Skip to main content Skip to main content

Understanding Late Season Ruffed Grouse

Where to find the King once October is over.

Understanding Late Season Ruffed Grouse

The ruffed grouse shifts his habits after the leaves have fallen and snow has covered the ground. (Photo By: FotoRequest/Shutterstock.com)

The poet William Cullen Brant called October, “the last, loveliest smile of summer.”  For grouse and woodcock hunters, that month represents a halcyon of days. The warm-but-cooling temperatures, vibrantly colorful foliage, and a combination of birds is what we remember all year long. But once the migratory birds leave, all that remains is the King. If October is for woodcock then November is for ruffed grouse.

Ruffed grouse occupy four primary cover types that satisfy the birds’ annual needs: drumming log covers, nesting covers, brood covers, and fall/winter covers. Food, protection, weather, and predation play a role in the birds’ survival. Since lots of predators want a piece of Old Grousey, he’ll pick areas that offer more benefits with lower risk. Our job as bird hunters is to find those fall/winter spots, and by finding where they are eating, we’ll know where to look.

a pair of ruffed grouse
While the allure of a few more ruffies may beckon you, their late season pursuit does not come easily. (Photo By: Tom Keer)

You Are What You Eat

When Debbie Petersen isn’t chasing grouse or banding woodcock, she teaches high school biology, ornithology, and wildlife management at the Walker Hackensack Akeley High School in Walker, Minnesota. Over 70 percent of her students are hunters, so Peterson created a research project that is right up their alley: seasonal analysis of ruffed grouse crops.

“We’ve been working on this project for five years,” Petersen said. “We’ve processed or are processing about 400 crops, so our yearly average is of 80 different birds. Many crops come from professional guides who work for Jerry Havel of Pineridge Grouse Camp. Others come from individual hunters. To understand the seasonal change, my students break down the birds’ diets into three fall/winter seasons (early, mid, and late), and then cross reference the food in the crops by six categories: seeds/hard mast, green leaves, berries (soft mast), insects, fungi (mushrooms), buds, and catkins.


Student examining contents of ruffed grouse crop
A high school student examines the contents of a ruffed grouse's crop. (Photo By: Debbie Petersen)

“We classify our fall/winter seasons based on environmental taxonomy.

·       Early season runs from opening day until the leaves fall.

·       Mid-season runs from when the leaves are down until the snow flies.

·       Late season is when snow is on the ground.


To learn what goes on in the late season you first have to know what happens in the early- and mid-seasons.”

Here's what Petersen’s students have learned:

Early Season: Open ground and warm temperatures provide grouse with lots of food choices. Their crops contained seeds/hard mast, berries/soft mast, green leaves, and some insects. The insects represent opportunistic feeding.

Mid-season: As the season progresses, grouse concentrate on seeds/hard mast, some green leaves, and a significant increase in catkins.

Late Season: Late season food sources disappear, forcing grouse to feed on buds and catkins in trees.

Gear Up for Weather Changes

Grouse hunters need to respond to other weather changes, too. The southern spring winds that blew warm air from late spring through mid-fall are replaced by cold northerlies. Based on that significant shift hunters usually modify the way they handle coverts to make sure their dogs get a scenting edge by running into the wind.

Ruffed grouse in evergreen tree
Late season ruffed grouse often hang out in conifer trees, making it more difficult for our bird dogs to scent them. (Photo By: Michael Dante Salazar/Shutterstock.com)

Those colder, stiffer winds drop temperatures and knock down leaves. When the first killing frost comes it’ll wither grasses and understories, thereby turning thick green coverts brown and bare. By the late season, the grouse has lost much of the protection that allowed him a running game.

The late season woods are loud. Dry leaves crackle under foot and rustle in the strong wind. Dry twigs snap, and with no vegetation to quiet bells and beepers the grouse get skittish. More open cover means dogs push harder and farther to find more birds. Keep up with their pace and quickly get up on their points; late season grouse won’t wait around for long, especially if they’ve learned their lessons by being pressured throughout the season. Tighter chokes and hotter loads replace the open chokes and light loads used in the early- and mid-seasons.

Bare November Days

Jerry Havel, the owner of Minnesota’s Pineridge Grouse Camp, loves the late grouse season. “Bird hunters in the woods in late October through November are serious grouse hunters,” he said. “While the strong winds and dropping temperatures make birds nervous, they also make them predicable. The early season broods are broken up and replaced by mid-season individuals. They regather in the late season, and I’ll find them feeding on birch catkins, on aspen and alder buds, and acorns.”

Havel changes his hunting patterns, too. “In the late season I’ll focus on areas that have more sunlight,” he said. “With that light comes warmth, which means the birds don’t burn as many calories trying to stay warm. I’ll look for them along edges of fresh clear cuts that are one or two years old. Those areas allow for more light to reach the ground, and there are always young greens. Swamp edges are good, too. Grouse can hide under the grasses for protection, and they have food sources close by. I look for the birds to come out sometime in the later afternoon, and usually on the sunny sides.”

English setter in snow
The late season winter conditions are equally, if not harder, on our dogs. (Photo By: Tom Keer)

Havel likes to get young dogs extra contacts in the late season grouse. “There are two benefits to running young dogs on grouse in the late season,” he said. “Since the woodcock are gone, the dogs are getting grouse contacts, and that’s important for developing grouse dogs. Dogs that learn to handle skittish birds will develop valuable bird smarts that make them stars in the early season woods. The second reason is that I can see what the pups are doing. The leaves and understory are down, and I can easily see what corrections I need to make. I don’t harvest a lot of birds in the late season, but if I get a staunch point from a young dog, I’ll shoot a bird over him. Most of the time I use a starter pistol and leave enough birds to breed next year.”

Let It Snow, Let ‘Em Grow

Snow makes for easy tracking, but it’s not always conducive to getting a point over your dog. Birds roosting in snow drifts fly up into branches and spend most of the day feeding on buds and catkins. Birds in pines that seek shelter from the wind and weather and then feed in the trees may never hit the ground. Winter dog work is tough, but if you must go then Musher’s Secret prevents snowballs in a dog’s pads. Pam cooking spray applied on the inside of a bell keeps the snow from silencing a clapper. Both wear off with time and need to be reapplied.

dog bell stuffed with snow
Late season ruffed grouse hunting can often be more work than it's worth. (Photo By: Tom Keer)

Havel added, “I look at the big picture, and over-harvesting in the late season can reduce next season’s grouse population. Grouse that make it to the late season have good genetics, and if they survive the winter and breed in the spring then we’ll have stronger birds in for the next season. Those are the genetics we want to see, which is why a lot of us leave them alone when the snow piles up.”

While it may be appealing to take chase after late season ruffed grouse, hunters should evaluate whether the fruits of their labor will remain ripe or become rotten. Conditions can rapidly deteriorate, dog work becomes difficult, and added pressure upon grouse focused on surviving the tough winters may be more of a detriment than an extended season bonus bird.

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