December is a great month to hunt ruffed grouse in Utah. Most of the big game hunts are over, so hunters have the mountain all to themselves.
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, Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), said reports he’s received, plus what he’s seen while hunting forest grouse this year, indicate the number of ruffed grouse in Utah is slightly above average this fall.
“Dusky grouse are found higher in elevation,” he said. “It appears their numbers are average to slightly above average.”
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, hunters won’t have to spend energy covering large expanses of land — even if hunters don’t have a dog.
Robinson said some hunters may not know that the two different species, dusky grouse and ruffed grouse, split up in the winter. Earlier in the season, hunters can find both birds 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 don’t 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.
Ruffed grouse, on the other hand, 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 said. “In the winter, you’ll find them in the same general area hunters found them earlier in the season.”
Hunting early in the morning was important when the season started, but hunters can wait until midmorning or mid-afternoon now. 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 No. 6 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’s not unusual to be in elevations higher than 7,000 feet. Make sure boots have good traction, wear warm clothes and take plenty of water.
“Know where you’re going,” Robinson said, “and be prepared for the conditions there.”
More information about 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 on page 33 of the 2017–2018 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. Hunters can get the free guidebook at wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.