SILVER BAY, Minn. -- Not far offshore from this northern Minnesota town on one September weekend lay a beautiful sight: Lake Superior beneath blue skies, with nary a whitecap in sight. As a bonus, temperatures were in the mid-70s, ideal for a September drive up and down the North Shore, especially for those with no particular agenda save for stops at Split Rock State Park and other inspiring destinations.
Yet, grouse hunters in the region were perhaps less inspired, or at least those who hunted on foot were. By tradition these are uplanders who put dogs on the ground and head into forests deep and dark, compass or GPS in a pocket. For them, the weather on the weekend was too warm and the foliage in this early season too thick.
I wonder anymore just how rare the foot-walking grouse hunter is in Minnesota, anyway. Frequent in recent years, this thought surfaced again that weekend when the state's ruffed grouse season opened. Then, as in recent autumns, most evident up north weren't dog, men or women on foot, but four-wheeler riders astraddle their machines.
These "hunters" also were looking for grouse.
Some say hunters and anglers, no matter their differences, should stick together, knowing that no single activity -- walleye angling to dove shooting -- has universal appeal, even among sporting types. Live and let live, the thinking goes, lest hunters and anglers become divided among themselves, and everyone loses.
That said, count me out when the subject is "hunting" ruffed grouse by four-wheeler, a practice I find demeaning not only to the sport of upland hunting, but to ruffed grouse.
If four-wheeling for grouse, broadly defined, were not gaining popularity every year, or seemingly so, no harm would be done. North-central and northern Minnesota are big places, after all, and four-wheeler trails don't lead everywhere.
Or so you might think until, in those same forests dark and deep, you cross a trail and find it rutted with 'wheeler tracks.
The argument that there are "plenty of woods for everyone" might not be true anyway, at least when the subject is grouse hunting. Ruffed grouse are edge-loving birds that seem disproportionately drawn to trails and their margins, suggesting that four-wheeler hunters might harvest more birds more quickly over a broader landscape than even wildlife managers believe.
Travel up north on a coming weekend and I challenge you not to see how much things have changed. At gas stations, in rest areas and motel parking lots, and at forest entries, large trailers hooked to pickups and SUVs signal what is going on, or will soon go on, out of sight: ATV road hunters using their machines to chase 'Ol Ruff.
Which prompts a question: Why is four-wheeling for grouse so common up north and not at all seen in western and southwestern Minnesota among pheasant hunters?
I realize the cat's out of the bag in this deal and nothing's going to change substantially -- notwithstanding, as Sam Cook of the Duluth News Tribune reported, that portions of Cloquet State Forest that have long been open to ATVs, are now closed off.
"The reason we did it (closing some areas to ATV use) was to try to provide some balance," Rich Staffon, DNR area wildlife manager in Cloquet, told Cook. "We get a fair amount of people who call and are looking for a place to hunt where they don't have to deal with crowds and ATVs. This is an effort to provide that option."
Maybe so. But if ruffed grouse and their management are going to have a future in Minnesota, Staffon and others like him are going to have to get a lot more calls from a lot more foot-walking grouse hunters than is currently the case.
Barring that, Minnesota will raise still more generations of grouse "hunters" whose primary concern about the birds isn't their habitats and the purchase and maintenance thereof, but whether trails leading into grouse woods are open to ATVs.
This is no small deal. Hunters who pass enough time chasing grouse away from trails soon develop keen appreciations for aspen cuttings, willow thickets and alder lowlands. Wear out enough boot leather and you, too, over time might concern yourself with forest management and -- perhaps, even -- the politics tied thereto.
I own a four-wheeler and have for a long time. I use it to drag out deer, to haul hay to horses and other stuff.
But I leave it home when I hunt grouse. I wish other people did, too.