The Last Windrow: Good memories of ruffed grouse hunting abound
Good friend won't be in the woods this year; bird population isn't what it used to be
The ruffed grouse woods will see one less hunter this year around these parts.
A friend of mine named Ted passed away a few weeks ago. Ted was a ruffed grouse lover and hunter. He was an attorney in his daily life, but when it came this time of year and the leaves changed color and began to fall, one would see him passing through downtown in his pickup, heading for the grouse woods with his favorite dog. One could tell it was fall just by seeing Ted heading out west.
I've spent some time in those same woods over the years. When I first moved to Minnesota in 1971, the ruffed grouse population was soaring. One needed only to saunter a few hundred yards on almost any trail to see and hear a grouse thunder away through the tree branches.
I'd never hunted grouse before. I was born and got my taste of bird hunting by chasing ring-necked pheasants, Hungarian partridge and bobwhite quail through the fields and hills of western Iowa. There are no ruffed grouse there.
I'd read about the gray bombers from hunting magazines, and never in my youth did I imagine that someday I would come to know these feathered buzz bombs personally. I found out in a short time that when a grouse flushed, one must have his shooting iron at the ready. I blasted tons of bark off of tree as I pulled the trigger far behind the bird as it thundered through the treetops. The 30-inch long barrel of my Winchester Model 97 did not lend itself well to swinging through the tangled buck brush and diamond willow of the north country.
Gradually I came to gain a new respect for this bird of the woods. And, in the early 1970s, the population peaked. I have never experienced that peak again. No one can really explain why the ruffed grouse populations swing so dramatically. There are plenty of theories, but no matter how much management goes on to increase the population, the grouse seem to do what they want to do.
Nowadays there are suggestions that the birds may be suffering from Nile virus in places. Predators have always taken their toll. Weather plays an important role as too much rain during nesting season can ruin a hatching of chicks. Timber harvest seems to help in creating new feeding situations, but that is not always the answer either.
Perhaps someday the wildlife scientists will figure it out, but as of now the ruffed grouse will do what it is going to do. As this summer progressed I have seen very few birds in the vicinity of our home in the woods, and we do have some excellent habitat just behind our house.
Where are they? It's a question I've asked myself as I've hiked through our woods recently.
I'm hoping that before my 20-gauge shotgun gets too heavy for me to tote, some kind of population increase will happen. If it doesn't, well, I've probably seen the best grouse hunting around these parts. I only wish some of the young hunters coming of age would be able to see the number of birds I saw in the early 1970s.
And, I'll think of my grouse hunting friend Ted this fall as I walk some of the same trails he did. I'll be sad to know that he won't be visiting those same grouse haunts. But, I know he enjoyed every minute of his time there and somehow I know he's still there walking down that trail with his shotgun over his shoulder and his dog sniffing out that patch of brush just ahead.
As Ted would say, "It was a good hunt."
See you next time. Okay? Stay safe!