Ruffed Grouse Minnesota is an online magazine devoted to upland hunting in the Upper Midwest. Published twice a month by photographer Joel Schnell.
One Thousand BB's
by Joel Schnell
(Released June 19, 2013)
Growing up in ruffed grouse country, I remember summers with my buddies running free about the countryside. Simple pleasures we had, like BB guns, catching lightning bugs, bike riding. And the first few times meeting up with partridge left a strong impression.
When I was about 10, I got ahold of my Uncles old Red Ryder BB gun, the one with the wood stock and lever action. Once cocked, with a spring-sounding clank it would propel a BB about as fast as I could throw a wiffle ball. And accurate? At 20 paces, if I held about 2 feet to the left, Id hit a milk jug with a satisfying thunk. It was great fun. With a pocket full of lawn mowing money and a trip to the Coast to Coast store, I came home with a prize- a yellow and black box of One Thousand BBs. How many is a thousand to a 10 year old? Maybe as many as stars seen while lying on my back at night, chewing on a stalk of grass. Maybe as many as the frogs I could hear peeping in the swamp when I was out collecting lighting bugs in a Mason jar.
A Legion of Targets
One day, in the lazy days of August, I was looking for something to do. In the years before summer jobs, we had all the biking and swimming at the beach we could handle. I had better find a hobby- or my mother would send me out to the garden to weed. So I called my buddy with an idea. Hey Squirrel, want to help me shoot up that whole box of a thousand BBs in the school forest? So off we went, riding through town, one hand on the handlebar of the bike and one holding that gun. The square BB box made an imprint on the back pocket of my jeans. Past the high school, down the long hill through the school hollow, up the dusty service road to the school pond we went. Dismounted, our targets were legion. Big gray grasshoppers- as big as my pinky finger, the kind that spit tobacco juice when you catch them. They make that annoying clicking sound when they fly before setting down close by. So wed walk the dusty road, kicking up hoppers, hold a little to the left- and with that metallic clank and kick of dust, wed take turns shooting them with the old Red Ryder. All afternoon we hunted hoppers, and came back the next day to finish off that box of BBs. Wed plink any bug big enough to aim at. I held bragging rights for the best shot, a real one-of-a-kind. While standing on the little dam holding back the school pond, a big 4-wing dragonfly buzzed by. Darting back and forth, it hesitated just below me above the water. One Mississippi, two Mississippi- and I had that gun up and clank, I popped it in mid-air. Try that one, kids.
As we walked that dusty road, I heard a distant THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. It gradually got louder as we walked, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP then quiet for a spell. Of course, growing up in partridge country, Id heard that sound before but never gave it a thought. Just some farmer starting up an old tractor- who knows. In those days, tractors had only 4 wheels and the ones in front were small skinny ones. THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. I just couldnt figure what a farmer was doing back there in the school forest, but there was a clearing up ahead to see. Nope, no tractor, but as we walked past, I heard it again- this time behind us! We discussed it, and in a moment of 10-year-old brilliance, determined it was a partridge drumming on a log. I thought, and still do, that it was a remarkable bird.
Years later, armed with an old Mossberg bolt-action 20 guage, I got my first taste of partridge hunting. We went to a farm where cattle grazed in the popples. That place always attracted birds. With Dad and older brothers on either side of me, we pushed the brush in a line, and soon in the thicket I was alone. To my right, I head a crashing in the brush, a shout and a few shotgun blasts, and I saw my first bird on the wing. Rocketing past and above me, it gave a few quick wing beats and went into a glide untouched. I stood there with my mouth open, not even thinking to raise my gun.
Armed and Ready
When I reached the age I could hunt without adult supervision, I went out for partridge with my buddies. I dropped the first bird we flushed, and Pat offered to carry it for me. He had a fancy belt carrier, and was quite taken with it. It had metal loops you hook the birds head in, and dangle the body off your hip. We traipsed around the country for hours, shooting at birds. We even got to see what one of those big paper wasp nests look like when a load of 8s hits it. We treated it like a woodsy pinata. Returning to the car, Pat said to Mitch, Get his gun and snickered. Now why would my friends want to disarm me? Pat then walked up, and I noticed a partridge head on that belt carrier- but without the body, lost somewhere in the woods. So much for the fancy bird carrier. Later at home I plopped on the couch next to my Mom. After a spell I told her I got a partridge. She laughed, Well it took long enough for that to come out!
Where is it?
Summer Comes to Minnesota's Ruffed Grouse Country
by Joel Schnell
(Released June 5, 2013)
It's been a long wait, but lazy days of summer are finally here in Minnesota. And there's still plenty to do in the ruffed grouse off-season hereabouts. For landowners and outdoors fanatics, there's canoeing, planting trees, target shooting and more- all related to the pursuit of ruffed grouse if you want it to be.
