Don't Stop Your Grousing Now!

It's time to get serious again about hunting Old Ruff. We consulted with the Midwest's top grouse expert to tell you what to expect this season. (October 2007)

The grouse population cycle is on the upswing, and while this leads to more hunters in the woods, it also results in more opportunities for hunters.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

It is a dilemma all ruffed grouse hunters face. The problem originates from the fact these birds are such fine table fare that you hate to see one get away. So, we wrestle with the dichotomy of whether we should be true sportsmen and flush the birds to only shoot them on the wing, or take on the role of hunter and gatherer if given the opportunity to take a shot at the birds on the ground.

Some of us change the rules based on the grouse population. If the numbers are low, we temporarily waive the purist amendment of our hunting constitution and ratify the section on ground swatting. When nature only provides a couple of opportunities, the path to success may force incorporating a few more options.

Fortunately for hunters who prefer to flush the grouse they shoot, this year will provide many opportunities. According to Gary Zimmer, regional wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, the curve of the grouse cycle is near the peak.

"In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in Wisconsin, the peak of the grouse cycle occurs in the years that end in a '9'," Zimmer said. "In Minnesota, it's a year earlier. This can vary one year either way, but the cycle is consistent. So, you can see we're getting close to the peak of the cycle in these three states."

But aren't there other factors -- such as snow cover, poor weather during nesting and predation -- that can alter the cycle? "Actually, habitat is the key for grouse overall," Zimmer said. "The management for grouse is managing for habitat to reduce predation. That's really what we're doing.

"The grouse have adapted well to survive our winters," continued Zimmer, "but they have not adapted well to survive from predators. They're not only a great meal for hunters, they're a great meal for the species that utilize a medium-sized prey, like a grouse. You think of all those things that like to eat grouse. We have high populations of many of those species, both mammal and avian predators. We have a lot of concerns out there when it comes to predators."

Looking back on last winter, it would seem the lack of snow in some parts of the Midwest and some cold snaps in others could have affected the number of grouse that carried over to nest this spring.

"What we've had the last two winters -- except for a two- to three-week period this past winter -- is we didn't have a lot of snow in the grouse's region, but we had pretty mild weather," Zimmer said. "We had a couple of weeks of real cold without much snow cover, but that was the most stress the ruffed grouse has had in the winter for the last two years. It wasn't enough to hurt their numbers. They just hunkered down and tried to do their best to get through it. If they had some food nearby, obviously they utilized that. In most cases, we didn't lose any birds.

"Now if we had repeated scenarios like this followed by an icy spring, which causes an ice crust that prevents or hinders feeding, that would have been disastrous," he continued. "But one cold spell didn't faze the birds. It definitely didn't kill birds, although it may have reduced some of the productivity for nesting this past spring."

So, what is the best habitat when it comes to grouse survival?

"Aspen is the key for ruffed grouse," Zimmer said. "While they utilize other habitat, research has shown they can have four times the population in aspen habitat as they can in other forest habitat. Ruffed grouse require dense stem densities and young forests, and their optimum habitat is 5- to 20-year-old aspen stands because it is providing them with secure cover during the spring, summer and fall months. They have to hide. They don't survive by any other method than hiding. That's where they feel comfortable, that's where they feel secure and that's where they like it."

The problem is there are fewer pockets of this cover in the Midwest grouse range because of the way we manage forests today.

"The aspen forest type is declining by about 1 percent per year," Zimmer said. "It has been that way for the last 12 years now. That's because it's getting older and maturing, and we're doing nothing to regenerate it. The choice is being made to move it into an older type, like a hardwood stand or pine.

"I'm not against old forest," Zimmer stressed. "The Ruffed Grouse Society is definitely not against old forest and managing for the white pine resources. We just feel there should be a balance instead of priorities that call for older forests, big trees and beautiful scenic areas. We also look at the same thing for young forests and managing our aspen habitat. It's just as crucial to maintain that habitat for a long time. So, I'm not saying the whole forest should be aspen, but we need to consider the species that use that type of forest for habitat."

The sign this year that points to a great grouse-hunting season is aimed straight at drumming counts. According to Zimmer, it doesn't get much better than right now.

"We had more male drumming this year than we've had in six years," he said. "And while there can be variations from state to state, there won't be much difference between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as far as the weather affecting the hatch. It was consistent across the board. I was even impressed by the drumming counts from the far eastern part of the U.P., and it showed significant increases in the drummers."

There is another pattern that grouse hunters tend to follow, and which tactic they choose will often affect the outcome of their hunts. One pattern works best for the first week or two, while the other provides consistent action throughout the season.

Pattern one is the trail rider. This is the hunter who chooses to drive down well-worn paths and logging trails looking for the grouse that are on these edges picking up gravel and foraging. At the start of the season, this hunter has a high success ratio, but it drops quickly as they kill the ruffs from these spots.

Pattern two is the hunter who goes off the beaten path to wander through the woods, poking around in the best-looking cover in the hope of flushing a bird or two.

There are few hunters who incorporate both scenarios into their game plan for grouse, although that could be the best strategy.

"In the mornings and

late afternoons, the grouse are moving around to feed and they're looking for gravel," Zimmer said. "That's the best time to be working the trails. Me, I like working the backcountry. You'll find plenty of grouse there when the numbers are up."

Should hunters key on those aspen stands, or when the numbers of birds are high, will the pine belts and grassy lowland areas be productive as well? It's a good question, because the thick grass in a lowland swamp looks great for cover, and those thick pine boughs in a pine belt should easily conceal a grouse or two.

The problem with the swamps is that the bird-eating predators like to use this cover, too. And pines just don't seem to be a good choice when the "partridge" are looking for a place to settle in.

"We just have more animals that are adapting well to the landscape, and these predators will knock down the grouse," Zimmer said. "Coyotes, foxes and raccoons are notorious, and opossums that are moving north as the winters are becoming milder are a threat. You never saw opossums in some of these places 20 years ago. There are also more feral cats, which are not only a concern for songbirds, but they have an impact on young grouse as well."

If there is one drawback to a higher grouse population, it is that the number of hunters in the woods goes up as well. The correlation is well documented and it also seems as though the fair-weather hunters who only chase ruffs when the hunting potential is high all like the same spots. This is a warning to search out some of the less popular locations where on a good year you'll find plenty of birds but not too many hunters. These places do exist.

When you do the math, the average hunters -- if they start hunting in their teens -- are only able to hunt the peak of the grouse population cycle about five to seven times in their lifetimes. This makes you realize that during these years when the grouse numbers are at their highest, there is no excuse that is too lame, there is no celebration that can't be missed, there is no weather too inclement and there is nothing short of Armageddon that should keep you from taking advantage of this bounty that nature has delivered. Good luck in the aspen!

(Editor's Note: For more information on the Ruffed Grouse Society, go to www.ruffedgrousesociety.org.)

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