Tips and tactics for ruffed grouse hunting in the snow
As I gaze out the window on a cold December day, watching large snow flakes fall and blanket the ground, I can’t help but think of the ruffed grouse. Several thoughts come to mind. The fluffier the powder the better, as grouse often roost inside the snow itself. I think about how peculiar the feet are on a ruffed grouse, too. Their comb-like pectinations allow them to walk across very deep snow with ease, like snowshoes. I also think about snowshoes and how I should be wearing them to walk in transition areas of the forest or swamp edges, looking for grouse tracks.
Know your quarry
In the winter, ruffed grouse change their routine drastically from those glorious late-October days. That is when you and your dog both know exactly what types of cover a grouse should be hanging out in. In the winter, a spot that looks “grousey” probably won’t hold birds. At least, not in the same way you’d think.
Once the snow falls, all of the greenery and most of the fruits disappear. Birds that used to group up around old two-tracks loaded with clover are now in isolated areas that hold food throughout the winter. They won’t stray far from these areas until the spring thaw. Catkins or buds become their primary forage. Look for alder, hazel, and dogwood. Thickets containing large amounts of big buds are best, especially hazel thickets. Check out old clearings or openings and fresh forest regrowth. Don’t overlook birch either, as it becomes the primary forage late in the winter. Lastly, every good grouse hunter knows about at least one high-bush cranberry tree that holds berries late into the winter. Visit that tree and the surrounding area as much as you can, because it’s probably the only treat grouse will get until spring.
Getting to the spots
Seeing a snowmobile running through the forest is common, but seeing a rider in blaze orange with a gun on their lap is rare. Not a lot of hunters remain once the snow falls. If you can get to the areas that hold birds, you’re probably going to have great success. A snow machine aids in getting to these areas.
Snow shoes are imperative when the snow gets deep. Early in the winter, when snow is fresh and there’s less than twenty inches, a good pair of walking boots will work. But when the snow gets deep, you’re going to want a good pair of snowshoes to get you through the day. While it’s possible to trudge through the snow with boots, you’re going to spend a lot of energy with each step. Snowshoes eliminate that problem. They also force the hunter to move slowly, as steps need to be semi-methodical while yielding snowshoes. You will avoid the rut most people fall into when moving too quickly through covers.
Weapons of choice
Sweating is your enemy in the cold, so packing light is essential. I personally carry a Stevens 555E in 20 gauge, since it’s the lightest grouse gun in my safe. It also has no trouble putting down a grouse in any cover.
There’s no foliage left in the winter and the only obstructions are branches. Or boughs, if you track a bird into the conifers. A modified choke with #6-7.5 shot will suffice. Long shots are possible, so I’m usually running #6 shot with modified chokes in both barrels. This keeps my pattern tight, and allows me to be lethal at longer distances. After all, a grouse isn’t likely to hold tight while you’re breaking through crusty snow with clunky gear on.
To dog or not to dog
As much as I love walking behind my wirehaired pointing griffon, the one time he’d stay home would probably be on remote winter grouse hunts. I love to run the snow machine quickly, covering a lot of ground in search of tracks. Once I find tracks, that’s when I’ll put on my snowshoes and move slowly in order to thoroughly cover the area. A dog just isn’t ideal for this hunting scenario.
On the flip-side, I will tote the dog and let him work if I am going to an area that is accessible without a sled and has tracks, or I’ve had success in before. Winter grouse rarely hold for my pointer. I’ll often find him on point with a snow angel pattern in front of him and a bird in the tree thirty yards away. But it’s still dog-work and I still enjoy it more than putting a bird in the bag.
I’ve had better success without a dog in the winter, but it comes down to personal choice. I am torn on every trip, but I’m happy either way. A bird in the bag or a happy dog; each outcome is a win.
Winter ruffed grouse hunting tactics
Once you have located likely grouse habitat and you’ve got all of the right gear for a cold day afield, you’re going to want to watch the ground and sky.
Yes, the sky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to a cover to find all of the birds in the area loafing about in trees, eating buds, and taking in the sun. Some are puffed up like little butterballs, others have outstretched necks. Most are pecking away quickly, trying to fill their bellies. Flushing birds from a tree isn’t always easy, nor is hitting them as they drift at a downward angle.
The ground is more important, because there are several things to keep an eye on. Three major things to look for are scat, roost or resting impressions, and tracks. Scat, even with the lack of tracks, shows you that grouse have been in the trees above. Roosting holes are neat and aren’t always empty. A grouse will plunge into the deep snow for the night. Snow is a great insulator and will keep the grouse warm on a cold winter night. Since many grouse forego breakfast in the winter and don’t leave roost until the sun begins to warm the world, it’s not uncommon to find grouse still occupying these holes. It’s not boring to search them, either. There’s nothing like a grouse exploding from the snow.
Tracks are the most important thing. I have driven around and walked for hours and come home without even loading the gun on winter hunts before. The reason? I won’t even try an area unless I see tracks most of the time. If I do find tracks, I know that I’m in the right area and will always follow a track to the bitter end. I don’t care if it leads me half a mile through thick cover—I want to either find that bird, or get an idea of it’s behavior. Even if the tracks end and I’m bird-less, I’ll have a sense of what the rest of the birds in the area are doing. Never think that a single track equates to a single grouse in an area. Wintering areas are typically small and hold several birds. Thoroughly work over an area that has signs.
Beat the winter blues
While grouse hunting in the winter can be extremely challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Success on a winter grouse hunt can be measured in knowledge over points had or shots fired. If I can get on one track that eats up two hours of my day, I’m a happy uplander. If I’m lucky enough to bring home a bird or two, I’m on cloud nine.
Go with someone you love, get your dog out of the house, and use it as an excuse to help work off some of that extra holiday weight we’re all carrying around. But be mindful and prepared for your hunting dog in cold weather situations. Being outside is not only good for the soul, it’s good for the body. And on these short winter days, taking in as much fresh air as possible is important. Life is too short to let a little snow get in the way of a day in the grouse woods.
Matt Breuer has been working in the outdoor industry for over 15 years, guiding, writing, promoting, volunteering, and working with several conservation groups. He’s on the Board of Directors of the MN Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and is a recruitment and retention coordinator with RGS. He owns and operates Northcountry Guide Service & Promotions in northern MN. Link up with Matt by visiting www.northcountryguides.com .