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Bill Marchel: There's still time to hunt

December offers hunting opportunity for grouse, pheasant and deer.

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Pheasants almost always feed prior to sunset, especially during December. Expect to find birds near out-of-the-way food sources such as picked corn or bean fields. Photo by Bill Marchel

It's early December and some anglers are finding safe ice on which to fish. Others though, especially those who prefer to angle from wheel houses, are left watching the weather and waiting for colder temperatures.

All is not lost, however.

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Buck or doe, December whitetails are forever wary. Hunters will want to concentrate their efforts near deer known food sources. Photo by Bill Marchel

We can resort to hunting instead. On the minds of most hunters in December are ruffed grouse, pheasants and deer.


Related: Bill Marchel: Appeal of the whitetail
The muzzleloader season for whitetails runs through Dec. 13, and archers can hunt deer through Dec. 31. Ruffed grouse and pheasant hunting seasons continue through Jan. 3.

Let's explore options for finding these three game species in the coming weeks

Ruffed grouse

Many hunters have trouble finding ruffs during December, even with the aid of snow. Since grouse are usually grouped around any available food sources, it may take a bit of walking to find them. Therefore, it's usually best to hunt at a fast pace until tracks in the snow (if we get any) indicate a group of grouse has been feeding in the area. Then slow down and hunt that territory thoroughly.

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A ruffed grouse pauses while feeding on ironwood catkins just prior to sunset. The Minnesota hunting season on ruffed grouse runs through Jan. 3. Photo by Bill Marchel

Since the fruits and greens favored by grouse earlier in the fall will have all but disappeared by December, the birds will be feeding mostly on buds and catkins. Grouse will pick away at a variety of edibles, but the catkins of hazel are their favorite early winter food. Ruffs definitely prefer the larger catkins plucked from hazel shrubs growing in areas exposed to the sun. Thus, look for the best hazel thickets to be in forest openings and on woodland edges. Overgrown cattle pastures are almost always good spots, especially when close to typical ruffed grouse cover of aspen, alder and dogwood.

Related: Bill Marchel: Good hunting on the 2020 duck opener
Ruffed grouse also feed on ironwood and birch buds during December and, as winter progresses, aspen buds.

Late afternoon is the best time to hunt December grouse since the birds almost always fill their crops prior to roosting for the night.


The daily limit on ruffed grouse is five birds with 10 in possession. Shooting hours are 1/2 hour before sunrise to sunset.


Now, with most of the crops out of the fields, surviving roosters are forced into the remaining cover.

Iced over cattails marshes are usually the best spots to find December roosters, especially if there are harvested crop fields nearby. This season, though, the continued warm weather has kept some marshes from freezing. We all know, though, that a cold spell could change things in a hurry.

Related: Find ruffed grouse on opening day
Even if we get some cold weather be extremely careful while navigating cattail sloughs. And if deep snow accompanies the cold its insulating qualities prevent the marshes from freezing solid, despite cold weather. Make sure the ice is safe to avoid a chilly plunge. A complete change of clothing in your vehicle is always a good idea.

Other likely locations to find December roosters are shelterbelts, low brushy areas, or any type of cover untouched by farming.

If there is snow on the ground it's a good idea to work the heavy cover quickly until tracks are encountered. Hunt those spots more methodically to put the birds in the air.

Wild flushes (pheasants flushing out of gun range) will be the order if you hunt strip cover such as fence rows for late season birds. Concentrate your efforts in the less popular pheasant areas and hunt as far from roads as possible. Work the heaviest cover available but don't disregard those tiny out-of-the-way pheasant hideouts because wily late season roosters have a unique way of finding every nook and cranny in an otherwise endless, open landscape. Weekdays, of course, see the least amount of hunting pressure.

The pheasant hunting season in Minnesota continues through Jan. 3. The daily limit now (after Dec. 1) is three roosters and the possession limit is nine. Shooting hours are 9 a.m. until sunset.


White-tailed deer

Your best bet during December is to hunt feeding areas, or along the deer trails leading between bedding sites and feeding areas. Deer feed heavily now in preparation for the long winter ahead. Thus, they are usually concentrated near prime food locations. Even adult bucks are now feeding a lot having lost up to 30% of their body weight during the November rut.

Depending on the area you hunt, these prime feeding sites could be farm fields of corn or soybeans, food plots, lowlands containing red-osier dogwood, goldenrod meadows, hazel thickets, or logging operations. Acorns are high on the list, too, but this year's crop of acorns was a total bust.

Related: Discover fascinating facts about deer antlers
Nothing is more wary than a December whitetail. Deer are reluctant to feed in open areas during daylight, so it is important to find hunting locations that are as secluded as possible. If, for example, a farm field shows heavy use but you discover the deer are not arriving before dark try hunting further back in the woods along deer trails leading to the fields. Afternoon hunts are almost always more productive than morning hunts. Usually deer have left the feeding areas prior to sunrise and are safely bedded before daylight.

The cold and snow (it will come) that makes late-season deer hunting trying at times, is also an advantage because it concentrates deer near food sources. Hunters willing to tough-it-out just might be rewarded for their efforts.

As noted, the muzzleloader season ends Dec. 13, and the archery season runs through Dec. 31. Shooting hours are from 1/2 hour prior to sunrise until 1/2 hour after sunset.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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