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ERIC SHARP: Small-game hunting likely a mixed bag

September 9, 2004


GRAYLING -- The other night on the way home from Saginaw Bay I had about three hours before meeting my wife for dinner. So I stopped at a little trout stream, unlimbered a 2-weight rod and began the 100-yard walk to the water.

Michigan's small-game hunting season opens next week. Dates and bag limits for several popular species:

Rabbit: Wednesday through March 31. Five per day, 10 possession (combined species).

Ruffed grouse: Wednesday through Nov. 14 and Dec. 1-Jan. 1. Five per day, 10 in possession in Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula; three per day and six in possession in southern Lower Peninsula.

Squirrel: Wednesday through March 1. Five per day, 10 in possession.

Woodcock: Sept. 25 through Nov. 8. Three per day, six in possession. Shotguns must be plugged to hold no more than three shells.

Something was standing in the middle of the trail as I walked up, and once my eyes adjusted to the shadows I could see it was a grouse.

This was one of those grouse that's the avian equivalent of a nasty drunk. Instead of getting airborne or running into the bushes, he ran straight at me for a half-dozen paces, stopped and glared up with his neck stretched out.

When I tried to walk around him, the little bugger followed and blocked my path again.

"You come back and see me next Wednesday. Then we'll see who has the last laugh," I said as a rap on the butt from the rod tip convinced him to let me by.

It's hard to believe that we're only six days away from the opening of another grouse season. Ideally, I'll get in a few cast-and-blast days while the weather is good, fishing for trout and salmon in the morning and evening and hunting grouse in between.

Through the years, I've encountered a number of grouse like that little guy, feisty birds that are happy to take on somebody 100 times their size. I've never figured out why they do that.

It might make sense in spring, when the male grouse are drumming and trying to draw in females and will defend their leks against all comers. But I've seen grouse challenge me and even attack my feet and mountain bike tires in every season of the year, and each time it happens it both puzzles and delights me.

When the season opens Wednesday, hunters will find about the same number of grouse as last year, which ranged from poor to so-so, said biologists for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Brian Frawley, a DNR statistician, said the last peak of the 10-year grouse population cycle was probably 1999, and Michigan is at or near the bottom of the predictable but irregular population fluctuation.

"The information we're getting from Minnesota and Wisconsin indicates that they are both still down, so we should be, too," Frawley said. "We're predicting that Michigan hunters will kill about 350,000 ruffed grouse" before the season ends Jan. 1. The ruffed grouse population cycle moves across the country like a wave from New England to Minnesota and back again, with roughly 10 years between peaks. It usually bottoms out in Minnesota and Wisconsin before it does in Michigan, and it begins its recovery in those states a year or two ahead of us.

When it comes to woodcock population figures, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the story is also about the same as last year, and Michigan hunters should kill about 140,000 of the timberdoodles in a season that opens Sept. 25 and runs through Nov. 8.

Woodcock numbers have been declining for the past five years, and the problem is an old story when it comes to wildlife management -- decreasing habitat at the northern end of their range where they nest and along the Gulf Coast where they spend the winters.

The DNR doesn't do squirrel and rabbit surveys, but personal observations and calls to friends around the state indicate that squirrel and cottontail hunting should be excellent. The cool, damp summer seems to have produced superb mast crops across Michigan, which probably increased the survival chances of baby squirrels born back in March. It also produced luxuriant green growth for rabbits to eat and hide in, which my rabbit-hunting friends say has increased cottontail numbers in many areas.

The critter that doesn't seem to have been helped as much is the snowshoe rabbit. I've seen few in some scouting visits to a couple of areas that abounded with them last year, and hunters in other areas tell me their snowshoe population also seems to be down.

So maybe that means we'll have to spend more time hunting doves. The state Natural Resources Commission is expected to approve the first season in 100 years at its meeting in Lansing today. The hunt would start Friday.

Some animal rights groups say they will mount a petition drive to outlaw the dove hunt through a voter referendum, and they certainly have the right to try. But there's nothing they can do to stop us from hunting doves this year, and if you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend that you do.

Contact ERIC SHARP at 313-222-2511 or Order his book "Fishing Michigan" for $15.95 at or by calling 800-245-5082.

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