October 30, 2020
Grouse hunters are predictable. Provide them with a two-track or logging road through a parcel of big woods, and most will stick to it. They'll point their dogs into the trailside cover and walk the easy route in and out. They'll kill a few birds, but not many—and that number will decrease as the season progresses.
In other words, trail hunting is often mediocre at best. If you want to experience less-pressured birds and find far more of them, you'll have to operate differently than your competition.
FROM ON HIGH
Big-game hunters rely on satellite imagery for many reasons, but the tool hasn’t quite caught on as well in the upland world. This is a shame because taking a 30,000-foot view of your hunting grounds can help you tailor your routes to hunt the off-trail places that are most likely to hold birds.
Whether we're hunting northern Minnesota, Wisconsin or some other state, my buddies and I always scout new ground before we ever lace up our boots. Noting access is the first step, but after that, it’s time to zoom in and figure out where swamp edges are or where two types of cover meet in a hard or soft edge.
A hard edge, like one found along a fresh clearcut, can be a good area to run the dogs. But soft edges, like where conifers meet an alder thicket, can be killer. Grouse, like whitetails, love soft edges, but they really love them when they aren't easily accessible by hunters.
Finding these and planning routes according to the wind (to help the dogs) is a good bet for efficient hunting throughout the day. It's also worth noting that you might locate an old homestead, which could have some long-ago-planted apple trees or other soft mast grouse prefer, or you just might stumble upon an agricultural field tucked into some cover. A lot of hunters think that ruffs won’t eat corn or soybeans and opt solely for catkins and buds, but the crops in some of the birds we kill every year tell a different story.
Although you won't know whether these spots actually hold birds until you start hunting, a lot of potential grouse-holding areas can be identified long before you hit the woods, which is the best first step toward a limit.
When newbie bass anglers enter the tournament scene, they often try to find a single spot loaded with big fish. They usually don't succeed, and if they do find one, the competition usually isn't far behind. Veteran anglers prefer to identify patterns and fish multiple spots that should hold good fish in different areas. Doing so allows them to piece together a big bag without having to gamble on a single location.
Grouse hunters should think similarly. You're not likely to pull up some aerial photography and find 5 or 10 acres loaded with ruffs. Instead, you'll find routes that should put you in flushes all day long. But your job doesn't end there.
Pay attention to the types of habitat where you find birds. It's easy to think that ruffs aimlessly pick their way through the brush all day, and that every encounter with one is just happenstance. Nature doesn’t work that way.
Wherever you find ruffs, there will be a reason they are there and usually a clue to where you can find more. Maybe the birds seem to be localized in the high woods, where deciduous forests and subtle ridges dominate. Or maybe they are tucked tight into woodcock territory, where the ground squishes underfoot and the cover is tight. Whatever the case, there is a reason, and it’s your job to make note of the flushes and at least ask yourself why a bird was where it was.
The last, unfortunate, reality of going off-trail for grouse is that you'll inevitably end up in the thick stuff. The easy swing with an over/under on a trail-crossing flush just isn't going to happen here. That means you'll have to bust brush to keep up with the dog and always be thinking about how shots might unfold.
With a flusher, it's imperative that the dog is close-working. When it gets birdy, be on the lookout for a place where you can pause momentarily and have space to shoulder your gun and aim. Where possible, following your dog via a deer trail will provide a little extra room to maneuver.
If you're running a pointer, it's a totally different story—an easier story in most cases. This is generally why a lot of diehard grouse hunters aren't following Labs through the big woods. However, a beautiful tripod point in the thick stuff is a different thing entirely than one along the edge of a mowed two-track. Be sure to think about the likeliest direction of flight when the grouse eventually flushes and how you'll swing on him.
Any time your dog puts a bird up, pay attention to where the bird goes if it doesn't catch a couple BBs in the boiler room. Re-flushes are possible, but only if you know where to concentrate your efforts.
It's not easy hunting, but it can be productive. And if you choose to go off-trail and hunt where others don't, you'll find that the number of birds you encounter will be considerably higher than what most locals will tell you to expect.
