By Tom Davis
Stepping into the middle of a tightly wadded covey of quail will do things to your heart that would concern a cardiologist. But when a ruffed grouse erupts from beneath a mantle of unblemished snow, the percussion all but drops you in your tracks. You see the snow begin to move, and you think, What the… Then the world explodes. At this point, you’re faced with two problems: The first is pulling yourself together so you can bring your shotgun into play and function as a hunter. The second is finding your target through the dreamlike crystal cloud hanging in the air between you and the grouse—which is exiting the scene at an alarming rate.
That’s pretty much how things went down on a hunt in Wisconsin last winter. I’d seen a few meandering tracks in the fresh powder, and my English setter, Tina, had gotten birdy a time or two. But the makers of those tracks seemed to have vanished into the winter woods.
At last, we came to a little clearing. I turned to whistle for Tina, took a wading step through the snow, and had the sensation that I’d detonated a land mine. Now came the hard part.
Hunting winter grouse is a feast-or-famine proposition. A grouse that’s lived to see December is a professional survivor. Tested by predators of every stripe, its nerves are cocked against a hair trigger. High alert is its default setting; at the slightest hint of danger, a grouse that feels vulnerable rockets for the nearest concealing cover. If this means diving headlong into the snow, so be it.
Grouse spend more time in trees in winter than they do earlier in the season. I’d suggest that you need to be prepared for this, but because no one’s that cool-headed, I’ll just say that you should be aware of the possibility.
The variable conditions typical of winter hunting complicate the equation as well. You might encounter deep snow, but you might as easily have bare, hard-frozen ground; one day might be bitter cold, another balmy. Ironically, a warm day without snow cover is the most challenging scenario. The walking is pleasant, but the birds are at their wild-flushing worst. This is the time to go to tighter chokes—Modified in a single-barrel gun, IC/IM in a double—and to stick with No. 71⁄2 shot or, if you can find them, No. 7s.
When the powder is piled high and the thermometer plunges, on the other hand, surprisingly close flushes are the order of the day. Plus, once the swamps freeze, you can sometimes get to islands of cover that are inaccessible earlier in the season and find birds that may not have been shot at.
The spots where I’ve had consistent success on winter grouse all had a diversity of cover: a mix of classic brushy popple, conifers of different sizes, low-lying swamp and marsh, and grassy clearings. A south-facing slope is another plus, as is the presence of food sources other than the aspen buds, which are the staple winter ration of grouse. My Elhew pointer, Traveler, once pointed a December grouse that was feeding on delicate maidenhair ferns growing where a cluster of tiny springs kept the ground clear of snow. To stumble on that patch of green in the middle of the winter-white forest seemed almost magical.