The classic paintings of gentlemen hunting ruffed grouse are wonderfully nostalgic, but also amusing to anyone who actually hunts grouse.
By Frank Miniter
The reality is the grouse hunter is in stout boots and brush pants and maybe some kind of upland coat with a game pouch he hopes (and hopes) will have the warm weight of a 20-ounce bird in it more than once during the season.
To get there, he knows tricks that savvy hunters learn to up their odds on these wily, fast-flushing little game birds. He knows his tricks won’t work all the time, or even most of the time, but he also knows this is a game of odds and skill.
Hunt When the Forest is Right
Good things are always worth doing, but there is a best time to do anything, and the best time to hunt ruffed grouse is when autumn forests have gone from being lightly colored with autumn pastels to full flame to a week after peak color.
For the grouse hunter, this is the ideal moment in the cycle of the seasons when the forests sing of grouse.
The whitetail rut is weeks away and the forest floor is as bright as the trees still speckled with color were a week before.
A few days earlier and, sure, there might be plenty of grouse, but you won’t see many of them flush. You’ll just hear them pound away behind screens of leaves. If you wait too long, the cover fades and the raptors have thinned out the unlucky and the inexperienced grouse — the ones left will flush wild, hide or run.
Cornering them for a flush is harder. It is still worth it, of course, but harder to do. Missing the best part of the season is like showing up to a surprise party late when the cake is crumbs and the excitement is a low din.
SET THE TABLE
AS YOU NEAR likely cover, look for angles of approach that will keep the sun out of your eyes and force a grouse to flush where you might get a shot. They won’t flush into the open, but you can make them flush into semi-open woods.
Approach Cover Wisely
Often the cover is a logging road winding through a forest that was cut some years before and is all growing up in grouse-attracting brambles of saplings and thorns. All you can do with these is try to walk without the sun in your eyes as you approach each piece of cover from the best angle you can get, always knowing a grouse could be anywhere.
Many covers aren’t so simple. When you hunt a place a few times you’ll find that grouse are more often in certain places and that they like to flush in certain ways.
Approach the cover and stop frequently, as grouse will often hide but then get nervous and flush when you stop.
Also, if a bird flushes but you don’t get on it, shoulder your gun anyway and stay ready. Often, especially in the early fall, there is a second and even third bird there for you to flush.
When you’re without a dog, you need to force these grouse to flush a way they don’t want to go. One spot I’m fond of is a tangle of wild grapevines that seems to always have a grouse or two during middle to late fall. But if I approach it from the natural direction — down a winding logging road — the grouse flush out the back and curve fast out of sight downhill into a sea of brush growing where seeps keep the forest in perpetual rot.
Instead, I’ve learned to cut through a thicket while staying as quiet as the fallen leaves will let me and to hit the tangle along a contour line. This makes the birds bust out over an open brook that tumbles down the mountain right behind the grapevines.
Each cover is different, but too many hunters just walk the usual paths. Stop and consider the cover and learn from previous hunts. Pressure will change the grouse’s routines fast, but previous years can tell you a lot. You’ll soon learn when to go off trail, even where to use the crest of a ridge or other cover as you approach a likely spot.
Target Food Sources
Grouse eat buds, leaves, seeds, fruits, berries, acorns and insects. Later in the winter, ruffed grouse almost exclusively live on the dormant buds or catkins of trees such as those on aspens, birches, cherries, ironwood, apple trees and filberts.
Most grouse hunters aren’t looking specifically for a certain type of food, as grouse eat such a variety of things that this can be difficult.
Also, autumn is a time of plenty in the forest, so hunters look for specific types of cover.
Some prefer to keep it casual and to have some wonderful walks in autumn forests with a shotgun in the crook of an arm and the hope of a flush ahead. Others, like me, love that, too, but are always looking to understand what grouse are eating and how they use cover. In the fall, a grouse’s territory might be only 20 acres, so you can and will come to know certain birds.
As you understand them and learn certain covers, you naturally fall into a harmony with them and the seasons. This is why Corey Ford wrote, “The past never changes. You leave it and go on to the present, but it is still there, waiting for you to come back to it.”