BRAINERD, MINN. – October has much to offer the Minnesota hunter — ducks, geese, bowhunting for deer. As for ruffed grouse, the season continues through the end of the year, so I usually wait for December to hunt them.
December grouse hunts, though, bear little resemblance to the flush jaunts of October.
Locating grouse during December can be difficult because the birds are usually concentrated in small areas. Once found they are easily spooked, rarely holding for a pointing dog, let alone for a hunter trudging through noisy, crusted snow.
Despite those adversities — in some cases because of them — I love hunting grouse during the late season.
Many hunters have trouble finding ruffed grouse during December, even with the aid of a tracking snow. Because ruffs usually congregate around the available food sources, it may take a bit of walking to find them. Therefore, I find it best to keep a fast pace until tracks in the snow indicate that a group of grouse has been feeding in the area. Then I slow down and hunt that territory thoroughly.
Because 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 prefer the larger catkins of hazel shrubs growing in areas exposed to the sun. So look for the healthiest hazel thickets, usually found in forest openings and on woodland edges. Overgrown cattle pastures are usually good spots, especially when they're close to typical ruffed grouse cover of aspen, alder and dogwood.
Ruffed grouse also feed on ironwood and birch buds in December and, as winter progresses, aspen buds. Grouse also eat high-bush cranberries. Unlike many other woodland fruits, these 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 eating.
On cold days grouse will often feed only in the late afternoon, forgoing their breakfast. They will, however, usually be loafing within a quarter-mile or so of their favorite food source.
If the snow is deep, grouse may spend the day roosting under a blanket of powder. Otherwise they might be hunkering next to a wind-blocking log or tree trunk in a sunny spot. Or they may be hiding in evergreens such as balsam fir or spruce.
Once flushed, late-season grouse often land in trees. When attempting to follow and re-flush a grouse, a hunter should watch for the telltale "bowling pin" (an alert grouse standing tall) perched on a branch.
The season on ruffed grouse continues through Jan. 1. The daily limit is five birds with 10 in possession. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise until sunset.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.