Ruffed grouse are widely distributed across the upper tier of the US and Canada. Breaking down all that private and public real estate into something manageable is the key to successfully finding covers and hunting grouse. The term covert and cover are generally interchangeable and describe where grouse are found. Five acres can hold grouse throughout, or the grouse may use just a small percentage of that five acres. And 200 acres might hold only a few viable covers or it might hold a dozen or more. The challenge is in finding them.
Tips for finding and hunting grouse, whether on a slice of private land or seemingly monotonous stretches of public land, is locating the hot spots; those microcosms of cover that attract and hold grouse.
It’s been said that guns and dogs don’t kill grouse, legs do, and that’s true. Whether hunting sans dog, with a close-working flusher or a ranging pointing dog, you will first need to find where to leave some boot prints.
FINDING GROUSE COVER
The best friend of a grouse hunter is a chainsaw. Grouse are predominantly creatures of habitat edges so focus on logging areas on public lands and small-scale woodcutting on private land. While grouse hunting, search out borders along clear-cuts; transition zones where different species of trees and terrain meet; and finger ridges on mountains. Key in on abandoned farms with the obligatory overgrown orchards and reclaimed fields. Grouse require a canopy above for protection from avian predators and prefer a thick and brushy under story. They need mature trees for roosting at night somewhere within strolling distance of their feeding and loafing cover.
Finding food sources while grouse hunting is important, and that can vary throughout the season with insects and new greens early, followed by a variety of berries and fruit, and ending with tree buds, predominantly from Poplar (Aspen) trees. But grouse are unpredictable so don’t ignore mature hardwood stands that are producing nuts in your hunting area. Check the crop of the grouse you shoot throughout the season to see what they are feeding on. Generally, hunt thick and gnarly cover that requires wearing a tough pair of upland pants to plow through.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
I’ve been shrewd by living in areas where I can hunt grouse out my back door, mostly on small tracts of private land. Posting of private property is an epidemic in many areas where grouse are found, but don’t despair; a polite request softened with a bird dog or child in tow often gains you the privilege of access.
Buy Gazetteer topo map books of the areas you plan to hunt. Pour over town and county maps at town offices. Ingratiate yourself to the local postman who drives the rural roads and can tell you where he sees grouse crossing. Befriend the local deer hunters; particularly bow hunters who can point out areas where they are seeing grouse. Deciphering and finding good grouse hunting habitat on large tracts of public lands can be daunting. Scour county plat, state and federal maps, many of which can be accessed via the web, and take advantage of Google earth topo maps. Look for state and federal wildlife areas, which are regularly managed through logging in order to bring in revenue. This creates a continuing succession of grouse covers.
When you are out prospecting, drive past new cuttings and scout for the secondary roads, and overgrown two-tracks left by previous timbering operations. If you come across a bridge over a stream pull over and investigate. Loggers typically leave a perimeter of trees along waterways creating an oasis for grouse. These particular areas have everything they need: roosting trees, canopy, ground cover, water and food. If you see a grouse walking or flying across a road, mark the spot with a few rocks or snap a tree branch. You could be rewarded with a new cover when you return and check out where that grouse was coming and going.
I have always carried a compass and now I carry a GPS as well. Usually when hunting small covers a glance at the compass to check the direction of the road you are stepping off of is enough, but in big country a GPS to mark the truck and denote covers that could prove difficult to find again is a blessing. A GPS can also save a lot of valuable hunting time otherwise wasted trying to find the way out after following up a grouse or getting distracted by one more peek around the next bend. The grouse hunter does not need a complicated unit with all the bells and whistles, and most entry-level models will suffice. Don’t forget to bring water and snacks for the dogs and yourself when the excitement of discovering new grouse covers inevitably leaves you miles from the truck.
The research is complete; you have found promising grouse hunting cover, you’ve gained permission, and now it’s time to explore. Grouse can be hunted successfully throughout the day, but late afternoons are best. The birds are on the move and feeding before mincing their way to roosting trees. While in the midst of these activities, they are leaving fresh scent as they go for the dogs.
You have crept into a reclaimed farm cover or hoofed it deep into the woods to an old cutting you scouted on a map. All the right ingredients are there and suddenly your flushing dog goes birdy, his hell-for-leather attitude screams “GROUSE!” His tail is whirling, you quickly position yourself, a flush is imminent…
Or the beeper collar on your pointing dog has sounded off. You can make him out, a locked solid statue in front of a tangle against an old stonewall. You approach from the side, shotgun up, heart beating…
While bird guiding I have exited a cover scratching my head and asking, “Why didn’t you shoot?” The reply from novice grouse hunters and seasoned pheasant hunters alike was, “I didn’t have a clear shot.” With safety considerations foremost in mind I had to convince them that the blue-sky rule simply doesn’t apply when hunting ruffed grouse. As the saying goes: in the grouse woods if there is lead in the air, there is hope.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brad Eden, shown here with his spring spaniel Jake, is a Registered Master Main Guide, sporting writer/columnist, and wildlife artist. He owns and moderates the Upland Journal Online Magazine & Bulletin Board, a website and discussion community devoted to upland bird hunting enthusiasts, with a membership that stret
ches across the U.S., Canada and abroad.