THE GENERAL DEER and elk hunts have ended and most people have left the higher reaches of the mountains. During November, most upland game hunters are focused on pheasants in lower elevations, or chukar partridge on desert mountain ranges and foothills surrounding communities.
For those who enjoy an upland game hunting challenge, don’t mind braving the elements and prefer to avoid crowds, late-season forest grouse hunting may be something to consider.
Having the mountain to yourself is one of the most peaceful and satisfying upland game hunting experiences. (Being alone on a mountain also involves some safety risks, so please take appropriate precautions.)
The majority of harvested forest grouse (dusky and ruffed) in Utah are taken during the general season big game hunts each year. Many hunters keep a shotgun in their vehicle during the grouse season, just in case they encounter a grouse or two during their hunt; however, relatively low numbers of grouse are harvested each year.
The 2013 forest grouse season runs statewide from September 2–December 31. The daily bag limit is four grouse and the possession limit is 12 grouse. See the Upland Game Guidebook for all of the regulations.
A 12 or 20 gauge shotgun with 6 shot is your best firearm. Hunting with a dog is helpful, but not always the best option when searching for forest grouse, especially if you need to travel through some deeper snow.
If you’re interested in pursuing forest grouse in late autumn, it’s important to begin your planning by knowing about weather forecasts, snow depths, road conditions, gate closures, etc. Most USFS access gates to higher elevations in the canyon are closed between November 1 and November 15. This limits access to many traditional forest grouse hunting locations. However, several Utah highways travel near forest grouse habitat (primarily pine trees).
Be sure to research parking laws before you head out, especially along highways during the snowplow season.
With a little planning, you’ll find a good spot to hunt grouse during the late autumn months.
It’s essential that you stay warm — keep a good daypack with plenty of snacks and emergency gear on hand. While in remote areas, I’d also recommended having a hunting companion and a way to communicate with someone in case of a broken-down vehicle or injury.
Dusky grouse are a bit larger than ruffed grouse. They’re dark gray to blackish with some mottled brown coloring on the wings. The belly can be pale bluish-gray marked with white on the sides of the neck and flanks. The tail is also dark gray with a broad light gray terminal band.
Ruffed grouse have a dark ruff of feathers on the side of the neck. Feathers on the head may be raised to form a crest. Their colors are similar to blue grouse, with grayish-brown mottling. Under parts are buff-colored and marked with dark brown. The tail is usually gray with a broad, black or brown sub-terminal band (whereas, dusky grouse have a blue-gray terminal band).
Often there’s confusion on which species you’re seeing during the moment of a powerful flush. This is why you can have an aggregate of both species in your limit, as well as no designation between male and female in the bag or possession limit.
Thick vegetation makes a clean shot tougher. Grouse often fly into the trees once they flush. Most upland game hunters take the ethical approach of fair chase by shooting only when the bird is on the wing. A sitting target is an easy target, but offers less satisfaction.
The same goes for grouse found on the ground. They’re often walking or standing in front of you with little apparent fear. It’s not uncommon to find a large group of these birds. Unlike pheasants, you can usually get close to them on the initial encounter. Always allow the bird to flush before shooting; you’ll get the most satisfaction out of your hunt.
Finding forest grouse
In November and December, look for dusky grouse in pine trees. Aspen tree leaves have fallen by November and dusky grouse spend most of their time near, directly underneath or actually perched in the pine trees.
Accessing these stands of conifers may require snowmobiles, cross-country skis or snowshoes. Once you’re in place, simply look for tracks, feathers, droppings or dusting areas under the pines.
You could find ruffed grouse in the pines as well, but they also hang out in areas of thick cover such as scrub oak, maple and brushy woodland areas adjacent to streams or springs. Buds of deciduous trees and fruit and seeds are primary winter food items.
Ruffed grouse are more common in the central and northern portions of the state, whereas blue grouse are more widely distributed throughout the state in suitable habitat.
Preparing grouse on the grill
There are several ways to prepare a delicious grouse meal. This is my personal favorite.
Use a knife to cut the thin layer of skin over the chest cavity. Then grasp the two flaps of skin on either side of the incision and peel them away, leaving the breast meat and legs exposed.
Remove the breast meat by using a very sharp, skinny knife to cut along the center breastbone and wish bone on each side of the breast. Be careful not to puncture the entrails sac just below the breast area.
Carefully cut the breast meat away until you have two, nice fillets that look similar to cut chicken breast from the store.
In a watertight gallon Ziploc bag, marinate the grouse breast meat (and legs if you choose) in a mixture of 50% soy sauce and 50% Sprite. Pour just enough of these two ingredients to fully submerge the meat in the bag. Add a teaspoon of garlic powder then refrigerate for at least six hours. (This marinade is also great for turkey and other upland game.)
The key to getting amazing taste from this recipe is to cook the meat on a barbeque grill. Try not to overcook, or the meat will be tough.
Once you learn how and where to find grouse, it’s fun to try new recipes when preparing this delicious, native game bird.
Forest grouse populations in the state are doing well! For more tips on where to find forest grouse in Utah, check out this news release.