I used to go grouse hunting all the time when my grandparents had a cabin on Leech Lake. It was easy for me to go: I would just walk out the back door and off into the woods for the morning or afternoon, and that was all there was to it. But when my grandparents sold their cabin, I stopped grouse hunting, and I haven’t been grouse hunting in over 20 years. So when my brother asked me if I wanted to head up to his in-laws’ land in northern Minnesota to go grouse hunting, I jumped at the opportunity.
Grouse are small woodland birds that range over most of the United States and Canada. There are several different types of grouse that live in different habitats. In the area we were going to be hunting, approximately 50 miles west of Duluth, we were going for Ruffed Grouse, which are an extremely sporting bird to hunt because they are camouflaged so well. Grouse rely on their natural camouflage so much that they seldom run; instead, they hide in the underbrush and on the forest floor. Most grouse stay well hidden until the very last moment when they explode into flight and usually cause the hunter to startle. When you are not expecting it, they jump up right in front of you and their wings make this loud drumming sound as they take flight. It can scare you just enough that your hesitation is enough for them to fly out of range and you don’t get a chance to shoot or have a bad shot and the bird. You can literally almost step on them before they will move; they are also very quick and fly incredibly fast through very dense cover.
When you do flush a grouse, they typically don’t fly very far – only about 40 yards or so. Flushing a grouse is when you jump them up from their cover and they take flight. Because of the habitat grouse live in, they are difficult to shoot because cover can be so dense that the shooter can’t get a clear shot on the bird. Many of the grouse I have flushed over my life I haven’t even gotten a shot at because they are gone in an instant; I have always counted the number of birds flushed and not the number of birds shot as my measure of success. When I have shot a grouse, it’s often on the second flush, because then I have a better idea of where they are going to come out.
Many novice hunters feel that grouse and pheasant hunting are similar but grouse hunting differs from pheasant hunting mostly in the habitat. Pheasants are usually found in fields, whereas grouse are usually found in the woods. Pheasants will also run a lot more instead of taking flight, grouse very rarely run; instead they rely on their camouflage to hide them and usually only flush when they have to. One of my favorite ways to hunt grouse when I was a kid was by walking old logging trails. This can be done with or without a dog and I had equal success doing both.
But now, twenty years had passed, and my little brother had invited me to go to his in-laws’ to hunt grouse, and I was very excited to do so. We had scheduled a long weekend so that we could get a few days of hunting in. Not knowing the area at all, I really wasn’t sure what to expect, so I went on the Minnesota DNR website and looked at some of their maps. I noticed right away that the DNR had some designated Hunter Walking Trails in the area and one of them was in a Ruffed Grouse Management Area. I was really excited to see this because it gave me some idea as to where to go hunting. I printed off the maps and then promptly forgot them when I left the house.
The first morning we were up on the land, my brother Kevin and I decided to drive around and see if we could find some old logging trails that we could walk. We were in luck, and it didn’t take long to find several trails. The first trail went out through some young pines and aspen trees and we walked down that trail for about an hour. Kevin’s dog Turk, a German short-haired pointer, ran back and forth across the trail staying close and occasionally slowing down for something he might smell. The first thing we flushed that day was a great big rabbit, but my brother was unable to get a shot on it as it ran in front of him. Further down the trail, Turk flushed the first grouse of the day and both of us missed our shots. I followed the grouse into the woods and was able to flush it a second time but didn’t get a shot on it.
We finished walking that trail and were going to try another trail, but I really wanted to try to find that Ruffed Grouse Management Area. I had a pretty good idea of where it might be, so Kev and I drove about 20 minutes and then found a road that I remembered from the map, and there it was. The DNR had marked it clearly and the trails were mowed and groomed. It didn’t take long after we started walking to flush the first grouse on that trail. Neither one of us had been grouse hunting in a very long time, and we weren’t used to how fast a grouse flushes and fly away. We decided that the next grouse to flush we were just going to let fly, and then try to shoot it on the second flush. Another grouse flushed and we watched it go and then Kev walked into the woods to flush it again, but it was so well camouflaged that he almost stepped on it and it startled him and he never got a shot.
At this point we were both laughing about how ridiculous it was that we were flushing grouse but couldn’t seem to get a shot. Neither of us was paying attention to the fact that there was a grouse sitting in the middle of the trail about 20 yards ahead of us. When I finally noticed the bird, Turk had already seen it, and he flushed it off into the woods. Now we were both dumbfounded as our best opportunity of the day was gone. Turk was dancing around the area where the grouse flushed and then locked up on point and was very clearly pointing at something. Kevin and I figured he was pointing at the spot the grouse flushed from but when we got close a woodcock jumped up and disappeared into the pines. Then another grouse appeared and another all out of the same area in about five minutes time. Kev and I weren’t sure what to do at that point.
We decided that it would be best if we got something for lunch and then came back after lunch with a better game plan. After lunch, we returned to the same place and started up right where we left off. Turk flushed another grouse, and then as we came around a bend in the trail another grouse jumped right in the middle of the trail. I hesitated for a moment because I wanted Kevin to get a shot but then I pulled the trigger and down went our first grouse of the day (also our only grouse of the day). Kev and I were both pretty excited that we were finally able to get a grouse. It was starting to get dark, so we called it a day and headed back to the camper.
Since we only had one bird I decided to cook it up that night for dinner. I didn’t have much but I did have some eggs, bacon, and some ramen noodles so I cut the grouse up and took the breasts out then cut the legs and thighs to help flavor the broth. I used the ramen flavor packet and some bacon along with the legs and thighs to make a tasty broth for our ramen, to which I added the lightly-poached breasts and soft boiled some eggs.
The next day, Kev and his wife had to go look at some houses to buy, so I was going to be on my own. When I woke up, it was windy as hell and cold and rainy, so I made a little breakfast and waited for the weather to clear up. At around 10:00 am it finally looked like I might be able to get out and walk a bit, so I headed out in to the woods. I lasted about an hour before I was soaked to the bone. I headed back to the camper and tried to find something else to pass the time. Lucky for me, I had brought a good book and a bottle of bourbon and all was well.
Jamie Carlson lives in Burnsville, MN with his wife, Amanda, and their two kids Eleanor and Charlie. He works as an Rn at the Minneapolis VA hospital. He enjoys hunting, fishing, foraging, and, of course, cooking. He believes that all food can be tasty if it is prepared with care, and he writes about his adventures cooking everything from Pickled Venison Heart to Roasted Dove on his food blog, You Have to Cook it Right. Follow him at @youcookitright. He writes the Hunting for Dinner series for SGT; his last post was Hunting for Dinner: Snapping Turtles.