By Shawn Perich
Nearing home on our evening walk along the county road, the dog made a sudden detour, jumping the ditch and disappearing into the woods. I heard a familiar whirring of wings, and then some agitated clucking from a covey of grouse now perched safely in the branches beyond the yellow Lab’s reach. It was the second grouse covey the dog and I encountered in three days. Hopefully, we’ll see many more as summer fades to autumn over the coming weeks.
Now is the time when the hunter’s blood quickens, a natural response to cool mornings and dwindling daylight. For some, late summer is a time of preparation, but I have no bears to bait, tree stands to hang or trail cams to place. I take advantage of the cool evenings to go on longer walks with the dog–an enjoyable way to get into shape for the coming bird seasons.
I’m an old-fashioned grouse hunter. I like to go for long walks through the autumn woods, because you never know what you may discover beyond the next turn in the trail. While a good hunting dog isn’t critical to grouse hunting success, canine company makes the hunt more enjoyable. A dog is never a better friend than when you are taking a break in sunny forest opening to share a hard-earned sandwich.
Grouse hunting is so much fun that I could say shooting a bird really doesn’t matter, but it does. I like the flavor of ruffed grouse enough to eat them daily. In September and October, we often do so. Don’t misconstrue this to mean I’m a game hog, shooting loads of birds on every outing. Instead, I come home from frequent, short hunts with a bird or two.
Only rarely do I encounter other grouse hunters on my rambles. When I was a kid, it often seemed there was a vehicle parked at every forest trail, because partridge hunting (I was in college before most northern Minnesotans started calling the birds “grouse”) was a popular autumn activity. When you saw the hunters, very often it was a father and son out together. For most northern Minnesota kids, going after grouse was their initiation into hunting. Most spent several years learning the ropes in the grouse woods before they began more serious hunting for ducks or deer.
These days, it’s unusual to happen upon walking grouse hunters. When I do, they are usually as old or older than me. I do see a few “road hunters” cruising the forest roads in pickup trucks or astride ATVs, though again they are mostly older folks. The recession and high gas prices seem to have reduced the road hunters’ ranks.
So there are fewer—perhaps far fewer–grouse hunters than there used to be. And that’s not entirely due to the high cost of gasoline. The hunting culture has devalued bird hunting in favor of other activities, most especially hunting white-tailed deer. Pick up a hunting magazine, log on to a hunting website or watch a televised hunting program and about all you will find are stories and advertising related to deer hunting and hunting products. Even game management agencies have leaped aboard the whitetail bandwagon, creating new deer seasons under the guise of “increasing hunting opportunities,” while the crass truth is what they are really increasing are lucrative deer hunting license sales. State game management for all species is now mostly dependent on deer hunting license revenues.
A societal factor is at play as well. Pursuing upland birds such as grouse is one of the only remaining non-sedentary hunting activities. Most of what passes for hunting these days happens while you are comfortably seated, very often within a blind or shelter that protects you from the elements. Instead learning woodcraft to find and outwit their prey, hunters now employ food plots, scent potions, decoys and baits to attract game to their blind. The reason, of course, is it’s just easier that way.
While modern hunters will spend untold time and money building heated hunting blinds or on small-scale farming of crops intended solely to attract their favorite game, I suspect most believe that going for a walk in the woods to possibly shoot a grouse or two isn’t worth the effort. In fact, many lack the physical conditioning necessary to go for a two-hour stroll down a forest trail.
As long as we have aspen woods in northern Minnesota, ruffed grouse will thrive. I’m not so sure a thriving population of hunters will continue to pursue them. The number of grouse hunters in Minnesota is dwindling and the activity has nearly disappeared from most other northern states. Other forms of upland bird hunting are faring even worse. Hunting for wild bobwhite quail has nearly disappeared from the southern states—along with the wild quail. Even pheasant hunting, which became wildly popular during the 1990s, is experiencing steep declines in participation as the grassland habitat the birds depend upon is plowed up to plant more corn and soybeans. There again, most of the hunters you encounter in the pheasant fields these days are older men.
Upland bird hunting is in big trouble. Places with abundant public land, like northern Minnesota, will continue to attract a few upland traditionalists like me. But the days when youngsters are introduced to hunting by going for a walk with Dad along a forest trail are already behind us. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes difficult to find a good bird dog within a decade or, at best, 20 years.
If this prognostication sounds a bit gloomy, so be it. The big changes have already happened. The declines in upland bird hunter participation are unlikely to be reversed. The upland habitat lost from farmland pheasant country is unlikely to be restored. And a sit-down society is unlikely to change its sedentary ways. While upland bird hunting may not disappear, I wonder what it will become in the not-so-distant future. My guess is it will morph into an activity similar to fly-fishing, where well-heeled urbanites enlist the services of a guide or a hunt club to enjoy a day or two of sport. They may have fun doing so, but they’ll really be no more than a shallow caricature of the generations of hunters who preceded them.