The math behind the best Minnesota upland bird hunting

Much has been written about this autumn’s upland bird hunting season, and a lot of it is numbers. Yet the numbers that are truly important are one and two. One, are you going to go bird hunting? And two, are you going to ask someone new to join you?

Hopefully, your answers are “yes.” Clearly, this is an ideal autumn to hunt ruffed grouse because the population is at or near the top of its 10-year up-and-down cycle. This peak means it is also the perfect autumn to introduce a child or adult to grouse hunting, especially if they have an interest in adventure, wild food or the means to get out again if the hunting bug bites.

Many who accept an invitation to hunt are often back in the woods soon for the forest is a special place in autumn. Golden leaves. Pungent aromas. Mucky footfalls. A buck rub here. A scrape over there. All cool. And when a grouse explodes into flight a new memory takes wing too. Sometimes in that moment – when startled by sound and confused by a flying football of feathers – a new hunter is born.

Regrettably, pheasant numbers are trending in a different direction. Their decline mirrors a landscape that has some 770,000 fewer acres of Conservation Reserve Program habitat than it did just 10 years ago. Still, some pheasant hunters are likely to do very well when the season opens Saturday, Oct. 14, and there is no reason you can’t be among them. Those who watch the corn and soybean harvest and look for tracks in snow will have a leg up on those who look no further than headlines, which while admittedly disappointing, cannot predict the human hunting experience.

I say this because there is a personal geometry that transcends the ups and downs of wild game populations. This geometry is real yet has no formula. For how do you measure the closeness of friends? How do you quantify the volume of acquired wisdom? How do you calculate the dimensions of personal growth over a day, year or lifetime of hunting?

As a young wildlife biologist, I spent much of my early career collecting, analyzing and extrapolating numbers. Much of it was statistical analysis. Most of it was fun. Yet the math I most enjoy now is simply this: One, go hunting. And two, take someone with me. The sum of these actions always adds up to something special for both of us.

What follows is advice I often share about grouse and pheasant hunting.

Ruffed grouse

Perspective: Minnesota is the premier national destination for ruffed grouse hunting. Top grouse-hunting counties include Aitkin, Cass, Itasca, St. Louis, Beltrami and Koochiching, yet quality hunting can be found across much of central and northern Minnesota. Though not abundant, grouse can also be found in the forested hill country of southeastern Minnesota.

Where to hunt: Grouse tend to prefer younger forests, especially those areas where most trees are smaller than the diameter of an adult’s forearm or calf. These trees aren’t tall and will be quite close together, making a successful shot quite the challenge.

Step saver: Minnesota has 30 million acres of forest so finding a place to hunt isn’t a problem. However, finding a place that suits your interests can be a challenge. So, to save time, go the Recreation Compass on the DNR website. That site, which identifies public hunting lands on an aerial photo, allows you to zoom in and out so that you can easily find a place that works for you.


Perspective: Despite this year’s pheasant population index being 32 percent below the 10-year average and 62 percent below the long-term average, there should be good hunting in certain areas. In southwest Minnesota, portions of Brown, Nicollet, Sibley, Redwood and Cottonwood counties appear promising. To the west, the same is true for portions of Lincoln, Yellow Medicine and Big Stone counties.

Where to hunt: Beyond private land, the most popular places to hunt are state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas. Also popular is private land open to public hunting through the Walk-in Access Program. This year private landowners in the southern and western Minnesota have opened nearly 27,000 acres of their property to hunting. Access to these lands requires the purchase of a $3 validation.

Step saver: Again, the Recreation Compass is a great mobile tool that saves gas and time. With a smart phone, you can search any geographic area you want and it will show the locations and boundaries of wildlife management areas, Walk-in Access lands and waterfowl production areas.