Those who want to hunt ruffed grouse are in luck because Minnesota is a premier national grouse hunting destination.
Blessed with more than 11 million acres of public forest, Minnesota often leads the nation in the number of ruffed grouse harvested by hunters.
Minnesota is also home to abundant woodcock hunting opportunities, which will present themselves when grouse hunting since the birds prefer similar habitats.
- When to hunt
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- Where to hunt
You can hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock on many types of public land including state Wildlife Management Areas and county, state and national forests. You can hunt private land too if you have permission from the landowner or if it is forested land where permission is not necessary unless posted closed to hunting.
Within these hunting locations, smart hunters zero-in on certain types of habitat. Ruffed grouse are commonly found in aspen forests that were clear-cut by loggers 10 to 20 years ago. Basically, look for aspen stands in which the diameter of the trees are about the size of an adult’s forearm or calf.
Grouse also frequent edge cover, which is where mature forest converges with younger growth, brushy swamp edges and the short grass. Grouse frequently feed on the hazel catkins and the catkins of aspen, ironwood and birch trees. They also rely on small leafy plants, berries and seeds.
Perhaps the best places to hunt ruffed grouse during the early part of the season is where gray dogwood bushes are present. Gray dogwood bushes are commonly found in alder lowlands. The gray dogwood has maroon-colored leaves in autumn and white berries that dangle from red stems. The berries are a favorite of grouse.
When you're in these areas, be on the lookout for woodcock as you approach edges where the land becomes more wet and swampy.
- How to hunt
Hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock is work. It is work because the birds inhabit the kind of brushy, marshy and forested habitat that tugs at your pants, leaks water into your boots and can slap you in the face with a willow branch when you least expect it. Indeed, if you are walking with ease you’re either in the wrong habitat or ambling down a logging trail or hunting trail.
Still, the effort is worth it. The “king of upland game birds” is exceptional table fare and consistently provides heart-thumping flushes you will long remember.
What follows is general ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting advice.
- Practice shooting: One of the keys to successful ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting is being able to shoot quickly and accurately. Typically, you have two to three seconds to make a shot after you’ve seen a grouse burst or a woodcock helicopter into the air. Moreover, it’s typical to see only a blur of wings that rocket this way or that. If you wait for a clear shot a box of shells will last a lifetime. So, prior to the hunting season you’ll want to practice shouldering your shotgun and hitting flying clay targets at a trap range, sporting clays range or on private property with your own clay target thrower.
- Use a lightweight shotgun: Lightweight shotguns are best for grouse hunting because they easier to carry than heavy 12 gauge models. Similarly, shotguns fitted with shorter barrels are easier to swing in brushy and tight cover. Typically, you’ll be shooting a distances of 25 yards or less so an improved- cylinder or skeet choke is a good option. The faster your pattern expands the better off you’ll be in most situations. Shells loaded with 7 1/2 or 8 shoot are good in most situations. You may want to use 6 shot later in the season, the time of year when leaves have fallen to the ground and longer shots are more common.
- Walk slowly: A hunter without a dog should walk slowly through cover in an “S” pattern. You will cover more ground this way, and you are more likely to flush birds that have moved laterally. Also, make brief stops from time to time. This can have the effect of making grouse and woodcock nervous. Repeated 10- to 20-second pauses often flush birds that otherwise would stay on the ground. Those hunting with a partner need to communicate visually and audibly to ensure no one is too far ahead or too far behind, thereby creating a dangerous shooting situation. A common technique in heavy cover is for one hunter to be the designated leader and the other hunter to “bounce off” that person, meaning he or she makes adjustments to their own path based on the route of the leader.
- Wait for vegetation to drop: Though the ruffed grouse season opens in mid-September you’ll find better hunting opportunities in October when the leaves of aspen trees and other forest species begin to fall. Early and mid-October – when the aspen forest floor is covered in golden leaves – is a particularly pleasant time to hunt. During this time of year you can see farther into the woods and temperatures have cooled, making a hunt easier on you and hunting dogs. Migrating woodcock typically arrive in Minnesota about mid-October. As the ground freezes to the north, the worm-eating birds migrate south. So, by paying attention to weather patterns you can somewhat predict when woodcock flights are likely to arrive.
- Follow-up on missed shots: It is common to miss shots and it is common to hear a ruffed grouse flush that you never see. However, unlike far-flying ducks and pheasants, ruffed grouse typically fly only 100 yards or so before landing again. As such, by paying attention to the direction the bird flew you can possibly flush the bird again.
Ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting doesn't require a lot of specialized or expensive equipment, but there are some basic items that will make your time in the field more enjoyable and productive.
- Maps: Scouting an area will increase your odds of finding upland game birds and good maps will help your efforts. Go to mndnr.gov for free maps that identify Wildlife Management Areas and other public hunting grounds. A local plat book may also come in handy to identify specific pieces of land.
- Blaze orange: Ruffed grouse and woodcock hunters are required to wear at least one visible article of clothing above the waist that is blaze orange. This could be a hat, jacket or hunting vest. Remember that more blaze orange will make you more visible to other hunters.
- Good boots: Ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting involves a lot of walking on uneven terrain. Good quality, above-the-ankle boots will provide the comfort and support you need for a day in the field. Since crossing creeks and marshy areas is common, waterproof boots are preferred by many hunters.
- Layered clothing: Cool fall mornings often turn into sunny, warm afternoons. Layered clothing will prepare you for a variety of weather conditions. Long sleeves and gloves will help keep you from getting scratched up when moving brush and thickets. Hunting chaps or brush pants will protect your legs and keep you dry on mornings when the grass is wet.
- Eye protection: Anytime you use a firearm, you should protect your eyes. A pair of sunglasses will provide basic protection.
- Refreshments: After a few hours in the field, you will need to refuel and hydrate.
- What’s important to know
- Though woodcock migrate you are not required to purchase a state or federal migratory waterfowl stamp to hunt woodcock.
- Resident and non-resident who hunt woodcock must become HIP-certified when they purchase a small game or sports license. It is free and takes a very short time.
- Good grouse and woodcock habitat is always changing. This means certain areas that were good in the past may no longer be good, and places that weren’t good previously have now reached a stage where they are good.
- Basic biology
- Males have a concealed neck ruff (hence the name "ruffed grouse") that they display during courtship. Color phases range from gray to chestnut. In winter, ruffed grouse have comb-like fringes on their toes that, like snowshoes, allow for easy travel on snow.
- Length: About 12 inches.
- Weight: About 1.5 pounds.
- Each spring, male ruffed grouse perform a mating ritual that sounds like the beating of a distant drum. The male "drums" by compressing air beneath its wings. The bird makes the sound in the hopes of attracting a female grouse. Most males drum on a log, but they may also stand on roots and boulders.
- The peak of the mating season is late April. Nests are placed on the ground, usually in dense forest in a depression next to a tree trunk or stump. Hens lay about 10 to 14 eggs that hatch in 23 days. The male grouse has no parenting role. The chicks stay with the hen until late September and are fully grown in 16 weeks.
- Many animals hunt ruffed grouse, including birds of prey such as goshawk, great horned owl, and various mammals such as fox, fisher and bobcat. Humans also hunt and eat ruffed grouse.
- Ruffed grouse are found in forests from southeastern to northwestern Minnesota. During winter, ruffed grouse spend nearly all of their time in snow burrows to stay warm and avoid predators. A ruffed grouse lives most of its life within just a few acres.
- Ruffed grouse populations rise and fall at intervals of about 10 years. Many other species of wildlife such as snowshoe hares also cycle at 10-year intervals. The causes of these cycles are unknown.
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