For the versatile hunter, October has much to offer but so little time. Since the ruffed grouse hunting season in Minnesota is one of the longest, I tend to concentrate my October hunting efforts on other species and wait for December to chase grouse.
December grouse hunts, though, bear little resemblance to October jaunts.
Locating grouse during December can be difficult because the birds are usually concentrated in small areas, and once found they are often spooky, rarely holding for a pointing dog, let alone for a hunter trudging through noisy, crusted snow. And, of course, let's not forget those below-zero mornings.
Despite these adversities -- in some cases because of them -- I love hunting grouse during late season.
One particular hunt I'll never forget. I started the day hunting behind Viking, a German wire-haired pointer, in an 80-acre parcel of state land. We had hunted this piece many times together, and Viking knew just where to look for birds. It was a balmy afternoon with the temperature in the mid-30s, and the low December sun shone brightly as we entered the woods.
Other hunters -- though not of the human kind -- had preceded Viking and me. Crisscrossing here and there were the tracks of fox, coyotes and even a pack of timberwolves, along with a confusion of prints left by snowshoe hares and deer. But Viking, a veteran hunter, knew the game we were after and unless the prints in the snow were those of a ruffed grouse he paid them scant attention.
The first grouse of morning flushed from a bare patch of ground where the sun had melted the snow beneath the low branches of a balsam fir. Although the escaping grouse offered me no chance for a shot, it did present a clue as to where I might locate other grouse. I altered my course through the woods to include an edge exposed to the sun's meager December rays.
The move proved worthwhile. Viking and I flushed grouse after grouse along the sun-exposed edge. Most rose out of gun range from the tangle of hazel, alder and willow that grew thick along the margin, but after only 30 or so minutes two grouse lay secure in my game bag. The wild-flushing birds frustrated Viking, but that's grouse hunting in December.
Many hunters have trouble finding ruffed grouse during late season, even with the aid of snow. Since ruffs are usually grouped around the available food sources, it might take a bit of walking to find them. It is usually to a late-season grouse hunter's advantage to hunt at a fast pace until tracks in the snow indicate a group of grouse has been feeding in the area, and then slow down and hunt that territory thoroughly.
Since the fruits and greens favored by grouse earlier in the fall will have all but disappeared by December, the birds will be feeding mostly on buds and catkins. Grouse will pick away at a variety of edibles, but the catkins of hazel are their favorite early-winter food. Ruffs definitely prefer the larger catkins of hazel plants that grow in areas exposed to the sun, so look for the best hazel thickets to be in open areas and on woodland edges. Overgrown cattle pastures are almost always good, especially when close to more typical ruffed grouse cover.
Ruffed grouse also feed on ironwood and birch buds during December and, as winter progresses, aspen buds. Grouse also eat highbush cranberries, and unlike many other woodland fruits, the colorful red berries remain on the stems through the winter, or until hungry grouse pluck them.
Examine the crops of the birds you kill because that will help you determine what they are feeding on. On cold days grouse will often feed only in the late afternoon, forgoing their breakfast, but will usually be loafing within a quarter-mile of their favorite food source. If the snow is deep the birds may be roosting under a blanket of powder. Otherwise grouse often will hunker next to logs or tree trunks in a sunny spot out of the wind, or may relate to evergreens such as balsam fir or spruce.
Once flushed, late-season grouse often land in a tree. When attempting to follow and reflush, a grouse hunter should watch for the telltale "bowling pin" (an alert grouse standing tall) perched on a branch.
Ruffed grouse hunting has been good in most areas of Minnesota this fall. The season on ruffed grouse continues through Jan. 2, 2011. The daily limit is five birds with 10 in possession. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors photographer and columnist, lives near Brainerd.