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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.

Late Season Grousing
by Joel Schnell
Released December 17, 2014

As ruffed grouse season nears it's close, the lack of deep snow makes a winter hunt possible yet in Minnesota. It's a different kind of hunt, silent and bleak as the blanket of winter descends upon the land. There are grouse out there to be had, if you are willing to bundle up and get after them.



Snow tires for dogs and man

Properly dog booted, our canine friends relish a winter grouse hunt just like earlier in the season. There's a trick to booting a dog, as I've outlined before. I booted Maggie at the truck, then off we went in pursuit of winter grouse. In this cover snow was crusty and too thin for roosting in. It was easy walking for the dog, compared to deep-snow years. Mags got hot around the deadfall trees that provided a grouse winter cover. But none were home. With nary a glimpse of sun, we wandered around following a swamp edge until it was time to turn around. I even came across my own tracks as I inadvertently walked a circle with no sun as reference point. But we got back on track and slowly made our return trek. With heavy fleece and long johns, I had to stop and rest my hat on a tree branch to cool off for a spell. It's not easy going in the December Northwoods. At a swamp crossing, there was open water under the snow, so I had to watch my footing to stay dry.

Fellow woodsmen

As often this time of year I find the only ones sharing the woods are muzzleloaders looking for the last chance to fill a freezer with venison. After our first hunt I wolfed down some soup from a thermos, then drove down the road to another cover. I chatted with a deer hunter taking his break at the parking area and he gave me a tip- three birds flushed along the river trail!

Off we went, hoping they will still be in the vicinity. Sure enough, Mags suddenly veered off trail and pushed parallel to me. Soon one bird went up, then another. Since they had already been pushed, they didn't let us get too near before making a break for it. The birds flushed to our left and up the hill following the river. So I continued along the trail, and made a push up the hill when I figured I reached the point the birds set down. I was right, as we got a third flush quite nearby. With tricky footing on a hillside I let loose a few rounds, but the bird was unscathed. With gathering darkness we headed back. I took a moment to admire the sound of rushing water as the river dove under a sheet of ice at the tail of a rapids. In the stillness of winter, it sounded like a large broom sweeping the floor, swish-swish-swish-swish.

As we drove home, the sun finally broke out. Huge and orange, it hung on the horizon and painted the snow-covered landscape in amber highlights and blue shadows. Tired, a bit wet and chilled, we returned home. Man and dog slept well that night.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email
info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com


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Ruffed Grouse Camp
by Joel Schnell
Released November 24, 2014

Why let the deer hunters have all the fun, grouse camp can be the highlight of the fall! Nothing like a group of like-minded sportsmen gathered to hunt some new territory, trade secrets and lies, and eat and drink heartily. Round up a few of your friends, call in a favor to borrow a cabin, and let the fun begin.



Gathering of the Nimrods

I teamed up with Dave and Tom for the ride up North, two dogs snoring in kennels in the back. Friday afternoon we hit our first cover. It's a bit awkward hunting with 3 guys, but we put the two dog handlers on the outside and our dog-less hunter walked the trail down the middle. We worked a swampy area I've hunted around before, moved a few grouse and bagged a woodcock. We wrapped up a little before dark and drove the 20 miles to Jim's cabin on the banks of the Mississippi River. Jim and Joe gave us their hunt report over a few beers as we unloaded.

Friday Night Lights

I was assigned dinner first night. I had some venison boudin sausage on crackers for an appetizer, and served Manhattens to whoever wanted one, which was everybody. I had pre-cooked the vegetables and potatoes in foil pans the night before, so into the oven they went to reheat. Part of the trick to cooking for a large group, prep as much as you can ahead of time. Making the camp wait for too late for dinner can lead to an unruly mob. A couple polska kielbasa were simple to brown on the grill for the main course. We caught up on world affairs and solved all of mankind's problems around the kitchen table that evening, then called it a night.

The Main Event

Saturday Morning started out leisurely before daylight with coffee in front of the fire. A few of us early risers cold-started the wood stove; and might as well stay up with a hot cup of joe while the cabin heats up. Nothing like warming your stocking feet in front of the fire with your chair pulled right in front of the heat. Dave shortly set us out with full bellies of eggs, sausage, and potatoes.

The nice part of grouse camp is getting to hunt some new territory. We were far away from my usual haunts. Armed with my Google maps, we hit some areas that looked good from above that didn't from the road. We all got to move some birds, bagged a few, and gave the dogs a workout. We arrived back at camp an hour after dark and it was Tom's turn to cook dinner. Immediately after parking he hit the ground running to get the chicken on the grill. Dave and I put away the dogs and gear, and I got to relax while Tom worked kitchen duty.



