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father and son hunting ruffed grouse

Ruffed Grouse Minnesota is an online magazine devoted to upland hunting in the Upper Midwest. Published twice a month by photographer Joel Schnell.

Levi at 14 Weeks
by Joel Schnell
Released July 20, 2014

Puppies grow up too fast. In the 8 to 16 weeks age, a pup develops from a cute furball into a rookie bird dog. Time to imprint some basic commands into Levi's brain, and I don't want to miss this window.

Simple fetch with the training dummy

I like this black and white dummy with ribbons attached. It really grabs the pup's attention. I also have Levi tethered to a 15 foot checkcord he drags behind. The drill is simple, about 5 repetitions of tossing the dummy with the command "fetch". Say "Come" as he returns, and use the checkcord to guide him back if he strays. It's important to keep this drill fun and easy. Lots of praise and maybe a dog treat. It's also important to make sure the pup brings back the dummy every time. No room for freelancing here.

Building blocks of the ruffed grouse dog

The checkcord is useful for training a running pattern as well. A walk with pup on the end of the checkcord, then a toot of the whistle and change of direction. A gentle tug on the checkcord brings pup around.

The "Come" command is given often, and reel the pup in if he dawdles. Again, freelancing is not an option. "Sit" and "Whoa" are being trained at this time as well, with dog biscuits being the reward.

The 8-16 week pup is a time of great expectation. Levi is generally eager to please, and every week he grows taller and faster. Our off-leash walks in short cover have evolved. Up to last week, my Brittany Maggie ran far afield, and Levi would chase up to about 30 feet from me and stop, then return to my heels. Now he keeps up to Maggie (much to her annoyance), nipping at her collar.
Compare these picture to those of the last month, and see how much he has grown.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

The 2014 Ruffed Grouse Draft Results
by Joel Schnell
Released July 1, 2014

In smoke filled rooms, analysts pour over the stats. Weary eyes shuffle spreadsheets between cold cups of coffee. Somebody asks for the field report from the Northeast region. Then a fist pounds the table, and the room looks up. "Thirty Four percent increase in ruffed grouse drumming!" he declares. The room erupts in cheering, and backs are slapped and fists pump.

Big Stakes

Well, it's a bit of dramatic license, but the significance of the event is true. For 65 years the Minnesota DNR has monitored ruffed grouse populations, and the stakes are huge. Ruffed Grouse are the state's most popular game bird, and when the population is up, vacations are scheduled around the chance to harvest some of the bounty. Resorts in far-flung parts of the state become busy during what should be a slow time of the year, and much of that activity is out-of-state dollars. Over a million birds have been harvested in peak years.

The Mysterious Cycle

Ruffed grouse populations soar on a 10-year cycle, the latest peak occurring in 2009. Which means we are over the hump, and more birds in the bag should be the trend the next 5 years. The cause of the cycle is not known, but research supports a theory. Hawks, owls and other avian predators move South into the state every ten years after exhausting their food sources in Canada. Once our ruffed grouse and rabbits are depleted, they retreat North, allowing our birds to replenish.

Drumming Counts

The drumming counts occur as the DNR and cooperating organizations travel 121 routes around the state. The counters drive the routes, stop for a moment, and listen for drumming ruffed grouse. They record their findings, and comparison to previous years results in a picture of how the ruffed grouse population is doing. The sound they are listening for is like an old tractor starting up. Male ruffed grouse beat their wings in a distinctive drumming sound to attract mates and declare their territory.

Press Release

And now, without further ado, I give you the MN DNR Drumming Counts for 2014:

DNR NEWS – FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                        June 30, 2014
Ruffed grouse counts see increase, possibly signaling uptrend

Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were significantly higher than last year across most of the bird’s range, according to a survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“Ruffed grouse drums increased 34 percent from the previous year, with the increase happening in the northern part of the state,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “This may signal the start of an upswing in the grouse cycle that since 2009 has been in the declining phase.”
The increase is consistent with changes typical of the 10-year grouse cycle. The most recent peak in drum counts occurred in 2009. The cycle is less pronounced in the more southern regions of the state, near the edge of the ruffed grouse range.
Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. 
Compared to last year’s survey, 2014 survey results for ruffed grouse indicated increases in the northeast survey region, which is the core of grouse range in Minnesota, from 0.9 drums per stop in 2013 to 1.3 in 2014. Drumming counts in the northwest increased from 0.7 drums per stop in 2013 to 1.2 in 2014. Drumming counts did not increase in the central hardwoods or southeast, with an average of 0.8 and 0.3 drums per stop, respectively.
Ruffed grouse populations, which tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle, are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. This year observers recorded 1.1 drums per stop statewide. The averages during 2012 and 2013 were 1.0 and 0.9, respectively. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low grouse abundance to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.
Drumming counts are an indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population. The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.
Minnesota frequently is the nation’s top ruffed grouse producer. On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, also making it the state's most popular game bird. During the peak years of 1971 and 1989, hunters harvested more than 1 million ruffed grouse. Michigan and Wisconsin, which frequently field more hunters than Minnesota, round out the top three states in ruffed grouse harvest.
One reason for Minnesota’s status as a top grouse producer is an abundance of aspen and other ruffed grouse habitat, much of it located on county, state and national forests, where public hunting is allowed. An estimated 11.5 million of the state's 16.3 million acres of forest are grouse habitat.
For the past 65 years, DNR biologists have monitored ruffed grouse populations. This year,
DNR staff and cooperators from 11 organizations surveyed 121 routes across the state.

