November 16, 2016
Add ruffed grouse to the list of game species that love acorns — along with white-tailed deer, black bears and turkeys.
Whenever and wherever there's a good acorn crop where ruffed grouse are found, these game birds will be drawn to the mast crop like a magnet. If you think acorns are too large for these wild chickens to eat, guess again. They don't have any trouble swallowing the nuts whole and their digestive systems are designed for breaking down the shells and their contents.
But grouse are not above simply pecking away at the exposed nuts that are present along woods roads after acorns have been driven over by passing vehicles, breaking the shells open in the process. In fact, one of the ways my brother Bruce and I hunt ruffed grouse where acorns are dropping is to walk along backwoods roads where the nuts litter the ground. We always flush plenty of birds, but that does not always guarantee one or more of them will be added to our game bags.
On a hunt in 2015, for example, Bruce spent the last three hours of the day walking along a gravel road through oak woods where acorns carpeted the ground. He flushed a total of 10 grouse, but failed to get a single shot at those birds. Since leaves had not yet started to fall, the foliage was so thick that Bruce was not able to see the flying birds long enough to take a shot.
Shot opportunities at flushing grouse are much better after leaf fall. Visibility is so much better then that it's possible to swing on flushing birds and follow their flight long enough to get more shots. There's still no guarantee those shots will connect, but the more shots you get the better the odds of collecting grouse for the table.
Even before leaf fall, it's still possible to score on ruffed grouse in the oaks. It just depends on the circumstances. Some days are better than others. Bruce also hunted grouse along woods roads through the oaks earlier in the season last fall. He only saw four grouse one day, but he managed to shoot two of them for a 50 percent rate of success.
Like deer, grouse prefer acorns from white oak trees over those from red oaks, but they will eat all types of acorns. So if white oak acorns are present, concentrate your grouse hunting efforts there. If there are only red oaks where you hunt grouse, the birds are bound to be among them when acorns are present.
Also like deer, grouse benefit nutritionally from acorns, enabling them to put on enough fat reserves to help them survive winter. One study determined that grouse chick survival was greater in years following heavy mast production, too. So there's a link between reproductive success of ruffed grouse and abundance of acorns. An abundance of acorns also can mean better hunting success for hunters who know enough to take advantage of the mast crop to find birds.
We prefer 12-gauge shotguns for grouse hunting, but 20s with 3-inch shells are a good choice. I know some avid 16-gauge owners, however, who swear by them and won't use anything else. Improved-cylinder barrels are great for grouse hunting, but modified choke tubes work fine. In fact, barrels with modified chokes can be an advantage after leaf fall when the average distance of shots can be farther than in the early season.
We use shells loaded with No. 7 1/2 or 8 shot before leaf fall and 7 1/2s or 6s after leaf fall. No. 6 shot can be an advantage late in the season when grouse sometimes flush 25 to 30 yards away. We also tend to use high-brass shells with heavier loads late in the season, so there's still a good pattern density with the larger shot to help bring birds down.
Although Bruce tends to favor an over-and-under, I prefer a pump-action shotgun for the greater shell capacity. It's not unusual to flush two or three birds from the same vicinity, but we occasionally encounter a covey of grouse containing six or more birds that flush one after the other. It's extremely difficult to reload a double gun fast enough to take full advantage of the action that develops when a covey of grouse is encountered.
One day while hunting the oaks, Bruce happened upon a covey of grouse at the intersection of two logging roads where a patch of raspberry brush provided plenty of cover for the group of birds. He saw a grouse run into the brush as he approached, so he was ready for it to flush when he got close, but he had no idea multiple grouse were present.
He dropped the first bird in a cloud of feathers. The second and third birds caught him off guard. He missed the fourth bird that flushed and stood there with an empty gun as several more grouse took off at different times from slightly different locations.
We don't restrict our grouse hunting in the oaks to woods roads that could be driven, of course. We also walk overgrown logging roads, swamp edges bordering stands of oaks, creek bottoms, and we sometimes go cross-country. Grouse will be anywhere there are acorns on the ground.
After leaf fall, oak woods can look too open for grouse, but there's still plenty of cover for these mid-sized game birds to hide. Oak stands that have a good mix of young evergreen trees and brush sometimes hold more grouse after leaves have fallen. That's due to the added cover. When walking through the oaks to hunt grouse, I often pause for a minute or two when I'm close to evergreen trees or a patch of brush that I think might harbor a hiding grouse.
When you stop, hiding grouse sometimes think they've been detected, and will flush. If you keep walking at a steady pace, grouse may hunker down and remain hidden until you have passed them by.
Although we usually don't hunt grouse with a dog in the oaks, there certainly is plenty of opportunity to do so. Sunny fall days with little wind are among the best for ruffed grouse hunting. It's sometimes possible to hear the birds walking in the leaves when walking along sandy or gravel woods roads. Grouse are most active early and late in the day, but they can be encountered at any time.
Windy days are among the worst to hunt ruffed grouse. The birds tend to hide in thick cover, making them hard to find. When you do find them, they tend to flush wild.