Float a wild river
2013 may be the year without spring in Minnesota, recorded as -3.7 degrees below the average temp since February 1st. We went right from winter directly to summer. So now is the time to float through ruffed grouse country with a view from the water. Soon enough we'll be pushing through the thickets in search of our favorite bird, but for now a lazy drift with a fishin' rod in hand is good for me. Many of our rivers have camping on the Minnesota Water Trails system. You're likely to hear a drumming grouse along the Kettle River, or flush a whistling woodcock near the Bigfork River. There's dozens of great waters to choose, including the grandaddy of them all, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Plant a tree
If you're a landowner, now's the time to get a few trees in the ground. I've got some thin spots along my cabin driveway that a few white pines will fill up nicely. These are transplants from a thick pine grove, and now they are free in the open to reach their potential. Ruffed grouse love the dry open ground under a white pine- I can't count how many I've flushed from there. Some of my transplanted pines from 25 years ago are quite the towering sight now. So plant a few saplings now rather than later, you won't regret it.
Make a Grouse Walk
I've got a few trails I maintain around the property, and now a new one through a clear cut I call the Grouse Walk. Ruffed grouse love forest transition zones and edges, so a walking trail draws them. Whitetail deer aren't so dumb either, they'll use a trail rather than bust brush if possible. Many a buck has been dropped along a trail I've cut for them. Put a trail cam along your trail and see what's using it, you may be surprised. A machete is my new favorite trail tool, one swipe of the blade and a popple the size of your thumb is cut cleanly. I carve out a little time each spring to walk my trails and clean them up before the bugs and leaves come out.
Put a little lead in the air
Tuning up your shooting skills is fun way to spend an evening at the gun club. This year I signed up for a mixed skeet and trap league shooting every other week. What a difference regular shooting makes. That snap of the gun up to your cheek takes practice for a perfect mount every time. Remember Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang! to perfect your swing on a crossing target. And if your gun needs a little more or less length of pull, you can dial in the correct length of recoil pad for best fit. Fall is around the corner, and with a few summer activities the Minnesota ruffed grouse hunter will be ready.
Ruffed Grouse on the Trail Cam
by Joel Schnell
(Released May 26, 2013)
What's like the feeling of opening birthday presents all year round? Checking what's on the trail cam, that's what. If you've got a ruffed grouse drumming log scouted out, the stage is set to capture your favorite bird during his magnificent display. A drummer is a male grouse beating his wings to create mini sonic booms to attract a mate and declare his territory to other males. It's pretty unique in the avian world, and it happens right in our Minnesota backyard.
Trailcams are a revolutionary use of photography for hunters. In their short time on the scene they have proven the usefulness of the concept of an automated camera with a motion detector. From scouting game, learning wildlife behavior, monitoring the species travel in a given area, and more, they are putting eyes on the ground 24/7 on your land. They can even tell you if predators- either four-legged or two-legged, are working over your game populations.
Capturing ruffed grouse on the trail cam
The male ruffed grouse on his drumming log is an excellent subject for the trail cam. On his favorite log, he's relatively stationary in a spot that he will return to frequently. So how do you find your drummer? Listen, then look. When you hear that familiar sound of an old tractor puttering to life, walk in slowly as close as you can. If the drumming stops, freeze a few minutes until he begins again. If he flushes, look over the area for the drumming log. A tip: nearby the log will be a vertical structure for protection from winged predators; maybe the broken-off tree trunk or a brush pile of branches. You will know you've found the drumming log by the droppings left by the bird.
A little help from our friends
This year my usual drummer didn't appear at his log, so I enlisted the aid of my brother across the Cheddar Curtain to gain some intelligence from a Wisconsin bird. I've included a photo of his setup and the drumming log. Note how the droppings look like little bratwurst- a sure sign of a Wisconsin bird. You will see some evidence of the forest blowdown in the background that occurred in 2011.
One phenomenon I've observed watching ruffed grouse is the puffed-up feather display. Whether on the drumming log, or just walking around, I've seen the ruffed grouse stop and puff up his feathers into a little avian basketball. The bird looks twice it's size. This chubby little fellow is the same grouse in all the pictures! Along with the ruffed grouse's famed drumming display and the remarkable ruff of feathers around it's neck, our favorite bird can put on quite a costume act. One more reason to enjoy this facinating bird.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
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Firewood for grouse camp
by Joel Schnell
(Released May 9, 2013)
Spring chores at the ruffed grouse camp always includes cutting firewood. Rack it up, let 'er dry, and be ready for those crisp Minnesota October nights. A bird dog curled up next to the wood burner, and your tired stocking feet absorbing the heat, is a fine end to the day. Firewood is a craft, what to burn and how to prepare it is an art for those that appreciate such things. Make an admiring comment about a woodsman's neatly stacked and dry fuel, and you'll likely be offered the keys to the estate.
