Dec. 8, 2023. By Dave Veldman
Late Season Grouse Tactics
Lets be honest. We all know that the best time of year to hunt Ruffed Grouse is late October to early November. You really can't beat it. However, don't count out the December hunt if you haven't quite come to grips with packing away your grouse gear just yet.
Now, let me be clear. This article is going to cover HOW to find late season grouse, not how to actually shoot them. On that subject, I am no expert. I'll save that for someone with a little more expertise in the matter.
Once December hits, the grouse change their habits completely. They are in winter survival mode and where you found them just a few weeks ago will most likely not be where you find them December 1. This is especially true if the temps have dropped significantly and if there is snow on the ground. Here in Michigan, we have been blessed with some more mild Decembers lately, and opportunities to find grouse have been really good. Below are just a few key factors I look for when hitting the December grouse woods.
The pic shown to the here is the perfect example of the dichotomy of ground cover that grouse are looking for once there is snow on the ground. I use this pic because as I was walking down a logging train, it caught my eye and I had the brief thought, "hey, I could see a grouse chilling under there." I took two steps off the path and sure enough a bird busted out the other side. Unfortunately, an unsuspecting aspen tree took the brunt of my shot and the bird sailed off to the thicker cover in the background. Now, not every spot that looks like this will have a bird, but I like what it illustrates. Grouse don't want to be seen...ever. If they can see the sky, something in the sky can see them. If they are standing out in a sea of white snow, any predator is going to take full advantage of it. Grouse want to be in a situation where they blend in. This is especially true if there is still available food source on the ground. When walking through the woods, I typically look for dark spots on the forest floor. The birds are rarely going to be out in the aspen or open cover once there is snow on the ground. Move to the edges where their fall cover meets a mix of evergreen and low brushy cover.
The other thing grouse are looking for in the colder months is thermal cover. Again, think green. Pines and firs offer not only protection from predators, but they block the wind and elements. When you are walking through a cover, make sure you are prepared for birds coming out of trees. They don't want to leave their safe havens and a slower pace will often make them nervous enough to fly. The dogs too may find it more difficult to scent the birds. Yes, some dogs have delveloped a knack for pointing grouse in the tree, but it really does change how a dog is able to locate the birds.
One small advantage you have once the snow hits is that you will be albe to see if grouse have been in the area. While they may not move around during the day too much, they wll often walk early or late in the dim light. This leaves tracks. Something you won't find in the earlier part of the season. While the birds may not be right where the tracks are, if provides a good indicator that they may be close by. It will also help you begin to pattern the types of cover the birds are looking for at that point.
The Meal Plan
Food sources for grouse drastically change once temps drop and snow hits the ground. If you happen to be in an area where the snow is light or not there at all, grouse may be a little more predictable. If the snow gets deep, the birds have no choice but to look for food higher up.I tend to check and see if any of the soft mass fruit is still on or near the bush. If you can find a bush with some left over thorn-apple or even autumn olive, you will most likely find birds near by. Same goes for wintergreen berries/leaves. This time of year, they will eat what is available and when they find a decent pocket of food, they will stick around fill their crops.If the snow is covering the ground, and all the fruit is off the bushes, you have to look up. Look for an area where there are lots of paper birch catkins or leftover witch hazel catkins. You may even begin to find them eating the aspen buds, depending on how late you are out. Again going to cover and concealment, think about where a bird could eat and not be seen from the sky.
Winter hunting can be tricky to prepare for. Bird hunters are on the move, and cold weather can be a welcomed treat. Especially if you are walking through snow, you will exert a lot more energy than normal. This means you will warm up fast. The tendency is to dress for the air temp, but in reality layering is key. Even if it is 20 degrees out, you will most likely be sweating after a good 20-30 minute run. Dress so that you are a touch cold as you leave the truck. Be prepared to shed a layer if you get too hot. You don't need bulky clothing to be comfortable on a late season hunt. Unless the temps are in the single digits, I will never wear insulated boots. My feet never get cold when i am walking. Same goes for gloves. My hands may be a little cold at first, but after a bit of movement a mid level glove like the Pyke Dakota Gloves is perfect for keeping dexterity while not overheating.
The one thing I find to be the most problematic for me is not drinking enough water. When I am cold, I rarely feel thirsty. Yes, I sweat, but its just different in the cold. Drink plenty of fluids before and after the hunt. Same goes for your dogs. They may not be as interested in drinking water as they were earlier in the season. Force them to hydrate. One easy way to do that is to give them plenty of water over night. While they may not drink when out running, they will often drink when they are inactive. While on the topic of dogs, make sure you are taking care of their feet. Running through snow and ice can be brutal on dogs paws. Check them often. If your dog is prone to cracked pads, make sure you use a product like Mushers Secret or something similar. Your dog will most likely not tell you when something is wrong, so its your job to check and mitigate as necessary.
While challenging, hunting Ruffed Grouse hunting in the winter can open up extended opportunities. before hanging up your vest for the year. Grouse are challenging no matter what time of year you chase them. Winter hunting just adds a few new layers of tactics that you need to prepare for.
Then again, we all know grouse don't play by the rules. Thats what allows them to hold their title of "king of gamebirds." As former state gamebird bioligist Al Stewart says, " Grouse are where they are, and sometimes they aren't there either." I have found them in the thickest pine stands and I have found them in the most sparse young aspen. The only way to know is to get out there and cover some ground.