Take advantage of a mild, early December to
rediscover the joys and frustrations chasing grouse
If we have an early winter or late fall this year, December grousing can be an exciting way to wrap up the upland bird hunting year. The lack of snow and moderate temperatures have grouse still in fall mode in December. Grouse take advantage of the lack of snow to forage on the ground. They’ll still be attracted to the thickest cover around, but on warmer sunlit afternoons, they’re not above scavenging around to find what’s left of fall’s bounty, leaving plenty of scent for dogs to find. Off times, they can be found some distance from the extremely thick stuff and surprise hunters who don’t expect to find them there.
December 1 marks the second half of Michigan’s ruffed grouse season. The late season can be a boom or a bust, depending on the weather. Some years, winter weather makes grouse hunting in December impractical. Heavy snow and wind are not the most conducive for grouse hunting. Hunting is physically challenging and demanding even when there’s not a lot of snow, and grouse tend to go into their winter modus operandi when it gets cold and nasty. They’ll spend more time in coniferous trees sheltered from the wind and only venture out to quickly gulp buds instead of foraging on the ground.
I usually take advantage of a mild, early December to rediscover the joys and frustrations chasing grouse always provides. If there’s a tougher, more frustrating bird to hunt, I haven’t seen it. Grouse hunting used to be hard when I was 20 years younger. Now that I’m drawing social security hunting grouse is more than physically demanding. Typically, I’m only good for a few hours at most and only if there isn’t a lot of snow and ice to slip and slide and fall on. Conditions need to be moderate to make it worth going.
Having a dog makes grouse hunting a lot easier. With a dog, a hunter can position himself to have the best chance of getting a shot at flushing grouse, provided the dog stays within gun range. I do a lot of waterfowling and hunt pheasants and grouse when I can, so a flushing dog, like a Lab, is my best choice for a grouse dog. Grouse are different these days, rarely sitting still for a pointing dog, especially grouse that have survived until December.
When people ask me where to find December grouse, I tell them to find the thickest, nastiest cover they can imagine. That’s where December grouse are likely to be the majority of the time. That’s what security cover is like to a grouse. They need thick overhead cover to protect them from winged predators, like goshawks, and it needs to be open enough underneath so they can run away and fly to elude foxes, coyotes, and house cats.
Serious grouse hunters have a knack for pinpointing prime December cover and are careful not to waste their time hunting marginal cover. If your remaining years of grouse hunting are limited, you need to be even more conscience and focused on where you hunt and spend your precious time in the woods.
Prime grouse cover is becoming easier to find by utilizing the Internet. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has apps that pinpoint habitat types by age and species, making searching for grouse cover easier and less time-consuming without going into the woods. Visit the MDNR website at https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/managing-resources/wildlife.
Classic December grouse cover seems always to require thick aspen or poplar stands. In Northern Lower Michigan, places like that can be rare, although the State of Michigan is doing more clearcutting. No matter how small, though, they tend to hold at least a few grouse. Places like this are even better if they have some witch hazel. Besides the acclaimed medical properties of witch hazel, witch hazel shrubs provide overhead cover for grouse from avian predators and a relatively open understory where grouse can rummage around and find the actual witch hazel nuts or other morsels.
Find a young aspen cut with witch hazel that has some ferns and winter green, and you could have very likely found the mother lode. This remnant ground cover makes grouse feel safe, plus I’ve found the winter green leaves and berries in their crops. Grouse don’t seem as comfortable when there’s just a matted covering of leaves.
Another prime December grouse covert to look for is second-growth oak. Sometimes, when areas are clear-cut, they don’t come back as thick aspens but more bushy oaks. I’m not sure exactly what kind of oaks they are, but I know grouse will use them for cover. As the oaks regenerate, they’re typically 10 feet tall, and they retain their leaves during the winter, providing grouse cover from predators and icy winds.
You don’t generally judge December grouse hunts by the number of birds in the bag. If you do, you’re likely to be disappointed. If I can find and flush a grouse or two, I’m happy at this stage in the game. Killing one is a bonus.
Samson and I set about hitting some of my regular grouse haunts on a decent day in early December. It was cloudy, but in the lower 40s with no wind. That’s about as good as it gets in December.
The spots are all small clear-cuts that I’ve discovered over the years. Most are getting past their prime but still hold a few birds. None of them are huge expanses; they are more like little oases in a desert of jackpines. None of them take more than an hour or so to hunt.
The first spot is RG 17 on the GPS. It’s unique in its thick aspens and some of the second-growth oaks that grouse seem to like. We hadn’t been hunting more than 15 minutes when a groused flushed from my right, nowhere near where Samson’s bell was jingling. I instinctively shouldered the Ruger Red Label, saw a flash of gray, and tracked the bird, but it didn’t offer a clear shot. Grouse rarely do.
We barely got into the next covert when I saw Samson get birdy. I knew I had to get to an opening if I were to have any chance of getting a shot. I didn’t make it. The grouse ran ahead of Samson and flushed while I was still negotiating an impenetrable tangle. Not bad, I told myself, less than an hour in the woods and two flushes already.
I spied a grayish horizon in the distance that appeared to be a clear-cut sliver connecting two coverts I’d never hunted before. We skirted the edge of it along a trail. We didn’t find any more birds. I decided to take a direct line to the truck through some more open habitat. I’d just exited the aspens when a grouse flushed from under a fallen pine. I missed the grouse going straight away as he zigged slightly left. Another grouse flushed to my right and a third went to the left. I shot behind the one going left.
Buoyed by our success, we hit two more coverts without any flushes. My throbbing arthritic knee said it was time to head home. I elected to walk down a trail while Samson worked first right and then left 30 yards on each side of the road. When he went left, I saw him get super animated and it only took him a few seconds on the trail of the grouse before it flushed. It went straight up through the aspens and angled across the road. I saw feathers fly on the first shot and on the second shot, the ruff crumbled. Sam had the grouse almost before it hit the ground. The flush will be forever etched in my mind.