IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA — Hunting is a lot of things, including, these days, driving around. Or what might appear to be driving around. Bill Marchel, Rolf Moen and I were doing just that Thursday, north by northwest of Brainerd, gravel roads leading us, we hoped, to woods laden with ruffed grouse and woodcock.
We knew we would find no such woods. The grouse’s 10-year population cycle is trending down. And we were in between flights of woodcock, a migrator whose abundance will increase when more northern birds pass through in a couple of weeks. Still, there we were, wearing blaze orange shirts, vests and caps, driving from grouse woods to grouse woods, our hopes up, as always, and two dogs with us, a German shorthair and a black Labrador.
Bill first hunted grouse in this part of the state when he was a teenager. Armed with an 870 Remington and a makeshift hunting outfit, he and a few buddies, their newly minted driver’s licenses in their pockets, vectored an hour or so beyond the Brainerd city limits to bushwhack some of the same tangles of mixed-age aspen, gray dogwood and hazel that he, Rolf and I still bushwhack today.
So it was Thursday, beneath steel gray skies, intermittent to driving around, we parked alongside likely grouse and woodcock haunts that for us had some history.
In some of these locales, we recalled red-phase grouse falling to fantastic shots, while in others, red-phase and gray-phase birds flew away unscathed. Also remembered were statuesque points and long retrieves made by great dogs now gone, and the taste of wild birds cooking wildly over glowing coals. While we uncased our guns and cast the dogs ahead, each of these was a part of our collective memory.
“Sally, find the birds,” Rolf said to his 4-year-old shorthair.
Last grouse season and again this year, much has been made about the prospect that West Nile disease might be infecting the state’s ruffed grouse. Most starkly, in 2017, spring drumming counts conducted by the Department of Natural Resources indicated that Minnesota’s ruffie population was at an all-time high. Yet hunting the following autumn was universally unproductive, and grouse numbers seemed instead to be at an all-time low.
DNR researchers subsequently theorized West Nile disease might be killing young grouse in the summer, before they can mature.
“Well, maybe,” Bill said. A wildlife photographer, he’s often outdoors more hours of a day than he is indoors. “But I can tell you as someone who has hunted a lot of grouse in this state over quite a few decades that whatever is affecting these birds in Minnesota has been affecting them a long time, dating at least to the late ’80s and early ’90s.”
The issue is important because ruffed grouse are the state’s most popular game bird. Pheasants in a way are more glamorous, because roosters are colorful and they’re generally more visible targets, when pursued on open prairies and along wetland edges. But pheasant numbers are down, as are duck populations, and the number of hunters who seek them has similarly declined.
Which leaves us with ruffed grouse, a bird that, while still popular to hunt, has nonetheless lost a bunch of stakeholder nimrods; nearly 50,000 in one 10-year span starting in 1999. Grouse harvest numbers are similarly down. And the bird’s population peaks, historically occurring decade by decade, have trended downward.
On the first parcel we hunted, Sally soon pointed a woodcock. But Bill was shielded from the bird as it flushed and couldn’t get a shot. Leaves also cluttered his view. Their coloring is changing, but most of the aspens, ash and oaks we wove among still clung to their foliage.
Also on that first walk, we moved two grouse. But both flushed wild.
Returning to the truck, we gathered the dogs, cased our guns and drove to our next hunting woods.
So it went, one rainwater-dripping patch after another, time passing. Not just hours of the day, but years of our lives, measured by changes in the woods we saw, and the ones we hunted.
In some instances, aspens that 15 years ago we knew as saplings — ideal attractants for woodcock — had aged out of the kind of cover those birds prefer. Similarly, older aspen stands that once were ideal for grouse were too old now.
A century ago, ruffed grouse thrived throughout all but the state’s western and northwestern prairies. Hunting parties at times killed scores in a day. But as forests were cut and farms settled, ruffed grouse became, generally, north-central and northern Minnesota birds, and it is there that their numbers roller-coaster with the presence or absence of logging, fire, disease — and mystery.
We moved about two grouse an hour Thursday, roughly the same as the past couple of years, and we found a handful of woodcock.
But we didn’t fire a shot.
Driving back to Brainerd, grouse hunters drinking coffee, we filed this hunt away, and said we’d be back.