Trip Report: North Dakota Grouse Odyssey

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Thursday

I hit the road a little after 6:00 a.m. Fargo was my first real stop, for a PLOTS Guide and hunting license. Then it was a matter of winding through the countryside on the smaller roads, surveying some public parcels with the PLOTS Guide pages showing me the way.  

If you’re not familiar with it, you’ll be glad to know that little booklet is a tremendous resource to the out-of-state hunter (not to mention free). The entire state is broken up into about 45 different maps, with non-private lands color coded. The PLOTS lands (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) are the flagship feature (yellow), but WMAs (red), WPAs (green), School Trust (baby blue), and many others punctuate each page. 

The booming metropolis of New Rockford was my goal, where I’d scoped out a municipal campground. It has about a dozen park-on-the-grass sites. Nothing fancy. But they include electricity, water, and hot showers, if you can bear to part with $12. Once I’d set up camp, registered, and changed clothes, there was nothing left to do but hunt. I aimed my little Escape toward more yellow and blue boxes on the map and hit the gas. 

My at-home scouting helped narrow the search before the trip, and soon more parcels were excluded due to overgrazing or an abundance of cattails. My little buddy and I managed to explore a couple PLOTS parcels before the end of the day. We didn’t get close enough to birds in order to fire any shots, but things looked good for the morning. 

Friday

A half-section of grass with cattailed potholes was our first priority. Harvested wheat and sunflower fields on three sides led me to believe sharp-tailed grouse would be using it in their downtime. They were, and I managed to take two birds with one shot over a point from my young English setter, Custer. It was thrilling, but I’d hoped the day’s hunt would draw out a big longer. 

Only one bird shy of the daily limit, we went back to one PLOTS area we’d covered the night before. Before things even got started, it seemed, we found and bagged the last grouse. Just 150 yards into that field, and we were already done. Since Hungarian partridge were also on the menu, we covered the entire parcel. No “huns” showed, but we did encounter several more sharptails, giving my buddy valuable experience handling birds. I took pictures at the car, and we headed back to camp to pack up. 

With most of the day ahead of me, I drove past more public lands on my way to the deer shack, where I would meet up with my brother, his Gordon setter Kina, and our dad the bowhunter. If we needed more places to hunt before going home, it wouldn’t hurt to have a little scouting under my belt. 

Saturday

We spent the morning hoofing it around northwestern Grand Forks County, picking apart nearby CRP and alfalfa fields. As fate would have it, our game bags would not be graced by fresh feathers. But some wild flushes— ranging from a single bird to a covey of approximately 15– reassured us we weren’t wasting our time. At lunch we formulated a new plan that, as it turns out, would put us in the birds. 

There was a pasture we could remember with sharptails scattered throughout when we last hunted in that area three years ago, and we wanted to find it again. Our youngest brother was along for the fun that time, but opted to take a nap in the car while we pushed the birds around. I always wondered whether he felt like he missed out, but he does like his naps. Anyway, we pinpointed an area in the PLOTS book that looked likely and headed out to survey it. 

One PLOTS parcel looked too swampy. A school trust quarter-section seemed overgrazed. Another PLOTS tract seemed to have that “Goldilocks” factor, with minimal swampiness and some picked grain fields nearby. It wasn’t long before Custer gave a convincing point, and I walked up to flush a single grouse. I shot it, and others started popping up all over- mostly just over the hill. 

Another grouse gave us a close encounter a little while later. It was a crossing shot for me, and I took it into possession. Those right-to-left crossing shots go in my favor most of the time; I seem to get just enough of those every season to keep me from feeling like a total wingshooting failure. We finished up that field and set out for the next yellow rectangle on the map. 

When we got to “Baird’s Nap Spot,” we recognized it right away. I marked it on the map as such so we wouldn’t lose track of it for future years. It wasn’t the extravaganza we’d previously experienced, but picking up one more bird was definitely worth our time. Even more worth our time was a few more miles out in the sun on a glorious fall day. 

Sunday

Long before we embarked on this year’s adventure, we’d mentioned the possibility of pursuing North Dakota’s ruffed grouse. Yes, you read that right. 

And yes, we come from Minnesota, a major ruffed grouse state— perhaps the ruffed grouse state. Most people who know even a little about it would probably wonder a) why we would bother leaving Minnesota for ruffed grouse, and b) why we think there are any at all in North Dakota. 

Well, there are. And they live in the Pembina Hills, a modest drive north of the deer shack. For over 15 years, we’ve heard about the hills with their elk, grouse, and most unusual topography (for North Dakota, anyway). This seemed to be the right year to finally see what that was all about. How novel it would be, we thought, to find ruffs in such an unlikely place. 

Almost until we got to the hills, there were no signs that anything was about to change. Then, just north of the town of Mountain, Jake saw magpies flying up out of the ditch and spied a roadkill moose just before we passed it (I was too busy flapping my gums to notice). A field approach offered the next place to stop, and there was parked the main suspect in the aforementioned manslaughter, or…mooseslaughter. It seemed neither party was fit to carry on after that collision, which appeared to have happened the night before. 

