How to Fool Midday Grouse
September 24, 2010
You don't have to get up at dawn in order to fool October's midday grouse. Our expert explains how to find and hunt noontime birds for hot upland action this month.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
by Mike Gnatkowski
If bobwhite quail are the gentlemen's bird, then ruffed grouse must be the banker's bird. At least, they seem to keep banker's hours. Ruffed grouse aren't early risers, and that suits me just fine. They don't sound off at the first hint of daylight like turkeys, and you don't need to get up at some ungodly hour to be ready when the first flights arrive, like you do for ducks. I like hunting ruffed grouse, and if the best time to start hunting them is sometime during midmorning, that's great. I don't like getting up early, either.
ANOTHER 40 WINKS Ruffed grouse may wake up with the other birds, but they usually aren't in any big hurry to get going. They'll usually spend some time preening, fluffing and soaking up the morning sun before they decide to head out in search of a morning brunch. A snack may be only a short stroll away, or the birds may have to fly some distance to feed, but either way, it's usually well after daylight before grouse get serous about finding something to eat, and that's when savvy hunters should get serious about finding grouse.
DINNER IS SERVED A grouse's menu can vary greatly from region to region at various times of the year. Grouse will feed on a variety of greens, fruits, insects, mushrooms and just about anything that grouse find edible. They're not especially picky, but they do have a penchant for fruit and other soft-mast crops.
Filling their crops is about all grouse think about from the time they hit the ground in early morning until they head back to their roost in early evening. They seem to be especially happy if they can stuff themselves with juicy fruits and berries.
One requirement fruit-bearing trees, shrubs, briars, vines and bushes need to prosper is sunlight. The other is moisture. You're not going to find soft-mast-producing plants in the deep woods where there's little light. Consequently, you're not likely to find many October grouse there, either. This type of fruit-producing vegetation does best near sunlit edges. Look for soft-mast crops near the fringes of clearings and clearcuts, along old logging roads and fire trails, around abandoned homesteads and along rivers, streams and creeks. The penetrating sunlight allows these plants to flourish, providing grouse with not only one of their favorite delicacies but also with thick security cover where they can elude hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and other predators while foraging and resting.
WATER BIRDS One place where you can count on finding good edge cover and numbers of grouse throughout the day is along waterways. Rivers and streams provide natural transition cover from moist lowlands to more classic upland coverts. In between can be found a variety of vegetation types that provide outstanding midday hangouts.
During dry years, the moist soils along rivers may be the only places where soft-mast crops can be found. If so, the edges of rivers and streams can be a bonanza for grouse when they are actively feeding and resting from midday through the afternoon.
HOMESTEAD GROUSE Old homesteads and abandoned orchards are classic forms of edge cover where you can expect to find midday grouse. As civilization gives way to natural succession and nature begins to reclaim these sanctuaries, grouse will search them out. Most times there are a few scattered apple trees around these old farms that are grouse magnets. Grouse love apples and will go out of their way to find them.
I was taking a shortcut from one covert to the next across an open field at midmorning one October day a few years ago. The terrain looked more like pheasant cover than grouse habitat, so I was hustling along, headed for the next clearcut. A few crabapple trees were scattered across the field, and as I neared one whose branches nearly drooped to the ground, my Lab got birdy. I tensed, fingering the trigger guard on the double barrel, expecting a big cock pheasant to come busting out. Instead, a rust-colored ruff exploded from under the tree. It's amazing how easy grouse are to hit when they aren't zigzagging though wrist-thick aspens!
The bird's crop was stuffed with bright red marble-sized crabapples.
THE RIGHT TIME OF THE DAY Two periods of the day seem to be the most productive for hunting edge cover. The first is at midmorning, when grouse finally get warmed up and decide it's time to secure breakfast.
The spike in grouse activity might be relatively short, lasting only an hour or two, depending on the availability of forage. Hunters should take advantage of this increase in grouse activity. Birds that are actively foraging leave plenty of scent on the ground, and morning dew and moisture make for ideal scenting conditions for dogs.
Once satisfied, grouse usually retreat into nearby cover to rest, digest, dust and take a midday siesta. In early afternoon, grouse will head out in search of dinner. This second outing is usually of longer duration and may take Mr. Grouse even farther from his preferred roosting site.
For early risers, a good plan is to hunt prime roosting or security cover as birds make their way to the edges to feed. Conifers fringing thick cutovers are prime locations. Slashings and clearcuts adjacent to roads where birds might move out to feed are good bets, too. Later, from midmorning through late afternoon, skirt the edges. The birds won't be far. A dog can be a great help for rousting them from their midday haunts. Often, foraging grouse caught by surprise will simply slink back into a tangle of brambles or vines until the danger passes.
MIDDAY TACTICS If you hunt without a dog, the only way to move these birds is to go in after them. Flip a coin. The loser needs to don shooting glasses (a must anyway), leather gloves and brush pants and prepare to sacrifice himself to the briars. There's no other way if you want to kill grouse. You might move a few birds strolling along roads or trails early and late in the day, but at midday you need to roll up your sleeves and go in after them. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Hopefully, you'll win the coin toss!
Grouse purists will disagree, but I like a close-working flushing dog, like a Lab or springer that isn't afraid of getting into the really nasty stuff so I don't have to when grouse are holed up at midday. My job then is to position myself for the best shooting opportunity. I don't want to be the one who has to battle t
he thorns and stickers to put birds in the air. When I knock a bird down, I don't want to have to go in there and find it. Let the dog do his thing; you do yours. Often enough, it works.
Weather has a bearing on where you're likely to find grouse at midday. On those glorious Indian summer days, grouse will be out and about taking advantage of the fall sunshine, just like you. In fact, grouse can often be found some distance from their traditional haunts prospecting for grasshoppers or greens when conditions are fair. Conversely, on cool, blustery days, grouse might not move far from their roosting areas, especially in the morning. By midafternoon, they are hungry enough to make a food run to stock up for the cold night ahead.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING October is a transitional period for grouse. Early in the month, there's still plenty of food and cover available. Grouse tend to wander more and can be found in relatively open areas, compared to later in the season.
With a thick canopy of leaves overhead in early October, grouse still feel relatively secure and can be found throughout the day foraging in what most hunters would consider atypical grouse cover. The dispersal of young grouse in autumn, called the fall shuffle, often results in grouse being in cover where you wouldn't normally expect them. I've shot October grouse in hedgerows far from cover, in jack pine forests where you'd never think a grouse would be and in fields better suited to pheasants or quail.
Once the leaves drop, grouse begin congregating in what's left of the best and thickest cover. Birds that get caught in marginal habitat are quickly culled from the population by predators and hunters. Only the strong and smart survive.
Hunters must learn to recognize the best habitat in their region, especially when grouse numbers are low, and then hunt it during prime time (from midday through late afternoon). Such places can be productive if there is a favorite food source close by.
You don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to kill grouse. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, even a second cup of coffee, but you'd better make hay while the sun shines. It's October, and the grouse are waiting!
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