Something funny is going on with Minnesota ruffed grouse hunting this fall, and even the experts are at a loss to fully explain it.
A whopping 57 percent increase in spring drumming counts hasn't translated into more birds in the woods. Nowhere close, by most accounts.
That begs the question why.
"I don't know; I thought with the drumming increase that solid-the best in years-that normally translates into better hunting in the fall," said Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., and biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. "We always say it depends on recruitment and survival of chicks. I thought with an increase like that that we'd be OK, but it shows that survival sometimes trumps the high drumming count.
"I don't know if we know what caused it."
By the numbers
The latest example of grouse numbers falling short of preseason expectations comes from the Ruffed Grouse Society, which held its 36th annual National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt on Oct. 12-13 near Grand Rapids.
In a news release, the RGS said the 108 hunters who participated in the national hunt shot 124 ruffed grouse during the two-day event, a decrease of 30 percent from last year's take of 175 ruffed grouse and 50 percent below the long-term average.
Each hunter shot an average of .5 grouse per day, which is low compared with the average of 1.4.
Adult grouse comprised 45 percent of the take, and 55 percent of the birds in the bag were juveniles.
Participating hunters also shot fewer woodcock, bagging 333 timberdoodles compared with 384 last year, a decline of 14 percent. Each hunter bagged an average of 1.54 woodcock, compared with 1.9 last year and down 26 percent from the average of 2.1.
Dry weather and strong south winds produced difficult scenting conditions for hunters with bird dogs, but June weather conditions in the hunt area were favorable, so poor weather shouldn't have hampered production, Dick said.
"It wasn't wet and cold in any way, so we thought they'd be able to survive fairly well," he said. "It was evident fairly early in the season. We clung to the hope it was rainy and hot and buggy around here (early in the season), but during the national hunt, we had some of the best foliage conditions we've had in years as far as hunting."
Dick, whose position was created under a partnership between the DNR and RGS, joked he's been in the witness protection program since the season began. As a DNR and RGS spokesman, he was widely quoted in preseason hunting reports as predicting a banner fall.
"We had reason to believe it would be good," he said. "I'm more than willing to admit I was wrong."
It's too soon to speculate that something bigger is going on with northern Minnesota's landscape that's detrimental to grouse, Dick said. Any number of factors could have triggered this year's poor production, he said.
"People have asked about West Nile virus or some sort of disease," Dick said. "I think it's more likely a change in food supply for those chicks that they're not as strong, or some of those weather events were more detrimental, more widespread than we thought.
"Sometimes, they do pretty well over the summer, and sometimes they don't, and this is one of those years where they definitely didn't."
Despite the reports, it's not like the woods are devoid of birds for hunters who pound the brush and put in the effort. Just the previous evening, Dick said, he and a co-worker got on four pointed grouse and 20 woodcock in an hour and a half after work while hunting with his dog.
"People in other parts of the country would kill for that," he said. "We were only shooting at birds that we could walk in on the dog and flush them off of points. That's what upland bird hunting is about, is to get that kind of action, and we got that 24 times after putting in our full day of state employment.
"We're fortunate to live here and be able to do that, and it's definitely worth getting out. So you don't get your 40 flushes a day, you can still get 15 or 20 if you get off the trail and get in the woods."
Besides, he said, it's October, the best month of the year on the outdoors calendar.
"This will be gone in a couple of weeks so you'll be kicking yourself if you didn't go," Dick said. "Even a couple of hours of fairly slow hunting is a lot more fun than staring at an ice fishing hole in February or something. You've got to do it while you can."