A Superior Spot: Encompassing nearly 4 million acres in northeastern Minnesota, Superior National Forest is a grouse hunter's dream. A long history of timber production has produced more potential ruff hot spots than you could hunt in a thousand lifetimes, so anyone looking to separate from crowds can certainly do it here. Several campgrounds are scattered throughout this massive public parcel, making a destination trip absolutely worth it.
Northwoods Nirvana: Wisconsin’s another grouse-trip candidate. While you can pretty much find birds anywhere in the northern half of the Badger State, provided you’ve got enough ground to cover, a better bet is starting at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. With 1.5 million acres of Northwoods available throughout 11 different counties, this massive expanse of open-to-all ground is an ideal setting for ruffs and woodcock.
Hidden GEMS: At just a shade under a million acres, the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a great spot to start your ruffed grouse search. But don't forget that the state also offers properties in the Upper and northern Lower Peninsula through its Grouse Enhanced Management Sites (GEMS) program. These areas offer some of the best grouse habitat on public ground anywhere, and will provide a good opportunity to get off-trail and onto some flushes.
WALK FOR WOODCOCK
Although your focus will be on ruffs, don’t forget that in many states October is prime time for the woodcock migration. While they often inhabit the same cover as grouse, timberdoodles will also be found in lower ground where their favorite food is most available. Wetlands and low spots are easy to identify via aerial imagery, so mark a few potential spots and swing through them on your grouse walks. You might find your grouse hunt suddenly turns into a multi-species trip by altering your route just slightly.
Synchronize Your Setups: A quality e-collar is a must for most grouse dogs, and it’s pretty tough to beat Dogtra’s latest, the 3502X ($499.99; dogtra.com), especially if you're running a pair of retrievers or pointers. Thanks to its DUAL DIAL transmitter, the 3502X allows for seamless switching between dogs without having to mess with individual stimulation levels. It also boasts a 1.5-mile range, is IPX9K-certified waterproof and features single-button nick/constant stimulation.
Safe Travels: Whether your best grouse cover is three miles from home or 300, keep your dog safe en route with the Lucky Kennel Intermediate ($499.99; luckyduck.com) from Lucky Duck. This American-made kennel owns a Five Star Crash Test Rating from the Center For Pet Safety, weighs only 38 pounds, features non-slip rubber feet and is held together with stainless-steel hardware.
Gut Check: The current research dedicated to understanding the gut microbiome in dogs is groundbreaking, and the results pretty much all point to the importance of promoting and maintaining the right bacteria. This is accomplished through probiotics, like those found in Purina Pro Plan’s FortiFlora Chewable Tablets ($44.99; purina.com). Not only does FortiFlora promote proper gut health, but it also enhances a dog’s immune system and is safe to use for dogs of all ages, including puppies.
Protect Your Pooch: Containing both glucosamine and creatine, Happy Jack’s Flexenhance Plus+ ($33; happyjackinc.com) is an excellent daily supplement for keeping hard-charging grouse dogs going all season. Not only does it help reverse bone, joint and cartilage damage, but Flexenhance Plus+ also aids in mobility, endurance and overall strength.
Occasionally, we hear about how, after an unseasonably warm pheasant opener, a few hunters ran their out-of-shape dogs to death. This isn’t just a concern on the prairie, however.
According to Eukanuba Pro Josh Miller, who owns Riverstone Kennels in Wisconsin, hydration and proper feeding are key for grouse dogs, too.
"Always have extra water on hand, even if it isn’t overly warm, and make sure to take breaks," he says. "It's easy to get in the groove and keep pushing it, but you've got to give your dog a chance to relax and actually drink. High-drive dogs won’t do that on their own if there is any indication the hunt is going to keep progressing."
Once hydration's covered, consider your dog’s fuel. Many hunters think dogs enjoy snacking throughout the day as much as they do. But dogs evolved from wolves, which might not get a meal for a day or more. When they eat, they eat big. And they can derive energy from that for a long time.
Feed your dog consistent, quality food with enough protein and fat to fuel a day’s hunt. Eukanuba's Premium Performance 30/20 blend ($49.49; eukanuba.com), with 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat for balanced nutrition and peak performance afield, is one choice.
Also, note your dog's energy level. If he's hitting a wall during the hunt, his calorie intake might be too low. Realize how many cups of food he needs daily to stay healthy and active on the hunt.