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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.

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

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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

Early Season Ruffed Grouse
by Joel Schnell
Released September 18, 2014

Pre-season football is kinda like early ruffed grouse hunting. It offers the flavor of what's to come, but the real deal happens next month. This year we were blessed with the best opener weather for hunting I can recall, cool and sunny with little wind. Savor this moment, we're at the beginning of four months in the field of the best country on earth.

Sights of Early Season

Brilliant goldenrod, friendly daisies, bumblebees on blossoms. These are the sights of September, enjoy them while they last. It's the last gasp of summer, when you can still enjoy your morning coffee from a camp chair without bundling up.

Camp chores are reserved for the hottest part of the day. Clean the cabin chimney and rotate the oldest firewood to the top of the rack. Fall is coming and won't be denied.

Preparing for the Season
Like all athletes, your bird dog needs to ease into the season. A good swim is a low-impact workout for Maggie. She needs to loose a few pounds before the hard running days of October when the hunting is best. A short haircut and nail trim is in order, and check for ticks after every weekend. It'll be dangerously hot at times, so carry plenty of water in the game bag.

For the human athlete, give your boots a fresh coat of waterproofing so you don't have to lug around water-soaked leather. Carry sports drinks in the truck and a snack to keep up the energy.

It's a Jungle Out There
I work edge cover for ruffed grouse in early season. Gives you a better chance to see and shoot a flushing bird. Trails and swamps, timber blow-downs and creek beds might give you just enough clearing to swing the gun. It's pretty wet out where I hunt so the birds aren't crowded near water this year. Normally dogwood berries would be a magnet for grouse but this year's crop seems to have failed.

If you are hunting with a buddy wear plenty of orange and carry a whistle. An orange vest on the dog is not a bad idea either.
Have fun out there, the best is yet to come!

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email

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Ruffed Grouse Minnesota- the Video
by Joel Schnell
Released September 2, 2014

Ruffed grouse is the most popular game bird in Minnesota, and hunter Dave Kufahl describes the hunt and what it means to him. Featuring footage from the hunt, fall leaves in full color, bird dogs in action, and scenes of beauty of the Northwoods. Kufahl describes the season, attending a grouse camp, dog work, and cooking a bird. Maggie the brittany and Barkley the Gordon setter are the canine stars.

Take three minutes to enjoy a hunt with us in ruffed grouse country.

Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com . He can be reached by email

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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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