Sunday Wrap-up

Sunday we closed up the cabin first thing and hit town for breakfast at the local cafe. We made a little wagon train back towards home and all stopped to hunt at the same spot about 20 miles away. We broke into two groups and worked over an area, then walked out together. Joe had an audience as he bagged the last bird in front of the two groups. And so ended grouse camp 2014. In one form or another I've been enjoying grouse camp for about 15 years. And it's always followed by deer camp a weekend or two later. Who says you can't have too much of a good thing?

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email
info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com


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Five Hot Spots for Ruffed Grouse
by Joel Schnell
Released November 7, 2014

Where to find birds in a cover varies from year to year. The success of the berry crop, how dry the fall has been, where in the cycle we stand, these all contribute. In no particular order, here is where I've been finding birds this fall.

High Bush Cranberries

The dogwood berry crop seems to have failed this year, but I've been finding these berries. They aren't prolific in my covers, so I take notice when I find them. The birds may not be eating the berries yet, but the vicinity of the berry bushes is still a magnet for ruffed grouse.

Trail Edges

The old stand-by, trail edges always produce. Birds seem attracted to the leafy ground cover of strawberry, clover and ferns. Be quick with the gun and you might be rewarded with the elusive right-down-the-trail flush. Just don't whiff the shot!


Old Logging Slash Piles

The piles of logs left at a log landing often produce grouse for me. Tangled in blackerry bushes often, they are a safe haven for birds. Be careful walking through them, the old mossy logs can be a slippery ankle-turner. I've been making a swing around log landings this year and a few more birds in the bag resulted.



Swamp Edges

Ruffed grouse like it wet. Whether alder swamps, creek edges or open water wetlands, the birds will be there. It can be a tricky cover to hunt where the birds hold the advantage. One key to remember is they don't like to flush out into the open over the swamp. So look for reflushes right up against the swamp, and you may get a shot in the clear if you can force the bird off the edge.

Wrist-sized Aspen


Aspen 5-15 years old is the ruffed grouse's home, but not all aspen is alike. When the aspens get wrist thick, look for brushy undergrowth. There is a natural thinning process of the aspen stems at that age. If the thinning results in heavy undergrowth you may be in luck. If the thinning results in an open cover that's easy to walk through, you may find woodcock but not ruffed grouse. There's no way to tell if an aspen cover will be brushy unless you walk through it. Certainly Google Earth won't tell you. The tricky thing about aspen covers is that they change over time. What produces one year may be finished the next. I'm always scouting aspen covers, rotating the old standbys with promising new covers. When you find the right type of cover, it's magic. When the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and all senses alert for a flush, you are in the right place.


Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com .
He can be reached by email
info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com


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Photos from the Hunt

by Joel Schnell
Released October 21, 2014


As I pull my boots on, I notice a lace frayed down to one thread. My brush pants have a hole by the knee that I could fit a 20 gauge shell through. But no time to fix it now, we're off to hunt.

Maggie scratches anxiously at the kennel door with a high-pitched whimper, and I wrap an ecollar around her neck before letting her loose. A couple laps around the truck and she's ready to hit the woods. I set the gps on top of the Jeep to get it's fix. Shell vest on, gun out, a few candy bars in the pocket. I put an orange vest on Maggie and tuck a liter of water in the game pouch. And it's off we go.

It's windy today, and I put the sun over my left shoulder as I walk in. On the return trip I will turn around and just face the sun on my right shoulder. Leaves crunch underfoot, and far off I hear a train whistle. The leaves smell damp and sweetly decaying. I look over the cover, and notice an alder run to one side. Some high bush cranberry scattered about too. I purse my lips for two quick whistles to Mags and head that direction. She arrives well ahead of me, and I walk the edge while she works the thick stuff.

The tinkle-tinkle of the bell stops, and I move in smartly. Around to one side and I approach a little ahead of her, so she sees me. I mumble "Whoa" under my breath, and gingerly part the bushes to keep the gun clear. A whirr of wings and a brown rocket launches from just in front of us. Two quick taps on the trigger and I track a bird down. Mags runs up first and gets a mouth full of feathers. I take the bird, give her a "good girl" and spread the tail fan out. I like the red colored birds, and pluck a feather for the visor in the truck. Into the game pouch the bird goes. Empties spring from the chambers with a loud "Pop" and I awkwardly catch them. They go in the game pouch and fresh shells take their place.

