Monday, December 26, 2016

December Grouse

There is a grouse hiding in there.
    In our neck of the woods most of the grouse hunting stops when the deer hunters enter the woods the second week of November, but early in December the riflemen leave the woods to the shotgunners again. The late season can provide of the loveliest hunting of the year or the snow can be so deep the dogs cannot work. Nothing is certain.
    The grouse will be in different cover than October, with most of the fruit gone and snow possibly covering ground covers. Buds and catkins will make up most of their diet, but the birds also eat a variety of green leafy plants if the snow isn’t too deep. Hunting the edges of thick softwood stands usually is productive.
Grouse picking at catkins
    Just like early in the season, often groups are found, frequently up in the boughs of softwood trees. On sunny days they will come down to feed, foraging for whatever they can find or to just soak up the sun on a south facing slope. But when the weather is wet or cold it is easier to retain body heat in the protection of the softwood trees.
    In December it is possible to drive twenty or thirty miles on logging roads and never see another vehicle. Of course you don’t want to have truck troubles when you are fifteen or more miles in the woods by yourself. Keep that in mind and be prepared for a vehicle that might not start.
    A few years back, hunting late in the day in a stand of softwoods long since harvested by the loggers, I stumbled into a covey of grouse that flushed from high in the trees. Most flew across the logging road into a cutting that the previous fall had been waist high weeds with scattered Christmas-tree-sized spruce and firs. By December the weeds had been flattened by rain, frost, and a little snow, so it felt like an open park.
    Almost immediately my dog pointed at the base of a fir. On my approach the bird flew out the back. A minute later the scene repeated, but I went to the left and the grouse to the right. The scenario repeated a couple more times. If there had been someone with me the shooting would have been fantastic, but the grouse were successfully using the trees as shields. Finally, my dog pointed a grouse that had made the fatal mistake of landing in a raspberry patch surrounded by flattened weeds. When the bird thundered up above the brambles into the wide open spaces it was one of the few easy shots one ever gets on grouse.
Chara during a late season adventure.
    But the whole time, in the back of my mind, I kept hoping my truck wouldn’t let me down. It was fourteen miles from there back to the pavement. That weekend I drove over forty-five miles on logging roads and saw only one vehicle, which happened to be a logger.
    When the weather gets bitter many who love ruffed grouse hang up their guns and call it a season to give the birds a break until the next year. Biologists say it doesn’t make a difference in the overall grouse population, but I still can’t harass the birds when conditions are tough. The struggle for calories to maintain body temperature is harsh and one unnecessary flush could be the tipping point in the delicate balance. I prefer to think that a grouse left alive will have a big brood in the spring.
    This year the grouse numbers were down. When the deer hunters left the woods I took the dogs for a few late season hunts, but I’m not sure I would have killed a grouse. The dogs loved wearing their bells again and hunted hard. I carried my shotgun, but never raised it to my shoulder. The few birds we found all flushed from high in softwood trees, with most leaving unseen, and I wished every one of them well.
    The shotgun went into the safe to wait out spring and clay targets.
    Let us hope the grouse survive and the spring weather is kind to the young broods.