Gearing Up For Ruffed Grouse

Now's the time to get in some extra shooting and to exercise yourself and your dogs in preparation for the upcoming ruffed grouse season. Here are some things to consider.

Photo by T.C. FLANIGAN

Avid grouse hunters are like enthusiastic bird dogs in that both always have ruffs on their minds. So even though right now it is late summer/early autumn in this region, here are some activities we can engage in toward having a more productive grouse season -- not only this year but also in the future.

The past four years during this time, I have engaged in some habitat development projects on hunting land that I own. Obviously, many hunters don't possess rural properties, but from my experience, landowners are quite willing to entertain the notion of folks coming by their holdings and volunteering to conduct habitat enhancement activities. What's not to like about free labor?

Before beginning any project that will benefit grouse, contact your local fish and game department, a state forester or a local extension office. Individuals there will be glad to proffer information on what hard- and soft-mast producers will do best for your area, as well as what native plants would most benefit ruffs.

A number of native warm-season grasses are indigenous to this region, including switch grass, Indian grass and big and little bluestem. These are so-called "bunch grasses," which means that each seed will with luck create a plant that features many stems.

These native grasses will often grow between 4 to 6 feet high, which make excellent places for young grouse to forage for insects in the spring and summer and to hide. Land can be prepared now (such as spraying weeds and spreading lime) and the seed planted after the first hard frost in the spring. Native grasses can be planted in tiny openings next to dense cover.

Deer and turkey hunters often conduct thinning operations where less desirable trees, such as poplars and ashes, are removed to give oaks more room to spread their crowns and produce more nuts. Grouse hunters might want to adapt this tactic as well and eradicate undesirable plants from around grape arbors and dogwood and cherry trees -- three preferred soft-mast menu items of grouse in this region. (Continued)

CREATE WINTER COVER
Another activity I have undertaken of late is the creation of winter shelter for grouse and songbirds. Last September, for example, I cut a number of evergreens so that they would fall into each other, thus developing dense thickets where grouse could escape from the snow, wind and inclement weather. I also hinge-cut some cedars so that they lay parallel to the ground, often touching each other -- more excellent cover for birds to hide in.

White pines are native to this region and provide excellent winter cover. Although they should not be planted until later in the fall, now is a good time to identify and prepare potential planting sites.

Additionally, while you have out your chainsaw and are cutting cedars, consider felling some drumming logs. This past fall, for example, while a friend and I were in the midst of a thinning operation, he asked me if I had been downing any potential drumming logs for fool hen males. Embarrassed, I replied no. My buddy then proceeded to cut down several large poplars for that purpose.

PRACTICE YOUR SHOOTING
The pre-season is also a marvelous time to visit businesses where skeet shooting and sporting clays take place. I must admit that many years I have not followed my own advice in this regard. But I also must admit that my friends who do so are the ones that seem to always outshoot me every season. Nothing improves wing-shooting like these two activities.

One of the most pleasurable pre-season activities is to hop in the truck and visit places that were known hot-spots in years past. The number of years that a certain postage stamp of land will be attractive to grouse varies, of course, depending on a host of factors. The place where you put up three birds in 30 minutes five years ago may now be on its way to becoming a mature forest and won't hold any birds these days.

On these forays, I don't like to actually enter prime grouse coverts, preferring to check them out from afar. There's no need now to flush birds and expose them to possible predators. Mainly, what I want to check out is to learn if a spot still remains in the early successional stage and that the cover is still dense.

Another activity to engage in is to visit adjacent hardwood groves to ascertain the mast situation there. For example, during the early season especially, grouse will visit red oak stands and forage on the fallen acorns. It is probably the only time all season they will be in such open cover. If a red oak stand borders a clearcut, grape arbor or any kind of nasty tangle of growth, chances are that grouse will take advantage of the acorn drop.

A number of red oak species thrive in this region. Learn now where they form stands adjacent to heavy cover and whether the trees have engendered nuts.

In our region of the country, grouse also have numerous soft-mast menu items to forage on. Besides grapes, cherries and dogwood berries, other possibilities include black gum, crab apples, elderberries, sumac berries, hawthorns, hackberries and persimmons to name just a few. Many of these soft-mast makers often flourish within or next to grouse coverts. Now is to the time to locate these feeding areas.

In this same vein, now is also a superlative time to locate new public land destinations. Recently, for instance, I called a biologist who works on the public land nearest my home and asked about where some clearcuts in the 10- to 20-year-old age range were. He gave me the name of some possible spots, and I plan to check them out before the season begins. These visits may turn out to be only dry runs, but it's always fun to search for new places and at the very least, I can eliminate them from consideration later.

HAVE YOUR GUN CHECKED
Another prudent activity to undertake now is to take your favorite gun by your local gun shop. For instance, every one to three years, I like to take my bird gun, a 20-gauge autoloader, to my local shop. The experts there will give the gun a thorough inspection and cleaning, sometimes replacing worn parts.

And, yes, I do myself periodically maintain and clean my autoloader, especially -- and obviously -- after hunting in the rain. But trained gunsmiths are much more capable than I am at spotting small problems -- and eliminating them.

EXERCISE YOURSELF & YOUR DOG
I must emphasize that it is crucial from both a health and stamina standpoint that n

ow should be a time when upland bird hunters prepare themselves and their dogs for the rigors of the season to come. I am not a dog owner, but I pursue game as diverse as squirrels and grouse, deer and turkeys. I walk three miles every day year 'round in an attempt to keep in shape. When I entered my early 50s, I stopped running two miles every other day and began the daily walking regimen.

My fear, after listening to older hunters that had begun to develop knee problems, was that if I continued running on hard pavement, I, too, would have the same joint, tendon and bone woes they were experiencing. Swimming is another outstanding form of exercise for bird hunters and is obviously even less stressful on the knees than running is.

Canines need to be prepared for the rigors of fall as well. During the pre- season, many of my dog-owning buddies will bring their charges to shooting preserves. Yes, doing so can be somewhat expensive, but to an individual, my friends believe that giving their dogs the opportunity to hunt over live birds is a super way to prepare the dogs for the season and to exercise them, too. Merely taking your dog out for a walk or a romp in the outdoors is also a positive activity for the two of you. It is also a time to bond with these vital hunting partners.

PRACTICE WITH VARYING LOADS
This past year at the tail end of the season, a buddy of mine downed a grouse. Smiling, the friend brought the bird over to me and then produced a shell that he had been using. He explained that he had learned how effective this shell patterned during the run-up to that season.

Of course, we all favor certain shot sizes for our guns, but it also doesn't hurt to experiment with new loads from time to time. Now is a time to do so.

The weather is still seasonably warm right now; nevertheless, our thoughts are quite likely beginning to turn toward the start of grouse season. Performing habitat improvement projects, conducting scouting expeditions, and all of the rest of the things already mentioned, are just a few of the activities that we can engage in. Goodness knows, grouse are hard enough to bag, as it is!

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