Snowshoes, grouse hunting a good mix
Local hunters find success
GWINN — Erik Strazzinski of Gwinn wasn’t sure what to expect for his recent ruffed grouse hunting trip.
On Saturday, Strazzinski, president of the Mid-Michigan Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, embarked on his search for grouse south of Gwinn with his hunting partner, Jesse Zimmerman of Marquette.
Strazzinski expressed doubts about the weather, but they went out anyway, considering it was a chance to get their dogs out for one last time in the year.
“It was a clear day and all the snow had finally fallen off of the trees,” Strazzinski said. “The weather was beautiful.”
However, he didn’t have high hopes of finding birds.
They also made the mistake of not wearing snowshoes, a mistake quickly remedied.
“Once we put the snowshoes on, it was easy walking,” Strazzinski said. “We stayed on top of the snow. It was perfect conditions that day for it. For what we had expected, once we got on the snowshoes, it was perfect.”
He said the dogs were able to stay on top of the snow, which had a crust.
The two hunters went on a two-hour walk and flushed 20 grouse, each harvesting a bird — and on snowshoes, a first for both of them.
Strazzinski acknowledged winter grouse hunting is different from autumn.
“Birds just aren’t the same spots they are in the fall,” he said. “Instead of hunting just in aspen stands, you’re hunting in thermal cover like balsam fir and spruces.”
He also pointed out that many grouse are in trees during the winter.
“That makes it harder for the dogs,” said Strazzinski, who brought his Brittany, the aptly named Aspen, on the trip. “Dogs, a lot of times, don’t smell them.”
However, on Saturday they managed to find birds on the ground.
Snowshoes added another dimension.
“There’s no sneaking up on anything,” Strazzinski said. “You’re making all sorts of noise.”
It also was hard to maneuver through thicker cover.
But maneuver they did.
Zimmerman was pleased with the hunt, with his English setter, Dixie, along for the trip.
His Facebook post read: “What a great way to end my 2019 grouse season. Lots of snow but we had some good dog work and quite a few flushes, both dogs had a bird shot over them! First time I’ve ever killed a bird with snowshoes on too!”
Heather Shaw, regional biologist for the eastern Upper Peninsula and lower Michigan, Ohio and Indiana for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society, acknowledged conditions have been “pretty rough” over the last month.
“This time of year can be really challenging,” Shaw said.
However, she stressed it can be rewarding for the hunter too, even after over 3 feet of snow was dumped in the area after Thanksgiving.
“That storm put a stop to a lot of us going out and enjoying the hunting traditions that we love,” Shaw said.
Birds can be found, though, where there’s available food.
Shaw said grouse in the winter can be located in snow roosts, which are like nests in the the snow. In these roosts, grouse metabolism slows down, and they limit most of their movements to and from a feeding area.
Fortunately, dogs sometimes can flush out grouse from these roosts.
Hunters and non-hunters alike might want to appreciate ruffed grouse winter adaptations in another way; Shaw said they have pectinations — little fleshy projections that help them grasp icy or snow-covered branches while feeding.
The birds that survived this hunting season, which began Sept. 15 and closed Tuesday, probably will reproduce.
“Those will be our potential breeders,” Shaw said.
The birds, as well as other animals, still have to get through the winter.
“Right now it’s all about conserving energy for a lot of wildlife,” said Shaw, who noted grouse now are feeding on aspen catkins or other soft mast.
She had a tip for future hunters.
“If you can hone in on areas that have a great food source that give them more cover, you should find more birds,” Shaw said.
Of course, hunting isn’t all about bagging game.
“It was great for them to get out and enjoy the weather,” Shaw said of the two successful grouse hunters.
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.