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Northern Minnesota Kennel Owners Make Training Grouse & Woodcock Their Passion – Twin Cities

FLOODWOOD TOWNSHIP, Minnesota — It’s what the Fries family looks forward to all year.

Less than 100 yards from where we parked the trucks, Viper, their little female setter Gordon, was already locked in a scruffy patch of alders. The bell she wore on her collar that rang when she moved was silent.

Dean Fries, 60, was turning left. Sons Lukus, 17, and Caleb, 16, were closing in on Viper’s stiff cock.

Each held their double-barreled shotgun at chest height, ready to go. What was in the blanket held firmly just beyond the dog’s nose.

The Fries family – including Jill, his wife and mother – have made Gordon setters and grouse a big part of their lives. Breeding, breeding, training, boarding and hunting behind dogs has become a family affair for the Fries family at their home and Clearcut Kennels in Culver, Minnesota, just northwest of Duluth.

Dean Fries chats with his sons, Lukus and Caleb (not pictured), before the trio dove into cover along one side of a logging road to hunt grouse and woodcock in October 2020 near Floodwood , Minnesota. With them was Viper, the 5-year-old Gordon Setter of the family. (Steve Kuchera/Forum News Service)

And October is when they can really see the fruits of their year-long labor.

“We go out every weekend. Plus, that’s when I take most of my vacations,” Dean Fries said. “It’s the best time of year for me.”

On this first point of the day, there were missing. A woodcock who had almost become a meal does not know how lucky she was. But there would be many more points on a sunny, calm, perfectly cool day in the woods, and three hunting vests would end up with bulges in game pockets.


There’s something immensely rewarding about training a dog all summer and watching it do what it’s supposed to do in the fall, which seems to happen often for Fries. By this time, 5-year-old Viper was generally doing the right thing.

“The boys did all the training on this dog. He’s Lukus’ dog, he raised him from a puppy,” Dean said between Viper’s points.

Dean used to guide hunters in the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt – a fundraising event for the Ruffed Grouse Society each October near Grand Rapids, Minnesota – including a few top finishes, “but it took a lot of time that I’d rather spend with my boys now.

Dean Fries grew up in the northern suburbs of Twin Cities, but took hunting trips with his father as far away as Itasca County.

“I would have given anything as a kid to live where we live now, so I tell my boys they should appreciate how close we are to a really good grouse hunt,” said Dean.

Fries started looking at different breeds of grouse dogs while still in college and settled on Gordons, as much for their looks and the fact that they were still rare as any experience he had with the race.

“They’re different, they’re not a Lab or a shorthair that everyone has. It’s still a pretty rare breed across the country,” Fries noted.

He has now hunted behind them for nearly 40 years and has been breeding Gordons for 35, also offering training and guiding. He moved to Duluth, in part to be closer to grouse, in 1987.

“I remember a college professor telling us to find a career you’re passionate about. And I thought to myself, how can I make a career out of grouse hunting? Fries said. “It’s probably as close as you can get.”

On weekdays, Dean is a commercial loan banker for the National Bank of Commerce in Superior, Wisconsin, and he retains some of that computational efficiency while bird hunting.

“On a good day, we should move 25 to 30 birds. … On opening day, we moved 26. That’s just grouse, not counting woodcock,” Fries said, noting that it’s not always easy to get a limit of five grouse, even with so many flushed birds. “You have to get a few early and then hope for a lucky one at noon when the grouse seem to be hiding and the hunt is harder for the dogs. … Then you can have two later in the afternoon when the grouse become active again. It’s a good time to get out.

Their dogs have been sold to customers across the country, as far away as Alaska, Maine, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Lukus said.

“It’s mostly word of mouth. Once someone picks out a Gordon, there really aren’t a lot of breeders with very good hunting bloodlines,” Dean noted.

Over the summer, Caleb and Lukus were training four young dogs who were returning from clients who had purchased puppies earlier. With client dogs, boarding dogs and Fries’ 15 Gordons – and a litter of five 2-week-old puppies, Clearcut Kennels is a busy place.

Most of their Gordons weigh between 40 and 50 pounds, with some males being even larger. Viper weighs 35 pounds wet.

Viper, a Gordon setter owned by the Fries family, holds a point during a grouse/woodcock hunt near Floodwood, Minnesota in October 2020. The family operates Clearcut kennels, breeding and training Gordon setters. Originally bred in Scotland to hunt pheasant and quail, the AKC describes the Gordon setter as alert, confident, fearless, intelligent, loyal, and affectionate. (Steve Kuchera/Forum News Service)

“She’s probably the smallest we’ve had,” Dean noted. “But she can go all day.”

Someone has to be there to feed and clean all those animals every day, which keeps the Fries family busy and close to home most of the year.

“We’re the family dairymen,” Jill Fires said with a smile. “We’re not going anywhere. We have to be here every day to take care of the dogs. So if anyone wants to visit us, they have to come and see us.


Dean Fries is also analytical about dog breeding. He rotates new dogs into his kennel, usually bringing in outside male studs, and continues to breed only those dogs that have the characteristics he desires. Dogs that are good hunters, but maybe not perfect, are sold as beginner dogs – probably the best dog the buyer will ever have, but not the exact gene pool Dean wants to pass on.

“Breeding is like a card game. You keep aces and kings and you try to get rid of twos and threes,” Dean said. to browse it. If they don’t do what we want them to do at the level we want them to do, we move on (to another dog) for herding. This is how you breed bloodlines to get the most out of a breed.

Lukus and Caleb are home-schooled, and dog training and care is part of their upbringing, Jill noted. Dean takes care of educating them on the hunting part.

“It was fun to watch them improve, not just in dog training, but also in shooting,” Dean noted.

Fries thinks the grouse is the most difficult bird for pointers to control. Woodcock usually holds tight for good color. Pheasants will run out to a point under heavy cover, sometimes confusing dogs. But grouse often escape unseen under a dot, leaving a dog to point only to the old scent – if they don’t learn to follow the bird.

It’s this learned skill for the dog – how far to get to the bird without flushing it before the hunter is near and ready to shoot – why Fries loves Gordons so much.

“They just seem to get it,” he said, noting that the boys were trying to only shoot the birds the dog was pointing at.

The Fries boys moved quickly through even thick stands of young aspens, following Viper as she stretched left and right past the hunters.

“The dog should really give you the rhythm,” Dean noted.

After a late morning two-hour hunt, the Fries and Viper boys had spotted a dozen woodcocks, which appear to be migrating earlier than usual this year, with many in the area. They connected on six of them.

“I love these little birds,” Dean said, admiring the plumage of a woodcock in his hand.

But he loves grouse even more, and for some reason we only saw one grouse in the morning, despite a prime young aspen habitat that had been clearcut six or seven years ago. Almost all the leaves had also fallen, making it easier to see in the thick cover.

The shortage of grouse in the morning was remedied with a one mile move and a quick one hour hunt in the afternoon which produced half a dozen grouse hunts and a connection.

Back at the truck, the boys emptied their play vests and packed their shotguns as two of their own 12-week-old puppies, Ares and Oliver, played with a woodcock, a little taste of what was to come more late in their life.

“My father was a grouse hunter. I’ve been absolutely in love with it since I was 12 years old in 1972 when I was able to hunt for the first time. … It’s a lifelong passion for me,” Dean said. “And I think I’m passing it on to the next generation now.”

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