It was Christmas day and my younger brother and I were walking side-by-side down a snow-covered logging trail that meandered through a tangled spruce and cedar swamp.
We were carrying on a tradition that stretches back more than 25 years. After a hearty holiday meal at my folks’ house, we had gathered our hunting gear and headed for Beltrami Island State Forest just south of town. Grouse were near the peak of their 10-year population cycle and hunting early in the season had been fabulous.
Tattoo, my young Brittany, got a nose full of bird before we got 100 yards down the dim road, flash pointing and then frantically circling a cluster of tall bushy spruce, nose plowing through the fresh snow.
“It’s gotta be up in one of these tree,” Tony said as we circled the base of each spruce methodically, looking up, trying to discern grouse from growth. The bird held tight for a full five minutes, and we probably would have given up if Tattoo had not insisted that there was a bird close by. Finally, the bird bolted and Tony dropped it with a single shot from his 12 gauge. I slapped him on the back as Tattoo dropped the bird at our feet. Every December grouse is a trophy well earned.
Tony missed another bird later that day and I never fired a shot during the three hours that we were in the woods. Not a great day if we were concerned with such things as filling our bag limits. We weren’t. We had long since come to the realization that late-season grouse hunting isn’t about numbers. It’s about spending an enjoyable day in the frosty woods, and the challenge of matching wits with wily winter grouse.
But that isn’t to say that a determined hunter can’t find success in the grouse woods after the snow flies and most laid-back bird hunters are home watching football.
Hunting ruffed grouse late in the season is a sport for only the most passionate bird men. Grouse are nervous and flighty and hang out in the meanest cover that they can find. Forget about those honey holes where you found coveys of young birds early in the season. Winter grouse gravitate to thick cover along the edges of grassy swamps where two-legged and four-legged predators hesitate to venture. Forget, too, the calm indifference they displayed early in the season. Those birds are all dead or have become highly educated by the time December rolls around.
One constant is that ruffed grouse, early or late, are sprinters. Equipped with short wings and a small heart, they rarely fly more than 60 yards and the resolute hunter, with or without a pooch, can often get multiple flushes from a single bird. When I put a bird to wing and don’t make the shot, I try to determine the direction of its flight, which is typically straight away from danger. At the predictable 50- or 60-yard mark they invariably hook right or left just before they land.
I typically work thick cover of transition zones that divide the edges of grassy swamps and spruce, cedar or jack pine woods. Birds love this stuff late in the season. They generally hang close to the edges of this cover so that they can exercise the option of flight if they are discovered. But given the choice they will utilize their natural camouflage and hold tight until the last second.
My dog gets the brush-busting duty. I send him in 20 or 30 yards into the heavy cover and walk the edges, hoping that Tattoo will flush a bird in my direction. Being a pointer of a somewhat steady nature, he will hold on birds that hunker down and hide. But he will more likely bust any nervous birds to flight, hopefully in my direction. I also walk old logging roads letting him crisscross back in forth in front of me. If I’m lucky, a flushed grouse will cross the road in flight and offer one quick shot. If I’m luckier still, and the bird decides to hold, I’ll walk up for the flush.
When Tony and I hunt together, we generally walk about 30 yards apart and let the dog work between us. I might not get a shot at a grouse that I jump, but with a little luck Tony might.
Another favorite tactic involves driving the back roads after a fresh snow, sipping a cup of hot coffee. Grouse often meander around early in the morning in search of food and their tell-tale tracks can lead to feathered treasure. Grouse, by nature, are walkers. They only take to flight to escape danger or to fly up into trees where they feed on the buds of aspen and birch. I have walked down many grouse by following their tracks in the snow immediately following a snow shower.
Late-season grouse hunting is not an activity for the casual hunter, of those who measure success by the heft of their game pouches. Rather, it’s sport for outdoorsmen who cannot bear to stay indoors on a crisp December morning; or those who wish to take a short reprieve from dipping a fishing line in a frozen lake. Forget about numbers and instead relish a heart-warming, toe numbing walk in the winter wonderland of late-season grouse.