EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. - After last year, Ted Dick could be excused for being gun shy about making predictions on ruffed grouse hunting this fall in Minnesota.
The season for ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge opens Saturday, Sept. 15.
Forest game bird coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., Dick last year offered a rosy outlook on hunting prospects after spring drumming counts soared to a statewide average of 2.1 drums per stop, a 57 percent increase from the spring of 2016.
Traditionally, counts vary from 0.6 drums per stop during years of low abundance to 2.0 drums per stop during the banner years so Dick's optimism wasn't unfounded.
All of the signs last fall might have pointed to a banner season, but they didn't translate into birds in the bag, a turn of events that left Dick and other experts scratching their heads. Ruffed grouse populations traditionally follow a 10-year cycle of boom-and-bust, often peaking in years ending in 7, 8 or 9.
"Normally, in the history of doing drumming counts in the last 70 years, when you get close to one of those cyclic peaks, you can usually predict some pretty good grouse hunting," Dick said. "Last year, that really didn't pan out, and we're still kind of at a loss to say why."
The outlook for this year's ruffed grouse season might best be described as a mixed bag. Spring drumming counts were down 29 percent statewide from last year at 1.5 drums per stop. But at the same time, drier spring conditions may have benefited chick survival.
Only time will tell.
"Not to speculate some more, but I have heard more positive brood counts this year than last year and the last several years," Dick said. "Maybe people felt bad for me or something. We said it would be so good last year, and it wasn't.
"Foresters, people in the woods, wildlife staff, they're saying more about more broods around. We'll know more after the first day of season in a couple of weeks."
Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn., said spring drumming counts this year in her work area declined to 1.7 drums from a whopping 3.1 drums in 2017 along the survey route in the WMA and Beltrami Island State Forest.
On the upside, drier spring weather seemed more conducive to brood success than in 2017, when wet conditions in the forest likely hampered survival of ruffed grouse chicks.
"We are hoping that will make up for lower spring (drumming count) numbers," Mehmel said. Last year at this time, she wasn't seeing many broods.
"We have been seeing a few broods," she said. "Not as many as some years, but enough to give some hope for an average hunting season, at any rate."
Mehmel says she recently saw a brood of eight young ruffs that were close to fully grown except for their short, scraggly tails.
"It's always the case - the closer you get to hunting season, the more broods you see," Mehmel said.
Conditions in Beltrami forest remain quite dry, and hunters shouldn't have any trouble accessing roads and trails, Mehmel said. Between Red Lake WMA staff and the area DNR wildlife office in Baudette, Minn., crews maintain more than 100 miles of trails for hunters to access, Mehmel said.
The Lake of the Woods Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Whitetails Unlimited chapter in Baudette help out with trail-clearing efforts, she said.
"When we mow trails, sometimes, we have to go in two different ways because there's a wet spot we can't get through, and this year, it's no problem, so that's nice," she said.
The DNR this fall will collect blood and tissue samples from ruffed grouse that hunters shoot in the Bemidji and Grand Rapids areas to test the birds for West Nile virus. Test kits now are available at regional DNR offices in Bemidji and Grand Rapids, and the goal is to test 400 birds, Dick said.
The DNR is collaborating on the study with Wisconsin and Michigan, and the Ruffed Grouse Society funded the test kits, Dick said. The impact of the mosquito-borne disease on grouse hasn't been closely studied in Minnesota, but research in Pennsylvania has suggested West Nile may affect grouse populations in that state, especially in areas with marginal habitat.
"It's something Midwestern states are starting to look at," Dick said. "Hopefully, it will tell us some things."
Numbers aren't yet available, but Dick says he wouldn't be surprised if last year's ruffed grouse harvest was down 25 percent to 30 percent from the 2016 season, when hunters shot nearly 309,000 birds.
"There are people around that I've hunted with a long time that are serious hunters who said last year was their worst season ever, and I would call it my worst season ever," Dick said. "It just didn't make sense to have a drumming count that good and then hunting be that bad."
Last year's season might have left disgruntled hunters in its wake, but there's no disputing the ruffed grouse's standing as the king of upland game birds in Minnesota. Some 100,000 hunters, give or take a few thousand, hit the woods in pursuit of ruffed grouse every fall, Dick said.
"The bottom line is if you put in the time, if you spend some time out there walking with or without a dog, sooner or later, you're going to run into some memorable action and have some fun," Dick said. "It's hard to say - you never really know until you get out there. Even on the years when the bird numbers are lower, it's still fun.
"It's one of the highlights of the year."
Seasons for rabbits, squirrels and sandhill cranes (northwest region) also open Saturday, Sept. 15. More info: mndnr.gov.
Rules of the hunt
Here's a look at season dates and bag limits for ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Minnesota:
• Ruffed grouse and spruce grouse: Sept. 15 through Jan. 1; daily limit 5 combined, possession limit 10 combined.
• Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 15-Nov. 30 (northwest), Oct. 13-Nov. 30 (east-central); limit 3 daily, 6 in possession.
• Hungarian partridge: Sept.15-Jan. 1; limit 5 daily, 10 in possession.
• More info: mndnr.gov.