A colorful character stopped to look over that moose and we exchanged some words. Most I couldn’t make out over the sound of his engine, but Jake and I will never forget the story about how his father some years before had gotten a moose “way up in Canada” (only about 20 miles distant there) and had made an ashtray with the hooves. 

What an image. I can’t help but think such a furnishing would be closer to a coffee table, but I’m no interior designer. We also both got a charge out of the way he said “ashtray” (almost rhymes with “wash-tree”). Too bad that word doesn’t come up in conversation much anymore; I’m pretty sure that with precise placement, I could get Jake to spit water through his nose. 

After circling some possible entry points into the large Wildlife Management Area at the base of the hills, we picked one to start our ruffed grouse quest. We suited up our dogs, put on our vests, and Jake pulled out his gun. Mine was nowhere to be found. After a couple tense moments, I realized that in trying to ensure I had everything Custer would need, I forgot my most important piece of equipment. A phone call and quick trip south to meet my dad, and I was back for action. 

Thanks, Dad, I owe you one. Well, another one, I suppose. 

Jake and Kina were off to the east somewhere, so I crossed the road and headed northward. The woods looked inviting, but I was soon stymied by the hazelnut bushes, which are tipped over in every direction. A guy can hardly take four uninterrupted steps in a row there. A howling wind made things even tougher, as I had trouble hearing Custer’s bell. It would have been a good day to pull a bigger one out of his bag. 

While Custer was off to my right somewhere, I happened to look left and saw a grouse take off. Not knowing how many opportunities I’d get that day, I took the shot. It wasn’t a large specimen, but being my first North Dakota ruffed grouse, it was already a trophy. 

Back at the car, Jake reported having only one bird contact. I felt a little guilty showing him my grouse; after all, I’d barely been in the woods 20 minutes at that point. It certainly didn’t feel like I’d earned it. 

Bird hunting seems that way more often than not- one hunter is given way more shots than the other. It certainly has nothing to do with skill, only luck. If his attitude is anything like mine, Jake probably doesn’t mind much and knows the pendulum will swing his way again. Lord knows I’ve watched him bag a lot of pheasants while my barrels remained cold. 

After a few bites to eat, Custer and I headed south from the car. We skimmed around a few potholes tucked back in the woods, hoping grouse would be there looking for something green to eat. They weren’t. 

After most of a mile, the woods opened up a bit. We found ourselves in a place where patches of aspen alternated with openings of prairie grasses. I began to notice elk sign and hoped that signaled enough change in the habitat to attract grouse. 

Sure enough, as Custer ran past me on one hillside, he stopped to point over his shoulder. A grouse flushed immediately, angling in my direction and trying hard to get above the hazelnut bushes. As I could have predicted from my armchair at home, that grouse made efficient use of some nearby aspen trunks and I never got a shot off. Nor did I the next two times we caught up with it. 

They call ruffed grouse “The King of Gamebirds.” That might be true, but nobody ever accused The King of having manners. 

I steered Custer back in the direction of the first flush in order to pick up where we left off. One more grouse made itself known similarly just a few minutes later, but proved to be more Fool than King. I bested it with a couple of sixes. 

After that, the miles, the sun, and the best leaves of autumn were icing on the cake. Jake and Kina never did get into any birds, despite a good effort and my encouraging him to try the elk haunt. Custer and I hadn’t touched a third of it, and I had high hopes there would be more birds waiting for them. I suspect that all day long we encountered more birds than we knew, but could never be certain on account of the noise from the treetops and jumpy birds. 

We can only know if we go back. 

Monday

The last day of the trip is almost always dedicated to the drive home. If I hadn’t been trying to make it back for a Boy Scout meeting, it might have been different this time. But it wasn’t, so we stopped by one good-sized Waterfowl Production Area between the deer shack and the interstate to let the dogs stretch their legs one last time.

There were picked grain fields along the east side, which seemed like a point in our favor. And the shelterbelts around the perimeter tempered the wind at ground level to a significant degree, which I thought would make the grasslands there attractive to loafing sharptails. 

Although Kina and Custer acted a few times like we might get a glimpse of some sharptails, we never did. The setting looked good, but grouse do what they do and it’s largely a mystery to us. 

In the moment, mystery frustrates and tempts us to think we’re wasting our time. With the benefit of hindsight, however, mystery is what makes us want to go back. It’s seductive and compelling. Bird hunting at its core is about searching and unraveling mysteries- with a heavy dose of hope. 

Right now, I hope next year’s trip can be half as good. 

 

 

Do Something New: Hook a Dinosaur

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I haven’t had many fun surprises lately. For better or worse, life has been plodding along at its new, sedated, pandemic pace. Nothing seems to change and there isn’t much to look forward to. Until Thursday, that is. 

