Tips for making the most of inclement weather when grouse hunting in the northwoods
Let’s face it, the hunting season is too short to miss a day due to unfavorable weather. If you wait for the perfect day to come, you may shorten your ruffed grouse season to just a handful of lucky days when the crisp autumn air rustles through the golden leaves which have been drained of chlorophyll and are ready to join their counterparts on the forest floor. Perhaps you’re making a trip to the Great Lakes states from far away and have to make do with the conditions that Mother Nature hands you. Living on the northwest shore of Lake Superior, depending on the wind direction, I am often plagued with days of lake-effect mist that doesn’t show up on the radar. This makes predicting when it might let up just as unpredictable as when it may begin, so I just go out and hunt anyway.
There are a couple options to consider as you prepare to head out into less-than-ideal weather conditions hunting ruffed grouse. You could check the forecast the night before and either get up early to beat the rain or sleep in and wait the weather out for a few hours. You could also drive north, south, east, or west away from the rain, depending on how large the weather system is and which direction it is heading. For that reason, it is always a good idea to look up public lands and covers in areas well beyond the area that you plan to hunt around. Last but not least, you could suck it up and go out regardless of the weather.
Targeting specific areas in inclement weather
If you choose to hunt in wet conditions, there are a few types of areas to target. An overstory of middle-aged conifer will act like an umbrella for birds to hide under. Where I live, I mostly target balsam fir, white spruce, or white cedar, which often harbor grouse looking to stay dry. Other hunters prefer hunting in and around timber stands with red or white pine. I typically target conifer with several food options or more typical aspen/birch-type cover either mixed in or directly adjacent to the conifers. I don’t necessarily target large, contiguous conifer stands such as a large pine plantations planted in rows with little vegetation growing in the understory. This tends to be unfavorable cover due to lack of food resources and lack of cover to conceal the grouse, even if they are protected from the rain.
Another place to look for grouse during wet conditions are open areas where they can dry their feathers after the rain. This includes places such as along established trails or along the edge of a recent clear-cut adjacent to good habitat or other wildlife openings, either managed or natural. Walking through typical aspen or hazel brush cover can almost soak you faster than standing in the shower with all your gear on; an alder stand may be better cover to walk during wet conditions as long as the soils are not inundated. The alder stand provides good cover for grouse but isn’t branchy or grabby like those other species. You can also find ruffed grouse hiding in or around deadfalls which can provide some protection from the weather, creates a barricade from predators, and acts as a scent block.
Easier food for ruffed grouse to access during wet weather would be those remaining greens on the forest floor such as strawberry or fern leaves, acorns, or other easy carbohydrates such as buttercup seeds or catkins from a solid birch branch. Grouse are less likely to eat from mid-height shrubs where they would get soaked by flapping around the branches that are already weighed down by excess water. For the most part, if the weather is cool and the rain is soaking, you will be better off targeting areas where the birds are seeking shelter versus where they may be eating, but since ruffed grouse have a relatively small home range, looking for all of the above should get you into an area where a grouse will be hiding out.
Grouse behavior in the rain
Most birds do not fly as well when they are wet, and they usually will avoid getting drenched whenever they are able. They do not prefer to flush when wet, so they may be more apt to run into thick cover or hide behind or under dense conifers. If your dog tips you off on a bird in the evergreens, anticipate a flush and position yourself on the opposite side of any conifer trees because, without fail, the bird will always try to flush from the other side of the impenetrably branchy tree instead of in front of your gun. Grouse will often run a zig-zag pattern to the edges of forest openings or wetlands before flushing, so expect them to run a long way from a dog’s point when flight conditions are less than ideal.
Scenting conditions can actually be better with an approaching rain event as the humidity rises rather than the overly dry conditions of some late summer/early fall days. For dogs who run with their noses closer to the ground, scent will linger near the ground in light rain/mist but conditions worsen significantly in heavy rain. Air movement will be minimal or erratic during most rain events. Also keep in mind that the birds may have been sedentary for hours, not putting a lot of scent out on the ground. This is why targeting cover where the birds are mostly likely to be hiding is key to setting yourself up for success hunting in the rain.
Essential gear for grouse hunting in the rain
There are a few essentials to be sure to pack and/or wear when hunting the northwoods. The first thing I never leave home without is a good pair of rubber boots. For hunting pants, I prefer a traditional pair of brush pants, which will inevitably get soaked, but I also wear a pair of light wool long johns for extra warmth on chilly days or just plan to peel the brush pants off and change into dry clothes when I get back to the truck. Other folks prefer a waterproof pair of chaps (expect a wet butt and crotch in 15-20 minutes) or oiled canvas pants. There are a few new options out there for waterproof field pants that may be more durable than lightweight rain pants, which unfortunately shred easily when walking through briars or thorn bushes.
Thick wool socks and a neck gaiter are also in my hunting bin at all times. A boot dryer is essential for those wet days that sneak up on you or when the waterproofing on your boots has inevitably worn off. Conifer branches tend to hang on to moisture much like a wet paintbrush, so don’t expect to stay dry in a grouse cover even if a recent rain event has halted.
Other considerations for rainy day hunts
Keep in mind that during wet and cold conditions, dogs are more prone to hypothermia even when they are running. I always carry water for them to drink since they can still become dehydrated in the rain and/or cold.
Wet birds don’t usually make great photo opportunities. There are a few ways to honor your bird with a nice photograph should you want to capture the memory. A bird-in-hand photo or retrieve photo looks good no matter the weather. Another image that I think looks nice even with a wet bird is where they are hanging by a foot with a strap from a small tree or shrub with the gun and/or dog beside.
Finally, be sure to take care of your firearm after being out in the wet conditions. Bring a rag and your favorite gun oil along to wipe it down. Some of my favorite fall memories involve my dogs curled up on their beds, my guns broken down on the coffee table beside them in front of the fire, all while a fresh grouse roasts in the oven.
With a little bit of planning and consideration of the elements, it’s possible to make the most of a rainy day and find ruffed grouse in the northwoods.
Bailey Petersen lives in Two Harbors, Minnesota and is the assistant area wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR for counties bordering the north shore of Lake Superior. She enjoys the Northwoods in pursuit of forest game birds, woodcock banding in the spring with her pointing dogs, and fishing with her husband.