The sights, sounds and silence of a winter grouse hunt.
On a winter grouse hunt all is quiet, save for the creaking of my snowshoe bindings and the webbing crunching the snow underneath. Not wearing his usual Swiss bell, which would clog with snow, even the dog is quiet. He mostly walks behind me in the packed snow, occasionally stepping on my snowshoes. When Jenkins steps out of my tracks, he swims in snow as he breaks his own trail.
He suddenly jumps around me and wallows ahead through the powder until he’s ten feet from a clump of snow-covered balsam firs. He halts. Watching him watch, I come up behind him and stop. It isn’t really a point, his tail is low, but still I wait. After a few seconds, the trees seem to explode and one, two, three grouse materialize in a shower and sparkle of powder. Two immediately disappear through the snow-clad trees up ahead, while the other breaks hard to my left into the open hardwoods. I try to pivot to face the fleeing bird, but with snowshoes strapped to my boots it’s as if my feet were sunk in concrete. Nevertheless, I get a shot off, and as I fire I know it’s well behind the bird as the shot echoes in the clear winter air. A few seconds of pandemonium and then just like that, it’s once again winter quiet.
Gordon Gullion in his book The Ruffed Grouse wrote that winter is excellent for grouse if conditions are favorable — powdery deep snow for roosting at night and high quality food. “Ruffed grouse can properly be called ‘chinophiles,’ or ‘snow lovers,’ for winter can be the one season they are able to relax and have a comparatively serene life.” According to Gullion, the winter of 2019-20 was shaping up to be a good one for grouse in northern Wisconsin. Not so good for grouse hunters, however, since the only way to get around the woods in all the snow was on skis or snowshoes. Hunting in these conditions is nothing like the halcyon days of October.
There’s some debate among ruffed grouse hunters about the consequences and ethics of winter hunting. Some hunters feel winter hunting and the resulting human predation is compensatory and doesn’t hurt the overall population, while others argue that winter hunting is additive, decreasing grouse numbers. One reason the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB) cited for their early closure of the season, lopping off the month of January basically, was rooted in “social concerns.” The NRB felt grouse were vulnerable in winter, particularly when they budded in mature aspen in early morning and late afternoon just before roosting for the evening, the NRB implying the birds were like sitting ducks up in the trees.
Other than shooting birds out of trees, winter hunting, in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures is an inefficient way to hunt ruffed grouse. Deep snow curtails you and your dog’s mobility, the birds move around much more and congregate so they’re not as evenly spread across the landscape, layers of clothing and gloves or mittens reduce shooting accuracy — it’s simply the most difficult time of year to hunt. According to my hunting records from over 25 seasons, I shoot very few birds in December and January, averaging less than 10 percent of my total harvest. In warmer winters of little or no snow, I tend to hunt much more than I do in severe winters and shoot more birds. For me, it really depends a lot on the conditions.
Whatever the conditions, however, I make a point of getting out around Christmas for one last hunt — a present to myself and the dogs. One afternoon a few days before the holiday, my friend Jeff called and said let’s go out. The temperature was nearly up to 30, but the snow was still well over knee deep. Snowshoes were mandatory, and even then with them on, we mostly stuck to packed trails. Jeff’s goldens, Mackie and Murphy, floundered in the snow when they went off trail. We got up a couple of birds on our loop out, Jeff getting two fleeting shots at a bird that launched high out of a mature white pine, perhaps the most difficult of all shots on grouse.
When we were nearly back to our trucks, Jeff suggested we work along the edge of a small clearing and get the dogs in the pines on its edge. It worked perfectly. Mackie flushed a bird out of young pines, which made the fatal mistake of flying out over the field and into the clear instead of into the hardwoods. We both shot simultaneously when it was out over the field and tumbled it into the snow. We both let out a couple of whoops and snowshoed over to the downed bird.
I should end the season on a high note like this, but the thought of one more bird before the season closes for the year will likely lure me out into the deep snow yet one more time on a winter grouse hunt. I can’t help myself — I’m a grouse hunter…
About | The Author
Mark Parman lives and hunts in Seeley, Wis. with his wife, Susan, and two setters, Fergus and Jenkins. He has been an RGS member for over 20 years. He is the author of Among The Aspen, A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac and a regular contributor to the RGS & AWS blog.