There's a few quaking aspen leaves left, and they flutter like gold coins barely hanging onto the branch. We meander up a hill and back to the trail. Whoever calls Minnesota flat land has never hunted where I do. Maggie makes a pass by me and I drop the water dish on the trail. I call, she comes to me reluctantly but drinks heartily. She starts off again but I call her back and make her drink some more. She lays down and holds the dish between her front feet like Brittanies do. I munch on a salted nut roll and off we go again. That same sharp tweak of pain hits my right knee again, reminding me to drink more water.

The trail opens up a bit to an old log landing. To my right the old slash piles are rotting back into the ground, and are covered in blackberry canes. I wade through them, holding the gun high, the thorns swishing against the nylon brush pants. Sometimes the cagey old birds hold still and wait for us to walk by. This one tries his trick, but luck would have me walking right at him so he flushes his escape. I hold my shot for a moment, waving the barrels between the little aspens tracking his dodging flight. Only one shell fired this time, and one of the aspens falls neatly cleaved in two. Score one for the old bird. Maggie gives me that look, "What was wrong with that one?" It seems stupid to apologize to a dog, but I do. I'm always talking to the dog in the woods, giving her a reference to where I am.
"Find the bird Mags."
"Come around, hunt 'em up."

I stumble over a few woodcock in the young aspens, and they whistle up in flight. I have a few in the freezer so I'll give them a pass this time. I pull off my fleece vest and tuck it in the game pouch. It always seems so cold when I head out, but I'm overheating now. I step over a birch log, and tuck a roll of birch bark in my pocket. Quick fire starter for when I'm back at the cabin. The ferns and tamaracks have changed from green to gold. Pretty late in the year for tall grass and leaves still on the trees, but it won't last long. I snap a quick picture of the birch and soldier on. I tap the compass to move the bubble and get a fix. Time to head back. I'm always amazed at the rich cover on the trail. Clover, strawberry, mushrooms, ferns. Quite a salad for a ruffed grouse. I wonder about the trail; old logging road, or short line railroad bed? I imagine lumberjacks driving horses to pull log sleds over this swampy land in winter. Now those guys earned their pay.

The Jeep appears at the end of the trail. I open the back and let Levi run around a bit while packing up. His time will come soon enough, but plenty of puppy in him yet. Mags needs a boost getting up into her kennel. She has bad knees too. I give her a scratch around the collar and pull a few pickers off her. I pull my fleece vest back on, the chill arrives quickly around dusk. I put the birch bark I saved for the fire on top of the kennels, and shift the Jeep in gear. The dogs are content to curl up in back as we bounce over the trail back to the cabin. Mags starts snoring immediately. She's earned it.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email
info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com


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Where to Begin to Find Hunting Spots
by Joel Schnell
Released October 3, 2014

I got an email the other day, from a veteran returning home and looking for tips on where to start hunting. It's a common question I get. Besides thanking him for his service, I offered the following advice. We have an abundance of public land for ruffed grouse hunting in this state, free to take advantage of. Here's some steps to get started.

Road Maps

I start with an atlas of the entire state. Then narrow it down with the DNR Prim maps or a plat book that show the county lands as well as the state lands. Based on the MN DNR drumming counts each spring, the highest density of ruffed grouse is in the Northeast region. The heart of it is roughly North of US Highway 2 as it winds Northwest from Duluth, I call it the Pastie Curtain (a pastie is a menu item found at the cafe's North of the line, in case you didn't know).

Look for the forest roads and trails in the state forests to begin with. They will insert you in grouse country. Of course, there are plenty of birds South of that region as well. It's just one place to start, to put yourself where the most birds are. Sometimes a drive of an extra half-hour further North will mean lots more birds to see.

Online Detective Work

Next step is to use Google Earth to look over the likely areas. Download the MN DNR hunter walking trail plug-in from their website. Pick out a few of them and look over the cover with the aerial view. The hunter walking trails are in good grouse cover and a good place to start. More detail on the process is from a post I wrote last year.

Boots on the Ground

Look for edge cover to hold birds. Trails are edges, as are swamps. Where a young aspen cut meets older stuff is an edge. You can start on a trail, then veer off to hunt any edges you see. Then return back to the trail to continue on. Also look for slash piles of old logs left from logging. They often have blackberry bushes growing among them, a favorite cover for grouse. I find myself zig-zagging from likely cover spot to the next, following the dog's nose, and my guess which cover holds birds. Don't forget to mark your truck on the gps where you parked before you head out.




But Wait, There's More...

More information can be found at my essays Grouse Maps and the Old Red Barn, and Explore New Hunts in Minnesota Ruffed Grouse Country. Good luck, wear waterproof boots, and get out there.


Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email
info[at]ruffedgrouseminnesota.com


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