Chore or not a chore
My Dad didn't start burning wood until my older brothers had fled the household, so I grudgingly became the apprentice wood cutter. I learned to carry earplugs, as the Mac chainsaw only had a spark arrester, not a muffler. And that an old Chevy truck with the 3-on-the-tree shifter is not the easiest to learn how to pull a loaded firewood trailer. The wood craft came along though; how to tell softwoods from hardwoods, how to fell a tree, make a solid wood rack for drying, and splitting by hand maul with the least amount of effort.
Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac of burning good oak:
"Only one acorn in a thousand ever grew large enough to fight rabbits; the rest were drowned at birth in the prairie sea. It is a warming thought that this one wasn't, and thus lived to garner eighty years of June sun. It is this sunlight that is now being released, through the intervention of my axe and saw, to warm my shack and my spirit through eighty gusts of blizzard. And with each gust a wisp of smoke from my chimney bears witness, to whomsoever it may concern, that the sun did not shine in vain."
Hardwoods and softwoods
I have a mixed forest, and I enjoy mixing up some softwoods like aspen with the harder oak and maple. It requires keeping separate wood racks, and bringing in a some of each to the bin in the cabin. It's wise to look up the btu's of the trees on your property. Aspen makes good starter, and on a Friday night it's a luxury arriving to a wood stove filled with tinder and popple, ready to apply a match. I've heard aspen was a prized kitchen stove firewood in the days of wood cook stoves. It burns fast and hot, but the kitchen cools quickly when it dies out. Maple is profuse in my woods so that is my all-day fuel, and solid red oak goes in at night before I turn in.
My wood requirements are modest enough I don't need to use a power wood splitter, it's the hand maul for me. I enjoy the solid crack of the maul on birch setting up on an old stump. It's one of those reflective exercises, that clears the mind of all else but steel striking wood. In this I can identify with Robert Frost, as he turns away the laborers hoping to relieve him of his splitting for pay. I'd tell 'em to hit the road, too. Aiming for the "check lines", cracks on the wood face indicating where to split, requires concentration. Cut and split wood, in a stack with good airflow and tarp only on the top row (not draped over the sides) should dry over the summer. There's always some left over from the year before that's extra dry, if there's any question of what to burn first. I started cutting the traditional 16" long wood pieces, but now I cut for 20" as our wood stove is long enough to handle it. Helps keep a longer night burn with more fuel in the box.
"My dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cares ardently that it come, and soon. Indeed he considers my ability to make it come as something magical, for when I rise in the cold black pre-dawn and kneel shivering by the hearth making a fire, he pushes himself blandly between me and kindling splits I have laid on the ashes, and I must touch a match to them by policing it between his legs. Such faith, I suppose, is the kind that move mountains." - Leopold.
Firewood as a team sport
A sure fire way to get the good graces of a landowner is to offer to help cut and split firewood. It's a great exercise in team building. Some are cutters, some splitters, some are loaders and stackers. When the cutters get far enough ahead, it's everyone together to chain the pieces to the trailer or log splitter. The conversation along the chain can bridge generations, and you have a captive audience for bad jokes. The evening cocktail hour is surely appreciated after a good day on the chain. Just don't plan for much mobility the day after, as you will find sore spots in muscles you didn't know you had.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
Adventures with Cody
by Joel Schnell
(Released April 25, 2013)
Your first bird dog will change your life. She may not be the best hunter, but she will teach you how to be a better hunter, and maybe a better person. A good dog may only be in our lives for a dozen years or so, but you will never forget them.
It all begins with a pup
Cody was named after Cody, Wyoming, a favorite place of mine as gateway to Yellowstone park. I couldn't leave her with the name the breeder gave her- Stash, as in mustache of freckles. At eight weeks of age, I could carry her in one hand when bringing her home. She was a smart one, and could get into all kinds of trouble. Once a roommate of mine said she learned how to open doors. I didn't believe it- until I saw her put her paws on the door just below the knob with a bump, and the door sprang open. She had a knack for those kinds of things. Once at my brother's house, she got into some rawhide his dog wouldn't chew. I took it away from her, and put it on top of the fridge. Cody sized up the situation, walked up the stairs, walked across the top of the fridge and retrieved her rawhide.
On our first outings in the woods, she gamely ran along, but couldn't clear the sticks and fallen logs I'd easily step over. So she'd sit on her butt, and make a sharp bark, until I lifted her over the obstacle. Our first years of hunting we tried to get into a groove, but needed help. A month's stay with a trainer and lots of exposure to pigeons was the prescription. It was then I learned that it's not dog training- but human training I needed. Once at Game Fair the famed Delmar Smith was giving a demonstration, and saw Cody in the front row in rapt attention. He asked if he could give her a whirl to show some techniques, and she didn't disappoint. Delmar said "You've got a good dog here"- high praise indeed!
