That familiar smell in the air — no, not the smoke — and that color change in the leaves you’ve been noticing over the past week or so means fall is nearly here and for many Minnesotans, that means hunting seasons.

The following is a preview of some of them.

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Bear

When the 2021 Minnesota bear season opens Wednesday, hunters will probably have an advantage over their intended prey.

A summer long drought has dried up most if not all the natural foods bears enjoy which means, generally, that they will be on the move searching out new sources to fill their bellies heading into hibernation season.

Hunter bait piles, which have been out since mid-August, will likely be heavily targeted throughout the season, which runs through Oct. 17.

Tom Rusch, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager for the Tower area, said hunter success is directly related to natural food abundance therefore bear harvest is forecasted to be up again in 2021.

If that prediction becomes reality, this will be the third similar year in a row as success rates have averaged above 50% over the past two years.

Historically that number has varied from 20 to 40%.

Hunter success was 57% in 2020.

Many hunters and non-hunters alike already have some sense of the increased black bear activity this spring and summer as natural food scarcity has meant nuisance bear problems have been high across the Tower Area (which includes much of the Iron Range).

“Natural bear food production was a bust in the Tower Area in 2021. Blueberries, raspberries, choke cherries and June berries were all poor across the area.The late Spring (May 27) killing frost was widespread across the north with lows in the low 20s,” Rusch said. “This had a devastating impact on fruit and mast production. Drought conditions further decimated bear foods. Minimal precipitation led to poor berry, hazelnut and acorn production.”

Other bear foods, such as cranberries, plums, rose hips, dogwood berries, mountain ash and hawthorn, are below average in 2021.

Clover, however, was excellent with frequent precipitation throughout early summer but August has been dry.

Minnesota’s black bear population is estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 and growth over the past few years has been stable, Rusch said. Those numbers are down from peak heights two decades ago and permit numbers (the license purchase deadline was Aug. 1) this year were set low once again — as they have been the last several years — to promote some growth.

“The bear population is down 50% from 10 to 20 years ago statewide. We are managing the population for a moderate increase in the quota area,” Rusch said, adding that years with high average kills — particularly among female bears — sets things back. “Back-to-back years with a high percentage (45%) of female bears killed negatively impacts population growth. This means less bears and longer waits between bear tags for hunters. Ten to 20 years ago hunters drew a tag every year or every other year. It now takes four to six years in our bear permit areas.”

Statewide, 3,575 permits were released to hunters out of 22,279 applicants. Locally, in the Tower Bear Zones, 175 permits were sold in Bear Management Unit (BMU) 24; 400 in BMU 25; 500 in BMU 31;and 50 in BMU 22.

Rusch added that historically low permit numbers create less competition between hunters, which increases hunters’ odds later in the season.

The DNR reminds hunters that tooth submission for all harvested bears is mandatory.

Rusch said DNR officials use them to estimate how many bears are in the woods.

“The tooth is processed and then cross-sectioned. You can then see growth rings under a microscope to get the exact age of the bear in years just like a tree. The age data allows biologists to reconstruct the population by age group and ultimately gives us a population estimate for each year” Rusch said. “Population estimates are extremely important for setting quotas. Without this harvest data, quotas could be set too high or too low. Both have long term consequences for the bear population and hunters.”

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Ruffed Grouse

The ruffed grouse season opens Sept. 18 and runs through Jan. 2 and local wildlife officials are reporting there was good reproduction in northern St. Louis County, with staff seeing scattered, large broods throughout the summer.

That lack of rain that is a problem for everyone and everything else actually works to the benefit of Minnesota’s favorite small game bird.

“Nesting conditions were excellent,” Rusch said. “Drought conditions produce abundant insect hatches throughout summer so reproduction should also be excellent. Warm and dry is good news for upland birds.”

That being said, it could be a hit and miss season for hunters — depending on location and habitat of course. According to spring drum counts (the process the DNR uses to estimate populations), statewide numbers were about 1.3 drums per stop and 1.4 per stop in northeast Minnesota. Both numbers are down from 2.1 drums per stop in 2017.

For our neck of the woods that’s a 29% drop.

That’s significant because the grouse population generally and historically runs on a 10-year cycle. Since the population most likely peaked in 2017, it leads wildlife officials to believe we are on the downward trend.

During the low point of the cycles, counts are typically about 0.8 drums per stop.

According to the DNR, ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory.

It’s been a predictable pattern recorded for 72 years. Although peaks vary from eight to 11 years apart, the DNR says.

The spring drumming counts are an important indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population.

However, the good news (back to that lack of rain) is the number of birds during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.

If production of young birds is low during the summer months, hunters may see fewer birds than expected based on counts of drumming males in the spring. Conversely, when production of young is high, hunters may see more birds than anticipated in the fall.

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Waterfowl

Important dates and information includes:

The Statewide early 5-Day Teal Season is Saturday, Sept. 4-8 (Experimental for up to three years).

State-wide Early Goose season Sept. 1 through Sept. 19. Bag limit is five.

Saturday, September 25th Statewide waterfowl opener.

Youth Waterfowl Day is Saturday Sept. 11 – two weeks before the opener. Youth age 15 and younger.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enables states in the Mississippi Flyway to open their season on the Saturday nearest Sept. 24.

Three-zone, 60-day season again in 2021.

In the North Duck Zone (north of Highway 210), Sept. 25-Tuesday, Nov. 23.

Shooting hours are one half hour before sunrise for the opener till sunset in 2021. The 4 p.m. closure has been eliminated.

Bag limits remain at 6 ducks/day and possession limits are three times the daily bag limit for all migratory birds.

Butterball Lake (created in 2016) and Little Rice Lake (created in 2013) are waterfowl refuges established to provide secure feeding and resting cover in northern St. Louis County during waterfowl season (Sept 1-Nov. 25th).

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Wild Rice

According to DNR Shallow Lakes Specialist Melissa Thompson, rice abundance is overall above average this year for many lakes and rivers.

This year rice has been maturing ahead of normal, putting the peak harvest around the last two weeks of August.

The lack of any precipitation all summer has resulted in very low water levels across the area which is making access to, and travel on, some lakes and rivers difficult to impossible.

In addition, the low water has resulted in some rice stalks to grow very short in height.

Scouting is needed to determine water levels, rice height, and overall rice ripeness.

Big Rice Lake, north of Virginia, has an ongoing LSOHC funded wild rice enhancement project. While there is sparse rice located throughout the lake, there are some small patches scattered near the shore of moderately dense rice.

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Turkey

The Wild Turkey population is expanding into the Iron Range area from the south (Carlton, Aitkin and Crow Wing Counties) and west (Itasca).

Rusch said the mild winter and early Spring was kind to turkeys after two successive deep snow winters.

Turkey hunting is open both Spring and Fall throughout St Louis County in permit area 508. Licenses can be purchased over the counter.

The bag limit is one turkey each season (either sex in the fall).

It’s males only in the spring.

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