December 18, 2019
Sweat collected on my brow and dripped down my cheek like a tear, something I didn’t know was even possible in December, as we forged through the brisk winter weather that day in the Northwoods. A quick peek over my shoulder revealed a trail of boot prints through the open understory of tall Norwegian pines, the last remnants from our efforts etched in the snow like footprints in the sand.
With each step, boots crunched through the thin layer of crystalized crust to soft snow below, requiring high knees reminiscent of running the tire drill at football practice many years ago. Luckily our bird dogs were light enough to skim atop the white sea, uninhibited.
It was brutal walking for us that day. But it was self-inflicted punishment. We had some rare free time away from work and decided to brave the elements for ruffed grouse on some of Minnesota’s many acres of forested public land.
My hips hated me when I returned to the truck, but the sore, strained reach into my game pouch for a couple plump birds was the sign that it was all worth it.
Hunting ruffs is difficult any time of the year, even during the glory days of October, but you can prolong your hunt through the winter by embracing the challenge of hunting ruffed grouse during the late season and in the snow.
LATE-SEASON KEYS: FOOD AND COVER
Ruffed grouse, like any game animal, alter their daily habits throughout the year. This is clear when comparing their locales from early to late season. Any animal needs two things: food and cover.
“While the conditions change significantly from early season to late, some things don’t change for ruffed grouse: They continue to need food, and they carry the instinct to stay in cover away from predators,” said Ted Dick, the forest game bird coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Now, the presence of food and cover might seem obvious, but dialing into the specifics within each key will help you find more birds in the late season.
“Later in the year, the birds start to move into areas that can sustain them for long periods of cold weather,” said Travis Grossman, professional grouse hunting guide and operator of the Grouse Lodge at Little Moran in Staples, Minnesota. “I look for pockets of protection from aerial predation with good long-term food sources nearby.”
For food, find the aspen trees. Catkin buds from aspen trees have historically been a staple of the ruffed grouse diet, but in the late season, focus on older aspen trees. Dick suggests grouse will search out any remaining leafy greens as long as they are around, but aspen catkins become more important during winter months, with trees over 30 years old specifically supplying buds that ruffed grouse treasure as food sources now.
For cover, find the pines. Dick recommends good green conifers, especially balsam fir or white spruce, which offer thermal cover and concealment from predators. Grossman confirmed, stating he keys on areas with pines, or even other trees still holding onto their brown leaves.
“A couple of leafy oak trees within a clearcut can be a real hotspot,” he said. “I run into a lot of birds grouping up in these places, so it’s important to keep your dogs in productive cover because the birds tend to be less spread out.”
These areas with both food and cover are called “healthy forests” by forest management professionals—forests of varying age classes and habitat types supporting many species of forest wildlife. “Healthy forests” is a term championed by the Ruffed Grouse Society, the national conservation organization dedicated to creating habitat for ruffs, woodcock and other forest wildlife.
WHEN THE SNOW FALLS
Among some grouse hunters, a perception exists that snowfall majorly alters the game plan for the hunt or closes the season altogether for many. Grossman changes his tactics in the snow as well as his reason for going out, but there are still birds to be had later in the season.
“If the birds were still finding and eating greens before the snow,” he said, “they may transition towards their staple winter sources like catkins and buds, as we discussed before.”
In any case, he suggests, when there is snow, hunters should follow the tracks.
“Many people enjoy tracking birds and seeing where they have been,” Grossman said. “I like to read grouse tracks in the snow to learn more about what the birds are using for cover and food.”
He also likes hunting in snow because tracks help him work younger dogs that didn’t get as much time with lodge guests during the prime season. Following tracks “lets you know that you are in a high-probability zone to find birds,” he said. That can help any hunter.
The amount of snow on the ground while hunting matters, too.
“The depth of snow cover makes a difference in where I look for late-season grouse,” said Dick. “Ruffed grouse have evolved in harsh winter environments, and they do very well when snow piles up because they spend a significant part of their day burrowed under the snow—this behavior of “roosting” in the snow improves their ability to avoid being found by predators, and the insulating effect of the snow helps birds maintain normal body temperature while expending less energy.”
In winters with less snow coverage, you’ll find grouse attempting to roost in shallow snow where they are more susceptible to predation and require more energy to stay warm. Dick suggests searching in forest openings under matted grass, which provides cover when snow is insufficient. He adds that “the green cover of conifers” may offer alternative roosting sources when snow is sparse and advises to “look for balsams near aspen.”
WHERE TO GO
Hunting one of the “big three” states of the Western Great Lakes—Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota—is a bucket-list proposition. With relatively healthy timber industries, vast acres of public lands, cooperative state natural resources departments and support from the Ruffed Grouse Society, these states represent the prototypical forest landscapes that support ruffed grouse habitat and hunting.
Each state has excellent resources online to locate public land for ruffed grouse. Seasons typically start in the middle of September, but always check applicable regulations first.
Michigan boasts millions of acres open to public hunting, and there’s an interactive map showing approximate boundaries of public lands. Michigan also promotes its Grouse Enhanced Management Sites (GEMS) that have walking trails through managed habitat for forest wildlife—areas that offer opportunities for first-time grouse hunters or those with mobility challenges.
Wisconsin advocates its Fields & Forest Lands Interactive Gamebird Hunting Tool (FLIGHT) as an interactive mapping system to help hunters find suitable, public-land habitats for ruffed grouse and other game birds. Visit the DNR website and search “Fields and Forest.” The Wisconsin County Forest Association also developed a mapping system with links to 18 specific grouse management areas across the state along with downloadable PDFs.
Minnesota has over 11 million acres of public hunting lands with 528 designated hunting areas in the grouse range, more than 40 designated ruffed grouse management areas (RGMAs) and over 600 miles of hunter walking trails (HWT). The state recommends its wildlife management areas (WMAs), HWTs and RGMAs as accessible, walk-in-only lands managed for forest wildlife, including ruffed grouse. The DNR has an interactive map of HWTs.
WORTH THE PURSUIT
Don’t be afraid to brave the weather for late-season ruffed grouse, but manage expectations and be careful. The late season can be fickle. Grossman says this period usually offers both his most productive and least productive days of the season. He advises being “ready for the ebbs and flows of success.”
Also, prepare for the cold and ice that accompany late fall and winter in the Northwoods. Hunt with a partner, or several, or communicate well with others. Be ready in the event your dog is caught in a trap or that you or your dog fall through the ice. That said, don’t let these challenges keep you from enjoying some late grouse action.
“Hunting late into the year can be very rewarding,” Grossman said, “and for me it feels like I'm lengthening the best time of the year.”
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