October is my favorite month for hunting ruffed grouse. Most of you upland bird hunters are probably in agreement on that. October, of course, has a lot going for it when it comes to grouse hunting — the weather for one. My wife Nancy and I and our two dogs often spend the first two weeks or maybe even the entire month of October up in the north woods hunting ruffed grouse.
October has the advantage of usually having more nice days for grouse hunting than days with lousy weather. The weather in December is not going to be quite as nice. It likely will range somewhere between cold, really cold and damn it’s cold! If you can’t handle the cold, then December grouse hunting is not for you!
But to my mind at least, December grouse hunting has a couple of things going for it that October grouse hunting does not. Snow is the biggie. Hunting grouse in the snow, for me at least, has always been a real treat. What I like most about hunting grouse in the snow is that grouse tracks in the snow tell stories. Grouse tracks are proof that there are actually grouse in the cover you are hunting. I don’t know about you, but I tend to hunt a little smarter and hunt a little harder when grouse tracks in the snow prove to me that I am in the right cover. Too much snow can make it difficult to get around, but a few inches on the ground and maybe another inch of new snow falling during the night, makes for some darn fine late-season grouse hunting. Some of my most memorable December hunts have taken place on just such days.
The author says a grouse taken during December is a trophy bird indeed.
Another plus to December grouse hunting is that grouse become more predictable in where you will find them than they are in October. That is because grouse need two things to survive the winter months. One is good cover, both for roosting at night and for loafing during the day between feeding forays.
If the snow is deep enough and soft enough, ruffed grouse will dive into snow banks and let the snow insulate them even on the coldest nights. But when the snow is not deep enough or if the snow is crusted over, grouse will roost at night and hide out during the day in thick stands of conifers. Immature stands of pine and spruce will suffice, but cedars are preferred. Conifers provide grouse with protection from cold winter winds and because of something called “thermal radiation” it is often several degrees warmer in the conifers than it is in the aspens or other deciduous trees.
Also of importance is aerial predation by hawks and to a lesser extent owls. While a speedy, acrobatic airborne predator such as a Goshawk or Cooper’s Hawk can easily pick a grouse off of the treetops in the aspens, even these exceptional predators rarely can nail grouse, which hang out in thick stands of conifers.
Grouse Comfortable In Conifers
In the very best grouse habitats, outside of an hour or two each day for feeding, grouse will spend most of the day tucked away comfortably in the conifers. That means that those of us still hunting grouse in December can divide our time between hunting the edge of the conifers and prowling the aspen stands. If aspen are available to them, ruffed grouse will feed almost exclusively on the catkins of the male aspen tree. But if there are not enough aspen in the neighborhood, grouse can get by eating a wide variety of seeds, nuts, buds, tender twig tips, and any green vegetation they might come across.
Other big draws are apple trees still clinging to some shrunken, withered fruit and wild grapes in the same condition. Grouse will go out of their way to dine on either.
Although I do a lot of solo hunting for ruffed grouse, late in the season it works better to hunt with a partner. When I hunt with a partner, one of us wades into the conifers with the dogs while the other walks along the edge of the conifers. We trade off after every bird shot at. We used to trade off after every bird shot, but we had to change it after one partner mistakenly accused me of missing on purpose just so that I would not have to take my turn in the thick stuff!
Some hunters tend to go with tighter chokes and heavier shot in December, when shots are likely to be a little longer. With the 20-gauge over-under I usually carry I go with an improved cylinder choke in the first barrel and improved/modified in the second. I use 7-1/2-shot in the open choke barrel and 6’s in the tighter tube.
Being a bit on the anti-social side when it comes to hunting, another big plus for December grouse in my book is the fact that for the 30 or so years I have been at it, I have yet to encounter another grouse hunter out in the December grouse woods! It’s like being a member of the royal family over in England and having your own private forest for hunting. It’s pretty neat!
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