Detailed reports can be found on the DNR website

Here is one spring puppy excited about the news!

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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Springtime is for Puppies
by Joel Schnell
Released June 14, 2014

With my Brittany Maggie reaching 11 years old, it's time to add a bracemate to learn the ropes of bird hunting. Meet Levi, English Springer Spaniel, 8 weeks old. There's a whole new world to explore for Levi, and I hope to give him the best of Minnesota ruffed grouse and pheasant hunting to experience.

Pointers and Flushers

For those who don't know, running pointers versus flushing dogs requires entirely different kinds of bird work. Pointers run out far afield searching for birds. They then point and hold the bird, waiting for the gunner. Flushers stay closer to the gun, running a windshield-wiper pattern in front of you to flush the bird. Flushers may be better suited for retrieving and water work as well. Typically, the two types are not run at the same time, but I have done it before. That is not the plan however, as I usually rotate dogs during a day afield.

Puppy Training

Having a pup in the house is an all-consuming effort. Peeing, pooping, and chewing all require patience and repetition to control. I start out slow in the first week and build upon pup's experience. Start with the name, always call in pup by name (no nicknames at this point) with enthusiasm in your voice. Leash and lead training start as well, with the pup dragging a short length of cord at first and gradually working up to the leash and tie-out. Potty training includes frequent trips outside to a designated area, and praise when pup does his duty. He is introduced to his crate gradually, and vehicle rides.

A Whole New World

I try to get Levi out for a variety of experiences. Explore the play lot in the neighborhood, bring over the neighbor's kids for play time. Introduce pup to other dogs, on a leash and on neutral territory for both dogs. Every rain drop, every dragonfly, every flower is new for pup to experience.

An Old Dog and A New

Having two dogs in the house has advantages. Pup gets to follow the old dog outside for potty breaks, and roughhousing teaches pup his place in the pack. It's a challenge to keep them fed separately, and at times I feel like a playground supervisor when they get tangled up. Two of everything is required, including custom building a crate for both dogs to ride in the back of the SUV (more on this later).

A great big adventure awaits us, as Levi learns the ropes of bird hunting. Come along for the ride.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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Becoming a Steward of Your Woods
by Joel Schnell
Released May 27, 2014

A visit with a forester is more than a walk in the woods. The first step in designing a management plan, consulting with an expert reveals much of what's possible in your forest. Your DNR or county forester can help, or provide resources to find a private woodland consultant. It's a rewarding four-step process, and every landowner in Minnesota should try it for their ruffed grouse woods. There may be financial rewards of tax breaks or timber sales in it for you, or satisfaction of leaving a legacy of well-managed land.

Step One: Set management objectives

Put pen to paper and write out your goals. Do you want to create wildlife habitat? Provide firewood cutting? Manage a timber sale? Create an esthetically pleasing woods around the cabin? Or a combination of several of these? Especially if there is multiple landowners or family involved, it helps to keep everyone in agreement on what you want your forest to look like.

Step Two: Inventory and evaluate your land

Make a diagram of your property, and draw boundaries of the cover types (hardwoods, conifers, wetland, etc.). Make note of the surrounding properties types as well. Your forester may help you identify types of trees.

Step Three: Seek professional assistance

Discuss with your advisor your goals and how the inventory of your land matches them. Ask for advice on changes that can help you reach your goals. Your forester may suggest some chainsaw work, a timber sale, a prescribed burn, or perhaps nothing at all. He can suggest the types of trees to plant that will thrive in your property that will match your goals. He can point out problem areas of trees under stress of disease or overcrowding. A picture should emerge of any changes you need to accomplish, and draw another diagram of your property showing them.

Step Four: Finalize your management plan

When you are done, write up a document with the following information: An inventory of tree species, wildlife and cover types. A diagram of your property as it is and after following your management goals. Field notes of any observations about your land revealed by your advisor. And finally a work schedule. Describe the planting or cutting you need to do and set a timetable for it.

There is a wealth of information available to the Minnesota landowner. Your county, the local DNR office, the University of Minnesota Extension "My Minnesota Woods" program, and groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society will help. Right now is a good time to start planting trees for the next generation of forest lovers you know.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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Get Down to Paw-Level for Better Bird Dog Pictures
by Joel Schnell
Released May 8, 2014

They give us their all, our ruffed grouse dogs do. They tear through the nastiest thickets to find us birds, risking injury and ignoring discomfort. Loyal to a fault, they are our companions in the lonely bird covers- places swampy and full of things trying to stick and trip you from all sides. Honor your best canine friend with a photo in their prime.

Down to their level

Better bird dog pictures take a little work and planning. Try to eliminate all the distracting brush and weeds in between your and your dog. Get up close, and kneel down to paws-level. Think of it as a portrait, focus on the face of your subject. Brush off the pickers that cling to fur, whoa your dog and take a meaningful picture. Maybe hold a training wing or have a helper distract your dog off-camera. Run your hand under his belly to stiffen the back and pull the tail up. Take a breath and hold the camera still. Check focus and squeeze off a series of photos for editing later. Remember you are taking an heirloom image as part of your family history.

A lasting image will freeze in time a bird dog whose life is far too short.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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