Nemesis of a bird dog
Cody and I road tripped from Wisconsin to the Dakotas in search of ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants, huns and sharpies. We avoided the porcupines and skunks, but one of Cody's nemesis was barbed wire. Twice she tangled with it, and a nastier gash a rusty strand of long abandoned wire can make is hard to find. Count on lots of washing with peroxide, and covering in vet wrap after a few stitches. Her other deposits to my vet's retirement fund included swallowing a stick on the run, drinking foul gardia infested water, stepping into a leghold trap, and a torn rotator cuff. The rotator cuff tear happened on the last day of a Dakota hunt, and seeing her crumple when putting weight on her back leg I knew her hunting was over for the year. Fortunately, my vet is also an accomplished hunting dog surgeon and repair of a rotator cuff is a specialty. With what amounts of tying up a leg into it's socket with fish line, he gave her many more years of productive hunting after what should have been a career-ender.
Trapped in a blizzard
On the North Dakota prairie, winter can come early. Late October can find you in a blinding blizzard with little to stop the howling wind-driven snow. When hunting with a group, we made a long push up along a creek, and the pheasant shooting was good. Those ringnecks would hunker down from the storm, then flush darn near under foot. First the wind picked up, then the rain started, then the temp dropped, and the snow came in sheets. Cody was good and wet, and after a spell she lagged a bit, then just stopped and sat down. She was shivering, so I told the guys I was taking her back to the truck. We didn't get far when she just laid down and wouldn't move. With the fellas heading in the opposite direction and no cover in sight, we were in a pickle. I broke down the gun, stuffed the parts in my game pouch, and tried to carry Cody. But it was too far for me to go and she was freezing to death. I finally decided if I was to save her I had to go back and bring the truck in closer across the field. I took off my coat and laid it on the ground, and Cody quickly curled up on it as the only dry spot. Fortunately I had a fleece layer on beneath it, and took off for the truck. I drove back to about 150 yards from where I left her, and anxiously ran back to get her. I found Cody, still on my coat, licking herself dry and the shivering stopped. She had recovered enough to make it back to the truck, though I'll never forget how close I came to losing her that day.
I couldn't have asked for a better Minnesota ruffed grouse dog. When Cody was 10, I brought home another Brittany pup and Cody was not pleased. But she got the bulk of the field work until Maggie was ready to take over. By that time her muzzle was growing gray, and she was hard of hearing. Finally it was time to retire her when she'd get disoriented and couldn't hear my commands and get lost. Later I'd still bring both dogs, and let Cody putter around the parking area before heading out and after coming back, and that seemed enough for her. Cody made it to the ripe old age of 15 before her legs gave out. I made that last visit to the vet, and brought a ruffed grouse tail fan to nuzzle as she entered her final sleep. She's buried near my cabin along the edge of the alder run, where maybe she can hear a drumming grouse, and enjoy spring's woodcock doing their sky dance, from the beyond.
Joel Schnell is publisher of www.ruffedgrouseminnesota.com
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- Rethinking the hunting camp outbuilding April 2013
- Buying land and building a hunting camp, part III March 2013
- Buying land and building a hunting camp, part II March 2013
- Buying land and building a hunting camp February 2013
- Tour the ruffed grouse woods by snowmobile February 2013
- What's on the grouse hunter's bookshelf? January 2013
- A Cabin Made of Canvas December 2012
- Ruffed Grouse in the Snow December 2012
- Woods Trucks and Forest Roads December 2012
- October 2012 Articles
- Dog boots curse of man and dog December 2012
- Grouse Guns for Minnesota Covers November 2012
- Hunting in the storms of November November 2012
- A grouse hunting respite for deer season November 2012
- The Woodcock Moon October 2012
- September 2012 Articles
- Grouse maps and the old red barn October 2012
- Use a bird's eye view for finding ruffed grouse October 2012
- Where are all the birds? Ask a grouse October 2012
- The Things You Find in the Grouse Woods September 2012
- Grouse Hunting Possibles September 2012
- Earlier 2012-2011 Articles
- Minnesota Ruffed Grouse Season Opener Tips September 2012
- Drumming counts decline, Winging it in the woods for grouse, Changes brewing in woods won't help grouse, How to find and hunt grouse in the early season September 2012
- Legislative Update for 2012 MN Session June 2012
- New MN Conservation officers May 2012
- Legacy Land Buy, MN Grouse Hunters Studied, & DNR Walk-in Program April 2012
- On The Trail for Ruffed Grouse, Grouse Hunters Wonder About Season's Slow Start, Grouse Territory isn't what it used to be, Forest Fires in the BWCA reflected in the news October 2011
- Drumming Counts Revealed 2011 August 2011
- For the Love of Ruffed Grouse he spreads the word June 2011
- Ups and Downs in the grouse woods April 2011
Owner and Editor, Joel Schnell.
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