When we think about September and October around Lake of the Woods, most outdoors folks start thinking about big walleyes putting on the feedbag, aggressive muskies or even slab NW Angle crappies. Others prefer to mix it up a bit. The thought of a beautiful walking trail in the woods, the instant adrenalin rush of a flush and the smell of the fall forest. It is ruffed grouse season—a special time to target the “chicken of the north woods”.
Lake of the Woods is not what many would call a cosmopolitan grouse hunting area. It doesn’t get the private jets flying in for a weekend of hunting and there is not any overpriced hunting lodges. In these parts, it’s more about a variety of public hunting habitat that supports good populations of grouse and is ideal for hunters who enjoy getting out in the woods and having the opportunity at some nice birds.
”The forests around Lake of the Woods are amongst the best in the state for grouse”, explains Scott Laudenslager, the MN DNR Area Wildlife Manager in Baudette, MN. “The key to having good populations of grouse is to have the right habitat and good weather conditions. A low snow year can be hard on grouse as they burrow under the snow for warmth and security. If they use up too much energy trying to stay warm, it is hard on them. A wet or cold spring is also bad for survival rates. Luckily, the past few years have been pretty good.”
Grouse populations are on the rise and it is a great time to get out hunting. “In addition, the ruffed grouse are on the upward climb when we look at their 10 year cycle. It seems the cycle bottomed in 2001 & 2002,” explains Laudenslager. “Statewide, drumming counts are up. Around Baudette and Lake of the Woods, the drumming counts are up 50% vs 2016. We are very optimistic as the first half of June was very dry. This bodes well for the young chicks and the numbers of grouse in the area.”
Believe it or not, there are actually three species of grouse that call this region home. In addition to the ruffed which is the most sought after and tastes the best, there is the spruce grouse and sharp-tailed grouse.
Spruce grouse have a very red meat and many hunters say they taste gamey. For this reason, they drop in popularity. The taste is partly because of their diet, jack pine needles, black spruce needles, white cedar and tamarack. These birds tend to prefer stands of pine mixed with hardwoods.
The sharp-tailed grouse prefers more agricultural settings, tall grasses, etc. They are in good numbers, but as one hunter told me, “There is so much land it helps to know what areas they are targeting and the need for permission on private agricultural land.” Sharpies also live on pieces of public land but will not be as readily available as ruffed and spruce grouse.
Planning leads to success
As on most hunting trips, things will go smoother if you create a plan. If you haven’t hunted these parts, there is a ton of public hunting land. Hundreds of thousands of acres to be exact. Much of the land has roads, ATV trails and designated walking trails. It is very helpful to target some areas using a map. Maps can be located online by resourcing the MN Department of Natural Resources website. Another source is Lake of the Woods Tourism in Baudette. You can stop by, email them or give them a call and they will mail one out.
Where do ruffed grouse live and what do they eat?
Habitat is key for success with ruffed grouse. Knowing what grouse prefer and what they like to eat can help break down large patches of land into smaller key areas. Ruffed grouse love aspen areas with 5-20 year growth. In terms that are better to understand, aspen that are about the circumference of a broom handle up to 4”. They also like edges, specifically the edges of jack pine stands.
The grouse diet consists of a variety of vegetation and insects if available. Aspen and hazel buds, dogwood berries, insects, clover (which is why grouse will hang out on and around trails) and high bush cranberries are all desired by grouse.
Fall behavior patterns
Have you ever noticed when you are hunting grouse early in the season you will kick up small groups of grouse, but as the season progresses later, often times you see singles and doubles? The reason for this according to Laudenslager is “the broods break up”. “In late September to early October, young grouse find themselves in new areas and on a variety of land that simply isn’t occupied by other grouse. As they mature, they will learn, gravitating back where the best habitat is and start to live more in the areas we think of as productive grouse areas.”
There are plenty of options when deciding where to hunt in the area. These 3 areas will provide more land than most could hunt in a lifetime.
Beltrami Island State Forest and Red Lake Wildlife Management Area
Located just west of Baudette is the Beltrami Island State Forest and Red Lake Wildlife Management Area. Beltrami Island State Forest has over 600,000 acres. Within the forest is the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area which is about 250,000 acres. This is a lot of public land, key habitat and a lot of grouse live here.
This area has a nice variety of dirt roads, ATV trails and walking trails. The Lake of the Woods chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society partners with the MN DNR to add two new walking trails each year in this forest. Walking trails are nice as they have an area to park, a map posted on a sign at the trail head and make a big loop so you never walk the same ground and end up back at your vehicle. These trails are set up strategically through some excellent grouse habitat areas.
Within this forest are small pockets of Red Lake Tribal Land. This land is off limits to hunting unless you purchase a small game license from the Red Lake Band of Ojibwa. This land is marked on maps and also marked with signs along roads.
Pine Island State Forest
Just to the southeast of Baudette lies Pine Island State Forest. This is a massive piece of land encompassing 878,000 acres. Some of this land is excellent grouse territory. Some is not as there is bog land to the south. With this much land, it is helpful to identify preferred grouse habitat to save time and increase your odds.
There are a series of roads, ATV trails and walking trails through this area as well and good maps to help you scout high percentage areas.
This forest is made up of a variety of scattered parcels of land sandwiched between Beltrami Island and Pine Island State Forests. This forest extends throughout Lake of the Wood County making up 142,000 acres, most of it open to public hunting.
Within this state forest, you will have various plots of land such as the Carp WMA, Graceton Bog WMA, and Prosper WMA which are all available to public hunting.
Flying under the radar screen, these forests are small in comparison to Beltrami and Pine Island, but anywhere else in the state would be large parcels of land. These areas are accessible to hunters and also hold good numbers of birds.
It is good to brush up on the MN DNR laws around hunting in state forests and in wildlife management areas. For instance, in most state forests, it is legal to use your ATV on designated ATV trails. You cannot use your ATV, however, in wildlife management areas. Again, it is good to review.
Cast and Blast opportunities. There are a variety of dog friendly hotels and resorts in the area. In addition, a new kennel just opened this year. Some hunters will pull a boat and take advantage of the great fall walleye fishing or possibly bag a few ducks in the morning. Some have dedicated one day of their adventure to stepping aboard a resort charter boat and catching some nice walleyes. With such good fishing available, the temptation, even for hunters, is hard to resist.