On a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, you don't expect to be alone when you go for a drive along North Shore back roads. Typically, lots of folks are out and about--leaf-looking, closing up cabins or just plain exploring. And, with plenty of grouse in the woods, this year there was extra incentive to bring along a shotgun while out for a cruise.
So we were surprised to encounter hardly anyone out there. We happened upon a vehicle or two whose occupants, like us, were on a pleasure excursion. No vehicles were parked beside grousy-looking trails, nor did we see anyone riding an ATV. Since we aren't sports fans, we drove for a couple of hours along the surprisingly lonely byways before it dawned on us what was going on. The Vikings were playing on television.
Earlier this fall, DNR officials were scratching their collective chins and publicly wondering, “Where have the state's ruffed grouse hunters gone?” Minnesota has the best ruffed grouse hunting in the nation, but the number of people pursuing the King of Game Birds has declined significantly since the turn of the century. Maybe the answer to the mystery of the missing grouse hunters is as simple as, “They're at home, sitting on the couch.”
Of course, answers to such questions are rarely simple, but we have become a more sedentary society. Grouse hunting is a walking game and, for too many Minnesotans, a stroll across the shopping mall parking lot qualifies as a stiff hike. But if we've become fat and lazy, wouldn't that lead to an uptick in that dread scourge from the 1990—the ATV hunter? Well, not really. The gun-toting ATVers still exist, but from my observations they seem to be older and less enthusiastic these days. You'll encounter ATV hunters buzzing along forest roads on the September opener, but they taper off fairly quickly as the season progresses.
What about the traditional road hunters, the ones who—by horse-drawn wagon, Model A and SUV—have bumped along forest roads for a hundred years? They, too, seem to be fading away. Maybe higher fuel prices have dampened some folks’ enthusiasm for driving back roads in search of grouse.
More likely, they, and other former or potential grouse hunters, have found something else to do. Grouse hunting has always been a casual sport for many hunters who will go out a time or two and, as autumn progresses, then move on to other hunts as duck, pheasant or deer seasons open. For lots of reasons, including the proliferation of new hunts—kiddie days, doe shoots, whatever—those casual grouse hunters may have given up on grouse to pursue other opportunities. If they were casual grousers anyway, we probably don’t need to waste time wondering where they’ve gone or if they’ll return.
But what about the folks who enjoy grouse hunting, whether on foot, on an ATV or behind the wheel? Quite likely we’ve lost far fewer of them from the grouse hunting pool. However, it is very likely that we are not replacing those grouse hunters when they give up due to the natural attrition of aging or moving away. And that may be a problem, because up until now, we’ve taken grouse and grouse hunters for granted.
By doing so, we may have screwed up northern Minnesota’s best portal for recruiting new hunters. Generations of kids were introduced to hunting and the woods via ruffed grouse by walking along old logging roads with Dad or another adult. Because grouse are often reluctant to flush, they give young hunters a chance to learn how to aim and shoot. Taking grouse on the wing comes later. But a kid who comes up through the ranks this way learns to love the woods as well as the hunt.
Grouse were the steppingstone to other forms of hunting. In the grouse woods you learned the basics, including the big step of being able to go hunting by yourself. From there it was on to the duck blind and the deer stand, more sophisticated hunts that require a working knowledge of guns and gun handling, and equal measures of maturity and patience. Young grouse hunters were eager for these new, grown-up hunting experiences.
Certainly, some kids still come into hunting via the grouse woods, but it is harder to do so these days. By taking grouse for granted, we also took for granted there would always be trails to walk and older hunters to introduce kids to this experience. But some of those grouse-hunting opportunities just dwindled away. Many of yesterday’s walking trails are today’s ATV pathways. Private property signs are far more common than they used to be. And hunters get confusing messages from hunting advocates and the DNR, because the special youth hunts are not about entry-level hunting, but fast-forwarding kids into waterfowl and big game hunting.
Doing so may create hunting license buyers, but I’m not so sure it creates hunters. I suspect we are nearing the end of an era for hunters who appreciate a good pair of boots, a fine shotgun or a seasoned bird dog. What we are creating today are weekend warriors, who think hunting is something you do for a day or two each fall with a high expectation of success. It is unlikely these new license buyers will ever become the sort of people for whom hunting defines both themselves and their way of life.
Airdate: October 22, 2010