Sep 10, 2018
County Forests: Grouse Jackpot
Grouse and woodcock hunting opportunities from Wisconsin’s largest public land base
By Gary Zimmer
What a beautiful early October morning when I released my young Brittany, Hunter, into the wilds of far northeast Wisconsin. The morning dew added just enough weight to the several scarlet leaves of a red maple that floated aimlessly toward the ground ahead of us.
Hunter first explored a small hazelnut patch to the left of the walking trail I was on. Finding nothing of interest, he glided across the trail when almost in mid-air he locked into a strong point.
As I passed to Hunter’s left, a ruffed grouse emerged from a dense patch of young aspen saplings not 20 yards in front of me. The bird was intent on crossing the trail, heading toward the security of a mixed stand of aspen and oak. I took one step back to clear myself from the densest of aspen saplings and started to swing my 20-gauge shotgun. Fortunately for me, the bird made a slight turn as it crossed the trail, slowing his escape and provided a critical extra second for me to catch up to him with the gun barrel. The ensuing load of #7½ shot connected and the bird toppled to the ground, soon to be retrieved by Hunter just five minutes after beginning our morning quest. The already successful grouse hunt continued at a special place, the Lamon Tangue Ruffed Grouse Management Area in the Florence County Forest.
Background on county forests
Lamon Tangue Ruffed Grouse Management Area has been managed for decades by the Florence County Forestry and Parks Department to promote ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat. This 1,740-acre management area includes a mix of forest types and ages of aspen and oak sustainably managed to provide a continuous supply of the food and cover ruffed grouse, woodcock and many other forest wildlife require. Several access points and trails aid the walking hunter and are arranged to allow ample areas for hunters to get off the trails.
Florence County Forest is one of 29 individual county forests that collectively make the Wisconsin County Forest System the largest public land base in Wisconsin, covering nearly 2.4 million acres. Often overlooked by non-local grouse and woodcock hunters, these county forests are primarily found in northern and western Wisconsin and include much of the prime range of ruffed grouse in the state.
Wisconsin County Forest System was established by the state legislature in 1927, with Langlade County the first to enroll acres in a county forest program in 1928.
In 1968, Wisconsin counties with lands enrolled under the state’s county forest law came together to form Wisconsin County Forests Association, which is still the largest compilation of county forests in the world. These individual county forests are managed by a local forest administrator and their staff under the direction of a local county board of supervisors.
Income from county forest timber sales offset county tax levies and is critical to local county government finances.
Nearly all of Wisconsin county forest lands are open for ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting. These lands boast an ongoing, active, third-party certified forest management program that includes the largest acreage of young forest habitat in the state at about 887,000 acres. This young forest habitat provides the critical cover and food resources needed for ruffed grouse and woodcock populations to thrive and ample area for hunters to seek their quarry.
Fostering upland birds
Since 1985, 30 distinct ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat management areas have been established on Wisconsin’s county forests in cooperation with Ruffed Grouse Society. Funding and technical advice from the society has provided land managers the ability to provide prime habitat for these and other wildlife species that thrive in young forest habitats.
Though often designed to both provide essential habitat for the birds and improve recreational hunting opportunities, these management areas are often overlooked and underutilized by hunters unfamiliar with the land. With the help of Ruffed Grouse Society and the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, this is changing.
Wisconsin County Forest Association received a Wisconsin Drummer Grant from Ruffed Grouse Society and two Joint Effort Marketing grants from the state tourism office to develop and market a web-based interactive mapping tool for grouse and woodcock hunters to use both in their homes or in the field to plan or execute hunting excursions.
This tool provides in-depth locations and background information on 18 ruffed grouse management areas covering more than 95,000 acres across the state.
These areas range in size from 600 acres to nearly 25,400 acres, providing hunters with ample hunting opportunities. Some have more extensive hunter walking trail systems, while others are more suited for hunters wanting to get off the beaten track. These sites are located on 17 different county forests allowing hunters to travel from area to area or concentrate on a particular region of the state.
Wealth of info online
Information provided for each management area includes driving instructions, GPS coordinates for trailheads and parking areas, acreage of units, length of hunter walking trails, nearest towns with food, gas or lodging and local contacts for information about the county forest, chamber of commerce and closest veterinary services.
In addition, downloadable maps of the individual grouse management areas are provided for each site. These maps identify the management area boundaries, parking lots and hunter walking trail systems with several also including a breakdown of forest type and aspen age classes that should prove useful to perspective hunters.
Though these specific 18 grouse management areas are being highlighted under this grant program, hundreds of thousands of additional acres of young forest habitat are available on other locations of county forests in Wisconsin as well as other lands open to the public.
Additional information on the Wisconsin County Forest System and links to specific county forests are available on the association’s website at www.wisconsincountyforests.com. This link includes contact information for each county forest office, whose staff consists of field foresters with a great deal of knowledge about the local areas they manage.
The 2018 ruffed grouse season in most of Wisconsin – including all the county forests – begins on Saturday, Sept. 15 with the woodcock season starting on Saturday, Sept. 22. Leaf off is typically during the first two weeks of October in most of the county forests, providing the optimum time for pursuing both species. However, hunters venturing forth in late September will have the opportunity to enjoy flushing birds amidst outstanding fall colors.
Fall fishing in the area is often fantastic in Wisconsin especially for inland trout (closes Oct. 15), musky and walleye for those hunters interested in mixing in a bit of fishing during their trip.
If a ruffed grouse hunting trip has been on your bucket list, there is no better time than now to start making plans. Wisconsin’s county forests hold some of the finest ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat in the United States. Join fellow grouse and woodcock hunters this fall for a wonderful Wisconsin upland bird hunting experience.
Gary Zimmer is assistant executive director of Wisconsin County Forests Association.