An invitation came out of the blue from my friend Scott Mackenthun, who is a Fisheries department manager with the Minnesota DNR. He asked if I’d like to go out with him and try to catch lake sturgeon. I’d never caught one before, and wouldn’t have thought that was likely to change. I was intrigued, to say the least. Continue reading “Do Something New: Hook a Dinosaur”

Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries

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Every year about this time there is a lull in the foraging season here in Minnesota. The early season has passed and the frenzy over morels, fiddleheads, and ramps is over. The summer mushrooms and berries really haven’t started. However, while raspberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, and other members of the Rubus clan have yet to even finish blooming, their little brother is here to take center stage.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns

Read More Foraging fiddleheads

The Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) seems to be gaining in popularity among foragers, if mentions in social media are any indication. Posts about “fiddleheads” are becoming more and more common this time of year. Also apparent in the social media soup is how much confusion there is when it comes to knowing which species are edible and how they are identified. 

Some people- a proportional few- are vocal in their opinion that the Ostrich fern is not the only edible fern in Minnesota. While that may be true for sometimes complicated reasons, I will not subscribe to that school of thought. Allow me to explain why.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns”

What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps

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Ramps are special, and the season is short. For some foragers, it’s the taste of Spring, and they wouldn’t miss it. I’m not that fervent, but I do like them nonetheless. This year, I made a point to branch out and do more than scrambled eggs with ramps. Now, I’m no chef, so don’t expect any groundbreaking ideas or recipes here. My perspective is that of an avid forager and great fan of trying new things. Continue reading “What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps

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Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays. Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”

New Year, New Adventures

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I’m not a new-year’s-resolution kind of person. Rare are the times I am moved to state such aspirations formally, and rarer yet are the years when they survive to see the next changing of the calendar. Still, I will frequently look back on the past 12 months as that milestone approaches each year. My reflections have been more rewarding than usual this time around.  Continue reading “New Year, New Adventures”

Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree

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Normally, I wouldn’t be thinking about our Christmas tree in October. In fact, we’ve had a hand-me-down artificial tree for about the last 15 years, so it wouldn’t occur to me at all. But some relatives were telling us they’d be at the cabin this year for Christmas, and I suggested they get a permit to take their tree from the woods for the occasion. So in the interest of encouraging others into the outdoors, I snooped around for information from Minnesota DNR and the Forest Service, and emailed them some web links. 

What I found actually surprised me. As far as I could tell, the permit for harvesting a tree from Minnesota’s state forest lands would cost $25. That was a higher price than I expected. However, the permit for a tree from Chippewa National Forest costs only $5. 

Yes, FIVE DOLLARS.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Harvest Your Own Christmas Tree”

Do Something New: Quarter and Pack Out a Deer

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I’ve long dreamed of hunting in the mountains, spending days climbing, glassing, and stalking. This kind of trip has always seemed quite accessible to me, except for one aspect: getting the meat out of the woods. It would be impractical to expect to drag a deer back to the truck. Foolish, really, and out of the question with an elk. So that would mean quartering and packing the animal out. This is nothing to the hunter on horseback, or even one who is accustomed to doing it. Continue reading “Do Something New: Quarter and Pack Out a Deer”

NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019

Read More Nordhem Karlstad MN

Even when you’re on the road, everybody’s gotta eat. There are the hidden gems, and there are the inevitable sore disappointments. On my adventures, I’ve found my share of each. In the interest of rewarding the proprietors of first-rate eateries, I would like to share some of my favorites with you. Hopefully this will also serve to help you avoid some of the duds lurking out there. The map below is interactive, so click on the icons to obtain addresses, phone numbers, and websites. Have at it, and let me know what you think!

Continue reading “NAGC’s Best Adventurer Food, 2019”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

Do Something New: Build a Quinzee

Read More quinzee, quinzhee, snow shelter

When I came across the word “quinzee” repeatedly within a short span of time this winter, it got my attention. I first had to do an internet search to determine exactly what it was, but knew right away I not only wanted to learn how to build a quinzee, I also needed to try sleeping in it. This seemed fun, but carried out in my own yard at home, it was an easy way to try something I might like to use in lieu of a tent on a future wilderness trip. 
Continue reading “Do Something New: Build a Quinzee”

My Public Lands: 2018

After the Public Lands Day rally at the state capitol rotunda last year, it seemed like a good idea to keep track of my public land usage until the next rally rolled around. I normally visit a lot of state and federal public lands throughout the year, but never kept a record, and so never really knew the extent of my own personal use. My mission to document my outings proved not only enlightening, but also spurred me on to go new places and try new things. 

The following is a visual representation of my visits- as well as my varied activities- on Minnesota’s public lands since last April. You may notice that not every single day or visit is represented by a photograph. For instance, some photographs represent an activity carried out on several different parcels, at noted. Likewise, some outings occurred on many different days, such as foraging in Chippewa National Forest and George Washington State Forest throughout the summer and fall. I only wish I had remembered to bring my rally sign with me every time; regrettably, there are some gaps in coverage. 

Our public lands, as you can see, are important to me throughout the year for camping, fishing, hunting, foraging, educating my children, and much more. If you are so inclined, please consider joining the Public Lands Day rally at the Minnesota state capitol February 7th, at 3:00. Thanks, and get outside. 

C.C. Andrews State Forest, Kettle River

Sucker fishing and camping, Cloquet Valley S.F. and CC Andrews S.F., April 2018 Continue reading “My Public Lands: 2018”