Winter in the Uplands
27/11/17 Filed in: 2017 Bird Hunting
After several weeks off from the grouse woods (my wife had knee replacement surgery, and yours truly played Florence Nightengale the last couple of weeks - not a good picture), we were able to get out in to the snowy Vermont uplands this morning, in pursuit of some of those crafty birds. We've had our share of the normally cold weather that we usually receive in November, which is a shock to the system after the mild temperatures of October. There's a few inches of snow on the mostly frozen ground, and the woods have transformed in to stark, unforgiving pockets of cover for all of the animals.
In other words, it is officially winter grouse hunting now, which is quite different from the hunting we do in early and then in late October. I have read that there are usually three different periods to the three-month grouse hunting season, and this depends upon the transformation of the cover due to changing weather. The "first season" is the early season, where the leaves are still on the trees, and the grouse are still enjoying the plethora of cover (vertical) and food sources that are available. They can be found anywhere and everywhere in the first couple weeks of October, making some of the flushes that we get particularly surprising.
The "second season" usually begins as the leaves start dropping in earnest, and the vertical overhead cover and some food sources start drying up. Grouse are usually found in the thicker areas in the last couple weeks of October and the beginning of November, and evergreen stands become more important to grouse as well. As the vertical cover recedes, the horizontal cover is desired by the birds - thick stands of spruce, and blowdowns become favorite spots for grouse to hole up during bad weather. When the weather's good though, the grouse are often out and about looking for greens (fern tips, raspberry leaves, etc.), if they're still available.
The "third season", or winter grouse hunting season, starts earlier up here than most places in New England, and you never know when it might rear its ugly head. Sometimes it's not until halfway through December, but most years, it is about the mid-point of November, as it is this year. Now the grouse are exclusively in the stands of spruce and evergreens, as all of the greens are either dead or buried under a blanket of snow, and their primary food source is buds and catkins from birch and poplar. Hunting at this time of year can be feast or famine - they aren't where they were even a month ago, so if you can identify the thickest spruce cover in the areas you like to hunt in October, it is likely to be holding grouse right now. Don't expect there to be grouse in each thick, dark area though - you can walk for quite a time and see very little … and then come in to a veritable bonanza of birds.
While winter grouse hunting is not my favorite - the snow is hard to get through once you get to 4"-6" of snow depth, and the points and great dog work that you came to expect in October and early November is much harder to come by in the winter woods - it can still be fruitful occasionally. One of my best days was five years or so ago when I went out with Monty and walked a huge area - we put up at least 20 grouse that early December day, and two of them became my dinner guests as well. There was only an inch or two on the ground that day from what I can remember, but there was 3" or so on the ground today in Vermont. In an hour and a half, Bode and I moved 5 grouse, three of which were together in a stand of large spruces. Bode did have a point on a grouse that eventually flushed quite a way out from us and he also tracked another that I ended up spotting on the ground. When it finally flushed, it flew low and I took an ill timed shot. It flew in to a neighboring spruce tree, and after withstanding my picture taking and branch throwing activities, I had finally decided to let it go - it looked to be a female and perhaps some tame genes will be a good thing for the grouse gene pool up here.