Around our house, we don’t eat a lot of chicken during September and October. Instead we have fresh ruffed grouse for dinner as often as we can. After all, why settle for chicken when you can have the best? The delicate flavor of ruffed grouse arguably surpasses any other fowl.
The grouse hunting season begins in mid-September and remains open through the end of the year. However, nearly all hunting occurs before the snow flies. Aside from a shotgun, you don’t need special skills or gear to go after grouse, which is why generations of youngsters were introduced to hunting in the grouse woods.
Ruffed grouse look like small, wild chickens. You’ll see them along backroads or when out for a hike. While they may startle you by flushing with a thunder of wings, often grouse just walk away through the underbrush. Because they are not wary around people, many grouse are shot along the edge of forest roads. Sophisticated grouse hunters only shoot birds on the fly. How you decide to shoot them is up to you.
The best way to find grouse to amble along old logging roads. Rarely will you walk more than a mile without encountering a bird or two. You can find grouse just about anywhere in the forest, though they are less common in maple woods and red pine plantations. Grouse are closely associated with aspen trees, which provide food and cover.
Grouse abundance rises and falls in a 10-year population cycle. Biologists predict the population is trending downward this year. Don’t worry about it. Even a beginner should find enough birds to have a successful hunt. The grouse meal you make afterward is worth the effort.
Preparing for the Dinner Table
The easiest way to clean a grouse is place it breast-up on the ground, step on each wing near the body, then grab the feet and pull upward. The legs, back, skin and entrails will pull away, leaving a clean grouse breast with the wings attached. Just use shears or a knife to cut off the wings. The breast contains nearly all of the bird’s edible meat, with a minimal amount on the thighs and legs. We generally prepare the breast and save the thighs and legs for stock.
You can eat grouse fresh or freeze it. We vacuum seal and freeze whole breasts. Prior to cooking, I like to filet the meat off the breast bone, the same as you would with a chicken, and have two boneless cuts. One breast filet is enough for a single serving, though many folks so enjoy the flavor of grouse that a whole breast isn’t too much. Grouse is very lean white meat with a delicate flavor. You can use it in just about any chicken recipe, but take care not to overcook. Very often, we just dust the breasts in flour and bake. This way we enjoy the full flavor of the birds for dinner.
Note: this story was originally published in the Aug.-Sept. 2012 issue of Northern Wilds Magazine.