Ghosted by Grouse
Pursuing wild birds in the north woods requires dogged persistence.
Mid-air, the grouse takes a sharp left and glides into the stubborn October leaves. As I lower my shotgun, my jaw tightens with disappointment and I prepare for the look of disbelief from both Debbie and her Gordon setter. They set me up well, but I missed. Tangles of young alder rustle loudly as Debbie fights through the vegetation, but her voice cuts through easily.
“Hey! You shot!”
Her comment comes across as a lighthearted taunt. However, I see genuine excitement in her smile once she stands next to me. She smirks at my frown, or maybe she has seen that expression before.
“Taking the shot is the hardest thing for new hunters,” Debbie says. “It’s tempting to wait for the perfect arc of a bird in the perfect spot, but in grouse hunting ... ”
She shakes her head as though to say “It is what it is” and pulls a twig from her curly hair.
“You have to take what you get—and that was great!” she says.
Today, looking back on that experience five years ago, Debbie Petersen’s words continue to ring in my ears. She was right.
Before that first time shooting at a grouse, I had thought, “How tough can it be if I have a shotgun?” Hunting tales, of all kinds, often include some hyperbole, and I had assumed that was the case in all the stories I’d heard about the ruffed grouse that got away.
However, I soon realized my bird-hunting friends were being modest, if anything. Grouse regularly humble the most skilled hunters. Despite being a rotund, chicken-like bird, ruffed grouse are truly challenging to hunt on foot and are unexpected masters of escape. Their agility allows quick bursts of flight with fighter jet–like wings, twisting through the limbs and leaves. It’s a skill that comes from launching themselves through the trees for millennia, long before humans arrived in North America.
An Annual Tradition. Minnesota’s opening weekend for ruffed grouse is always in mid-September. My close group of friends has established an annual tradition of celebrating that first chance to hunt.
This year, we are north of Ely exploring state forests and riding around in the camper van of my mentor and friend, Julia Schrenkler. I am in the front passenger seat, admiring the trees along the gravel road, but also wishing more leaves had fallen to allow for better sightlines.
Our orange vests and hats match the vibrant leaves outside. The air coming through the open window is still warm, but the earthy scent gives away the season.
We are scouting the area, getting an on-the-ground look at the hunting spots I had pinpointed after reviewing onX hunting maps, timber harvest maps, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Recreation Compass. Finding good access points from a road or a trail can be difficult at times, so we are checking our entry points for parking options.
My midafternoon stupor is shattered when the van lurches and Julia says, “Hold on!”—her eyes wide. A flutter of feathers appears in front of the van and she slows quickly. Julia whistles low and the van comes to a stop on the road’s narrow shoulder.
“Did you see that?!” she says in disbelief at our first ruffed grouse sighting. We file out of the van looking for the bird, but it appears to have escaped with its life. We joke that it might be the closest we come to getting a grouse this trip, laughing until our eyes tear up. After all, the best jokes hold some truth.
Scouting Grouse. Our encounter on the road is typical. Grouse are known to wander roadsides, trails, and logging roads. These paths create forest openings where grouse feed on clover and strawberry leaves. They also find small rocks required for their digestion.
There is plenty of grouse-hunting opportunity in Minnesota’s north woods with programs like Hunter Walking Trails that provide nonmotorized access to hunters, birders, and foragers wanting to explore the woods. There are more than 850 miles of Hunter Walking Trails in the northern half of the state. (See mndnr.gov/hunting/hwt.)
With four people and two dogs, our group strolls two by two until we find a good spot to comb the woods. When we start pushing through the brush, we have two or three people in the thick of it, but we always leave at least one person walking the trail, parallel to the rest of the group. That person on the trail hopes for a coveted clear shot: a bird darting through the opening.
We mostly hunt in young forests, which possess their own special beauty despite not being ideal for hammocks or casual hiking. These spaces, created by disturbance such as fire, wind, or timber harvest, are essential for wildlife: aspen, birch, oak, and alder saplings crowd together, making it easy for prey to hide from predators. Buds, bugs, and other food sources are plentiful, and ground-nesting birds like grouse and woodcock prefer this habitat for raising their chicks.
Though ruffed grouse need these young forest thickets, they use differing habitats depending on the time of year, which is why it’s important to have diverse forest age classes with young, middle-aged, and old trees within a relatively small area. This allows grouse to easily move between habitat types.
In addition to sustaining grouse populations, young forests also harbor a host of wildlife, including American woodcock, songbirds like golden-winged warblers, and mammals like hare and deer.
