December can be a great month to hunt forest grouse in Utah.
As the state’s big game hunts wind down, upland game hunters have more of the mountains to themselves. For forest grouse hunters, that means more time in higher elevations during the last month of the hunt.
Utah’s forest grouse hunt ends Dec. 31. As the hunt enters its final month, Division of Wildlife Resources upland game coordinator Jason Robinson, says reports he has received from hunters indicate good numbers of dusky grouse have been found this fall. He admits that finding ruffed grouse has been hit and miss.
Robinson likes hunting forest grouse because the birds’ habitat is in small pockets, which hunters can easily focus on. Once hunters know where to look, they won’t have to spend energy covering large expanses of land, even if they don’t have a dog.
Robinson says some hunters may not know that the two different species, dusky grouse and ruffed grouse, split up in the winter.
Earlier in the season, both species can be found in areas that have mixed stands of aspen and pine trees. Later in the season, hunters should target one bird or the other.
In the winter, forest grouse do not have to stay near a water source. This means their top priorities are food and shelter. While most wildlife migrate to lower elevations in the winter, dusky grouse do just the opposite, they move up the mountain. To find dusky grouse, look for ridgelines that have spruce and fir trees on them.
On the other hand, ruffed grouse stay near aspen tree stands that have a mix of both young and mature trees.
Although the birds move for the winter, they don’t travel very far. “They have small home ranges,” Robinson says. “In the winter, hunters can find them in the same general area they were at earlier in the season.”
Hunting early in the morning was important when the season started, but now mid-morning or mid-afternoon is a good time to go out. When winter hits, it takes the grouse longer to start moving.
Robinson encourages hunters not to pursue birds late into the afternoon, though. Hunting later in the day pushes the grouse away from their roost site. As the group tries to make its way back to its roost site before darkness falls, the birds don’t have enough time to settle in for the night and calm down after a day of being disturbed.
When pursuing forest grouse, hunters usually shoot six shot out of a 12 to 28 gauge shotgun. Because most of the shots will be fairly close, Robinson suggests using an open choke.
While looking for forest grouse, it is not unusual to be in elevations higher than 7,000 feet. Make sure to wear boots with good traction, warm clothes and take plenty of water. “Know where you’re going,” Robinson says. “And be prepared for the conditions there.”
More information about hunting forest grouse in Utah, including a distribution map that gives a general idea where dusky and ruffed grouse are found in the state, is available in the 2013-2014 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook.
The free guidebook is available at www.wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.