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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.

Gearing Up for Ruffed Grouse Season
by Joel Schnell
Released August 23, 2014

Season's fast approaching, perhaps it's time to think about how to get your gear in and out of Minnesota's ruffed grouse country in one piece. We have an investment in our gear, and it deserves protection from bouncing around in the back of a truck over the dirt two-track.

The Dog Box

My go-to dog box is a plastic tote filled with the essentials for running the dog. It's always packed and ready to go. In it go the dog's gear: canned food and a packet of dry, first aid kit, dog booties, extra bell, water canteen, and a few things residing in the vest like e-collar and extra leash (not shown).

Gun items include cloth wipe, gun oil wipes, oil, choke wrench, shells, and bore snake.

Personal items include gloves, neckkie, compasses, gps, knives, antibacterial hand gel, extra truck key, field dressing gloves, survival kit, and bags for bird transport.

The Dog Crates

Of course our most important asset is the dogs. Safety and comfort makes for productive hunting companions. With the new pup I needed another crate to fit the back of the Jeep. Finding nothing on the market to fit my dimensions for a reasonable price, I made my own. A wire crate, with doors on two sides, fit the bill. With a set of bolt cutters and some wire ties to hold it all together, I shortened one end to make it fit.

The Camera and Video Box

We all love taking the "lucky" shot, the photographic wall hanger to share with your friends. Well in photography, luck is defined as preparation meeting opportunity. And being prepared means having your camera with you and accessible when the great shot presents itself. I have a number of different camera boxes and bags, but this is one backcountry option for the dslr, a plastic ammo box with waterproof o-ring. Line it with foam and your camera can safely reside on the truck floor, under the canoe seat when tripping, or on the shelf at the cabin.

In this age of dslr video, I also might bring a digital audio recorder, like this Zoom H2n. It resides in an Otter case ready to go. While the dslr also records audio, It's no where near the quality of a separate mic. And in video, the imagery can be fixed or replaced but not the audio. No good sound, and nothing will save your production. Good thing to remember if you ever record the oral history of your hunting camp, or other stories the old timers can tell you.

Take some time now to put together your traveling Minnesota ruffed grouse hunting kit. Soon we will be bouncing down the dusty country roads to our favorite covers. Be ready for the action.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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Paddle and Pedal Ruffed Grouse Country
by Joel Schnell
Released August 4, 2014

The best way to see Minnesota's ruffed grouse country in the summer is from a canoe. The second best way is by bicycle. This state offers a number of canoe-able rivers to take, but not all have a shuttle service to retrieve your truck upstream. Try a combination of paddle downstream and pedal upstream to experience the Northwoods in summer.

Where to start

The MN DNR website has maps of many of the best canoe rivers in the state, and best yet is their river level indicator. It will tell you whether you will be floating a river or walking it. There are many canoe outfitters and campgrounds that offer shuttle service for your vehicle downstream, and by all means use them when you can. Sometimes if that's not practical, I shuttle back to the vehicle on my bike on an overnight trip. I leave a beater bike at my pull-out location, chained to a tree a bit in the woods, out of sight. For daytrips,I sometimes pull the front wheel and put the bike in the center of the canoe.

An Exhilarating ride

By canoe, the river often moves at a leisurely pace. Casting for smallies along the way, taking in the sun. The ride back, however, is a trip through the woods at a breakneck speed by contrast. And nice to leave the buzzing, flying bloodsucking companions far behind, struggling to keep up.

A few trips I've taken
Here's a few examples of where I've made the paddle and pedal tripping work.

Parent Lake loop in the BWCAW
The most challenging (but rewarding) trip I've taken is for experienced trippers only, in good physical condition. First you paddle down Hog Creek, one of those beautiful and remote Boundary Waters rivers. You're more likely to encounter a moose fording the stream than seeing other campers. Spend the night at Perent lake and feast on walleye dinner. The next day takes you down Parent River to Isabella Lake. After another night under the stars, paddle down Isabella River, then take the Island River through the wild rice beds on your return to where the bike is stashed at Comfort Lake. From there, ride the Superior National forest logging roads back to your car. Its a trip for packing light, and wet-footing as you line the canoe through a few of the shallow river spots.

The Big Muddy

The Mississippi River between Jacobson and Aitken offers several overnight options. This far North, the river of barges and paddlewheelers is more like a farm country stream. But it holds paddle-sized smallies and walleyes and has enough water to float a canoe all summer long.

The Namekagon

While technically a Wisconsin trip, the Namekagon flows into the St. Croix River bordering our states. A splendid easy-going river with great campsites. Try putting in at McDowell Bridge and taking out at Riverside.

The Kettle River

An outstanding smallmouth river, the Kettle between Willow River and Banning State Park is a shallow, rocky river but worth an occasional portage. You'll pull out at the landing before the big rapids in Banning, which are rated for expert whitewater travel only.

The Cannon River

While not really running through ruffed grouse country, the Cannon is a nice paddle day trip for Twin Cities residents. It features a nice paved bike trail that follows the South bank of the river between Cannon Falls and Welch.

There are many other options for Minnesota river canoeing, and I try to hit several each summer. See the DNR website for more Minnesota Water Trails.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com

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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

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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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