Efficient Grouse Scouting Tips
September 28, 2010
Before your boots hit the ground, use these tips to develop a comprehensive plan for successful grouse hunting.
I was grouse hunting: my hat knocked off, scratches on my forehead and cheek oozing blood, my right hand clutching my shotgun, my left hand clawing for an opening through a dense thicket consisting of both greenbrier and mountain laurel interwoven throughout the 15-year-old clear-cut. I was fighting to keep up with my orange-vested, 11-month-old golden, which was in full throttle, pushing a now-panicked grouse hard. Gasping for air, busting through brush so thick I wanted to yell "Uncle," I continued on.
Author Tom Tutwiler, with one of his dogs, Gracie, holds up the result of a careful scouting plan: two grouse. Photo by Tom Tutwiler.
As I struggled to break free from the tangles, I realized I was now stuck like a bug caught in a spider's web. The more I struggled the tighter the web got. As I hung there, trying to figure out a realistic exit strategy, the grouse couldn't take the pressure of the pup any more, and launched himself skyward presenting a relatively easy quartering shot at 15 yards.
I made a halfhearted attempt to free my right arm in order to snap off a shot, but the thicket held me like a vise. I watched the grouse fly away, mocking me as he continued his frenzied wing-beats for another second or two, and then set his wings and sailed down the mountain side. I slowly backed out of the trap, feeling the greenbrier release me thorn-by-razor-sharp thorn. Admitting defeat, I called my young Golden pup Gracie back and gave her a pat on the head in recognition for a job well done.
Mark it down: grouse six, me zero, on that foggy morning last December. I was hunting on a 40-acre parcel of clear-cut grouse nirvana I had located on public land. Six flushes in little more than one hour is seldom seen by today's grouse hunters in the East, as populations as a general rule are declining though out the North-East and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Preparation for this hunt was a culmination of hours of planning. Today's grouse hunter in many ways has it much easier then his predecessors, because he has access to better equipment and technology, but the biggest difference between today's grouse hunting and the hunting of years past isn't advances in equipment: it's the prey itself, or rather where the prey now resides. As forests have matured throughout the grouse's range, the availability of prime grouse habitat has dwindled correspondingly.
Mature forests mean less understory growth and a corresponding lack of preferred food and cover for grouse, which in turn results in declining flush rates.
Prime grouse habitat on public land for the most part these days means hunting clear cuts or areas where timber has been selectively cut. These timber harvesting practices open up the understory to new growth, which creates perfect grouse habitat by providing the three essentials for grouse: food, shelter and nesting cover.
In the case of today's grouse, perhaps 90 percent of the birds reside in less than 1 percent of the forest. Therefore the hunter who can locate that 1 percent of productive grouse cover certainly increases his flush rates.
Paradoxically, the first step in increasing your odds in the grouse woods is to wade through some research before wading through brush (there will be plenty of time for that later). Simply put, don't just work harder, work smarter.
Increasing your flush rates these days means having a sound strategy in place, and scouting in advance of hitting the woods. I've come up with the following game plan that has worked for me.
1. Get a Delorme Gazetteer (available on line) and contact your state game biologists by phone (e-mails isn't the way to go). Speak to their upland game biologist about grouse populations residing on public land. Have a highlighter handy and mark the recommended areas on the Gazetteer and specifically ask where clear cutting (or selective cutting) has been done within those recommended areas and pay particular attention to places on the map with known grouse populations and clearcuts. Lastly, find out who manages the clear-cutting for the state and get a name and contact number.
2. Contact the timber manager by phone (follow-up e-mails come later). Tell them you are a grouse hunter and the biologist who provided their name to you, (referrals are easier -- trust me) and ask them to provide details on clear cuts they manage. My experience is there are normally three age classes of clear cuts, those cut 1-5 years ago, 5-15 years (the best), and 15 years and up. In some cases they have even provided me detailed maps of the logged areas. Those maps consist of thousands of acres of clear cuts; more than I could ever hunt.
3. The final pre-departure check before you launch out on a hunt is to use overhead imagery to further narrow down those areas you want to try. Websites such as Google Earth, MapQuest, Bing (all free I might add) and many others allow you the opportunity to use imagery provided by satellite to look closely at targeted clear cuts, determine terrain features, road accessibility, streams, etc. Also, don't rely on just one overhead satellite imagery provider, as some overheads provide much greater resolution then others. By carefully looking at satellite imagery, you can quickly locate the clear cuts you've already gotten leads on. Just as importantly, look at those areas surrounding those clear cuts. Look for streams and large trees such as evergreens that can provide good thermal cover when there's snow on the ground. Also, determine whether there are southern facing slopes close to the clear cuts, where grouse will be sunning themselves on a frigid winter day.
Following the three-step process outlined above will help you search more efficiently, but obviously it won't alleviate the need for boots on the ground to see with your own eyes and ears (you hear far more grouse flushing then you actually see) whether or not an area holds grouse.
Hunting with some of the best grouse hunters I know has taught me that good grouse cover is thick and nasty stuff for the most part, and that's precisely the make up of most 10- to 15-year-old clearcuts. Clearcuts provides ample food and great escape cover from both ground (two and four legged) predators as well as avian predators (hawks and owls).
Sure, an old abandoned apple orchard is Nirvana, but those are becoming harder and harder to find -- hence the need to target clear cuts, which are productive both early and late in the season. My last important tip is if you can find wild grapes within a clear cut, you will find birds.
The true goal in doing one's homework is to eliminate unproductive areas in advance of spending the time, physical ef
fort and funds (gas isn't cheap) required to hunt them. While putting birds in the bag is only part of what grouse hunting is about, it's more fun to find more birds during your time spent in the field. I believe if you do your homework and you plan accordingly, you can reach a level of success you probably haven't achieved in the past. Give it a shot, and I'll bet your will see your flush rates really increase.