Seconds to Act. A kinglet hops from twig to twig in front of me as I look for a spot to slip into the trees. I motion to the others and our group tucks into a particularly thick patch to the left.
We form a line perpendicular to the trail. I’m on the edge of the group, with everyone to my right. I wait for the two ladies with dogs to signal they are set and then someone says, “OK!”
We move quickly and with purpose, in spite of the blackberry vines and briars tugging at sturdy brush pants. After about 10 minutes, I come across a large, downed tree, and as I swing my leg over, a silhouette catches my eye.
I continue moving, but in slow motion to avoid any sudden stops, which can sometimes startle grouse. I pull myself forward and sneak a glance, confirming this isn’t a bird-shaped clump of leaves. My heart jumps. A grouse with a long, outstretched neck topped by a crest of feathers, its attention piqued.
When hunting with dogs, it’s not common to find a grouse before they do. And when a dog points a bird, you have a bit of time to set up and position yourself before moving forward and flushing the bird for the shot.
This is a unique situation, though. I have only a few seconds to act. An impenetrable bundle of trees stands between the bird and me. I move toward a small opening, hoping to get room to swing my gun. My heart is in my ears now, drumming. Grouse seem to know exactly the last moment to flush before you’re ready, and they rarely go where you expect.
If you love surprises, you’ll love grouse hunting.
Heartbeat of the Woods. This first hunt of the season is essential for me to acclimate to the woods again and reconnect with everything I’ve been missing: the sight of dogs working wild birds, teamwork with good friends, and the rhythm of dodging, twisting, and tripping through the woods.
Early in the season, I always appreciate the opportunity to chase these glorious ghosts. I also must relearn how to accept the misses. Even being able to spot grouse takes a bit of practice. These birds wear a camouflaged uniform of brown and white, an ideal outfit for staying hidden in forests mottled with sunlight and swaying shadows. Most of the year, grouse hide in plain sight as they feed on favorite foods.
However, male grouse are not shy about announcing their presence during the spring. They are well known for their mating display, during which they rapidly flap their wings, creating a deep thumping sound. Grouse have been called the heartbeat of the woods for this reason.
Males show off extravagant plumage of puffed neck ruffs, for which they are named, and strut across the top of a downed log beating their wings. They also showcase neatly lined, fanned-out tail feathers, similar to a tom turkey.
At first, the waves of their drumming are slow and deliberate: Thump. Thump. Thump.
The rhythm gets progressively faster, ending in a finale that penetrates the dense woods: thump-thump—thumpthump-thpthpthpthp.
This drumming announces their desire to mate, but their display also seems to be a boastful celebration of making it through tough winters. Iron-willed, they survive by roosting under snow, conifers, or leaves, coming out only to munch on whatever food is left on branches.
A Worthy Opponent. In this moment, though, mid-September, grouse blend in well. I have to squint to keep an eye on the bird.
I can hear the rest of the hunting group to my right, and I know from my friends’ calls and the beeping collars that both dogs are at the other end of the group. Despite my deliberate effort, my foot lands on a crispy, dead branch, snapping it loudly. It sounds like the start of a race.
The grouse bursts into flight, facing to the right. I swing my gun the same direction, but the bird expertly drops and darts to the left. I try desperately to reverse course, but there’s a sharp crack as the side of my gun whacks some sturdy saplings. You have to take what you can get.
Debbie’s words spring to the front of my mind, prompting me to adjust and shoot toward the bird, knowing it might be a miss. The bird disappears behind orange and gold leaves that obscure a few more wingbeats just out of sight.
My jaw tightens, as it did the first time I missed. However, I now quickly transition to a sly smile, a slow exhale, and gratefulness for having met a worthy opponent.
“No bird!” I shout to a crew on the other side of the neon foliage.
I take a deep breath and glance around to see if another grouse might be lurking nearby while I let adrenaline electrify me.
Lessons We Learn. Back at the cabin, we cool off by dipping our feet in the lake and soaking up the last bits of summer. The warmth and the sunlight are already starting to fade.
We daydream about what we will make when we finally do get that grouse: grilled pizzas, green curry, pot pies, grouse-topped rice and veggies. This wild bird tastes better than chicken, as long as we don’t overcook it and we are aware our meal may come with jewelry. Despite the best picking, some pellets still make it to the plate.
After the lake and as the day winds down, we sit around the fire and recount the close calls. Julia roasts a marshmallow and says that after a hunt, “the fire is just as bright, no matter how many times you miss.”
Eventually, we will get a grouse during opening weekend, but we enjoy talking about our close encounters all the same. We have to expect the unexpected, create our own luck by putting in the time, and cross our fingers for a bird in the bag.