his dog admire a grouse taken in ideal habitat consisting of new-growth aspen interspersed with forest openings. Photo by Bill Marchel

Ruffed grouse populations peak about every 10 years, then fall, often dramatically, before beginning a gradual upturn. Biologists still don't fully understand why grouse populations cycle up and down. The last ruffed grouse population peak occurred in 2017 when 2.1 drums per stop were counted.

But all is not lost for those willing to stomp the forests on opening day. Despite the less-than stellar reports, Minnesota is commonly the nation's top producer of ruffed grouse, even during low population cycles.

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When grouse numbers are down, hunters will want to concentrate their efforts in the absolute best habitat.

Throughout most of the forested regions of Minnesota, the favorite fall food of ruffed grouse is the fruit of gray dogwood. This head-high shrub produces small, white or light green berries that ruffs find irresistible.

Gray dogwood grows in damp areas and is prevalent in the transition zone where alder lowlands rise and meet an aspen forest. Also look for gray dogwood along creeks, especially those with an open canopy. Ruffed grouse may be found feeding on dogwood fruit throughout the day, but the best time to hunt around food sources is during late afternoon because grouse typically fill their crops before going to roost.

Opening day grouse hunters can also find ruffed grouse by walking logging trails. Many plant species on which ruffed grouse forage are sun-loving plants, and logging roads create openings in the forest which allow certain plant species to prosper that would otherwise be unable to compete. Dogwood, chokecherry, hazel, high-bush cranberry and other grouse favorites grow along logging roads or on the edges of log landings, as well as natural forest clearings.

Ruffed grouse find the fruit of gray dogwood irresistible. The head-high shrubs grow in damp areas exposed to sunlight, such as forest openings and along creeks with an open canopy. Photo by Bill Marchel
Ruffed grouse find the fruit of gray dogwood irresistible. The head-high shrubs grow in damp areas exposed to sunlight, such as forest openings and along creeks with an open canopy. Photo by Bill Marchel

Ruffed grouse are also attracted to logging roads because many have been planted with clover, another favorite grouse food. Ruffs are further attracted to logging roads because there they can gather gravel for their crops, and take dust baths in the sandy areas.

If there is such a thing as a classic ruffed grouse covert, it would have to include an area that was logged a decade or so ago and has since regenerated into thick aspen. If the location also has mature aspens and alder lowlands nearby, so much the better.

Just upstream from the 40 Islands in the Mississippi

The late Gordon Gullion, a ruffed grouse expert, claimed that ruffs preferred overgrown clear-cuts as brood rearing cover. His theory was that the stem density of regenerated aspen, and the resulting overhead canopy, provided protection against predators. Whatever the reason, decade-old clear-cuts do hold grouse. Small openings in a clear-cut, like natural meadows, allow sunlight to reach shrubs such as hazel and dogwood, and make a good spot even better.

Opening day grouse hunters should find at least a few birds if they focus on prime habitat.

Things to keep in mind

  • Check the contents of the crops of any ruffed grouse you harvest. This will tell what the birds were feeding on and thus where to find more grouse.

  • If you flush a grouse and don't get a shot (or miss) it is usually a good idea to walk in the direction the grouse flew since early season birds typically don't fly more than about 150 yards before landing. This is especially a good idea when grouse numbers are low.

  • Early season grouse hunters will often encounter warm temperatures. Be sure to carry plenty of water for you and your dog.

  • A good hatch can offset a decrease in springtime ruffed grouse drumming counts. Only time in the field will determine if there is a healthy population of young grouse this fall.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.