Skip to main content Skip to main content

Great Lakes Grouse

The covers surrounding Lake Superior offer world-class ruffed grouse hunting in the iconic Northwoods.

Great Lakes Grouse

Between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, there are countless opportunities to chase grouse and woodcock while overlooking the nation’s largest freshwater lake. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

As the glow of the headlights struck the aspens, the golden reflections were evident even in the early morning hour as we made our way to camp. The idea was to plan a hiking trip in early October, being able to catch both the magnificent fall colors along Lake Superior and of course— hunt ruffed grouse. My motivations may not have been evident to my wife initially, but it didn’t take long for her to realize it was way more of a hunting trip than hiking.

Between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, there are countless opportunities to chase grouse and woodcock while overlooking the nation’s largest freshwater lake. Over the last 20 years, I’ve spent my fair share of time exploring the area, but this would be the first grouse hunting trip near its shores.

As we approached the campsite of choice just after midnight, my heart sank. The small primitive camping area had room for six rigs, and it looked packed. I feared they were all hunters in search of the king. Upon further inspection, one spot was still left, and after casing the other vehicles, none of them were hunters. Even if it was filled to the brim with other hunters, the area is composed of millions of acres of public land.

Sleep was fleeting, mostly due to anticipation, but it didn’t help as we jockeyed for room with 80-pound Drahthaars in the small camper. Eventually, the rhythmic hum of the nearby river did the trick. The brisk morning air awoke me as the temperature gauge read 19 degrees.

ruffed grouse hunting in the northwoods
Whether in the peak or the valley of the 10-year cycle, my advice is to just go out and give it a try. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Gitchee Gumee Grouse

The logging industry in the northern reaches of the Great Lakes states is still relatively healthy, leaving no shortage of haunts for grouse to call home. Identifying aspen stands wouldn’t be difficult this trip, as from any vantage point, they glowed amber amongst the surrounding pines. Having already mapped out numerous walks through prime cuts ranging from seven to twelve years old, we were ready to hit the woods. Apprehension again crept into my mind, as we continued to pass numerous vehicles. Thankfully the majority were hikers, and other visitors not in search of grouse but rather the migration of fall colors southward.

The cover was still thick, as most of the leaves had turned but still clung to the branches, making bushwhacking difficult. My three-year-old Drahthaar, Herb—aptly named after the legendary University of Minnesota and Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks—led the charge, bulldogging through the dense vegetation. As his pace quickened, and movements became twitchier, I knew something was about to go down. Boom, he locked up, bent at a 90-degree angle just off the trail. Just 15 yards in front of the business end, grouse started to erupt. One, two, four, eight birds popcorn flushed on the backside of a thin stand of spruce. I plowed through, gun at the ready, just in time to catch the last bird with a pattern of #7.5’s. As I gathered the bird from Herb, I stopped to revel in the bigger picture, and what an extraordinary place we were able to hunt.

ruffed grouse hunting with drahthaar in the northwoods
Between the Chequamegon, Superior, and Ottawa National Forests, there are millions of acres open to hunt. If you want to find hotspots, download the onX Hunt App and turn on the young aspen layer. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

The remainder of the two-mile walk was non-stop activity, with skittish birds either running out under points into the protection of thickets or giving us nothing more than the telltale drumbeat of wings outside of eyeshot. Although, supremely frustrating to both hunter and dog alike, it kept us on our toes, making for a short walk. In less than three miles, we had put up 18 birds, with only the first brood giving up a shot opportunity.

Forest Floundering

The clock must have struck blaze orange around 9 a.m., as the road warriors were out in full force. Over the course of the whole day, I didn’t see one other hunter parked at a trail access. Thankfully it meant every birdy spot I wanted to run the dogs was fair game. The next destination was a mosaic of conifers and aspens climbing a hill large enough to view Lake Superior.

One by one I strapped on the dog’s GPS collars, and before I could even finish putting on the second, Herb had found the infamous “truck bird”. I scrambled to grab my gun and fumbled in a pair of shells, while peering through the brush in search of yet another track star grouse. The GPS showed Annie in a flanking maneuver, and before the audible beep signaled, I saw her go on point. Luckily for me the bird burst across the trail at a 45-degree angle, offering the rarity of an unobstructed shot.


After walking deeper into the cover, I reached a two-track trail. Something caught my attention. I was at least a mile in, and the hum of an engine grew closer. What I expected to be a four-wheeler or UTV turned out to be a full sized ¾ ton truck with four blaze orange clad hunters hanging out the window, and a Lab sandwiched between them in the backseat. After exchanging pleasantries, he let me know that they had driven down the trail four times today only seeing one bird. Trying to be a nice guy, I told them I had been finding most of the birds off the trail.

As the truck lumbered around the corner, the GPS collar alerted me to a dog on point 50 yards off the trail. The smile returned as I shook my head walking into the brush. A grouse pushed skyward right under the nose of Annie, and promptly was sent tumbling back to earth.

Neither Fin Nor Feather Found

The remainder of the walk was a lesson in avoidance. The grouse did what grouse do and put on a brilliant performance of putting any piece of vegetation between me and them. It was time to take a break and hit the river in search of native brook trout. I had fished this stream countless times in the past decade, and it had never disappointed. That was until now, and while the red wine tinted water offered a beautiful backdrop, the trout were nowhere to be found. As I drove back to the campsite, it was evident grouse were on the move.

fall foliage at Lake Superior
Across the Northwoods, the fall colors normally peak during the last week of September into the first week of October. Don’t worry if you don’t hit the peak perfectly, you still won’t be disappointed in the show. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

I checked onX Hunt and paralleling the road was an overgrown trail sandwiching a seemingly perfect cut. What an opportunity for one last walk of the day. What appeared to be an easy stroll soon changed as I followed a spur trail that ended at a beaver dam blocking a significant sized pond. The moose tracks tiptoeing the crossing was enough incentive to follow.

Climbing out of the swampy lowlands, the terrain gave way to one of the prettiest, most diverse habitats I had hunted. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Even though the grouse continued to play an expert level game of peek-a-boo, there were a few who didn’t make it out unscathed. Hunting with the wind at our backs seemed to be the most effective technique, as both dogs would make long casts forward and end up pinning the flighty grouse between us on their way back. With nowhere to run or fly, we continued the program along the edge of the cut until it ran into a stream where we decided to call it a day. Even if we didn’t shoot a bird, or heck even see one, the distraction of the fiery yellow colors set against the clean blue backdrop of Lake Superior would have been good enough.


To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at GunDogMag.com.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Get the Newletter Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Gun Dog articles delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account