How to Outwit Clearcut Grouse

Habitat conditions have changed from classic overgrown farmlands to modern clearcuts over much of the Northeast, but that is no reason to stop grouse hunting.

by Bob Humphrey

The Golden Age of grouse hunting is pictured in myriad examples of sporting art where, against the backdrop of a sea of golden aspen leaves, a brace of fine setters locks on point beneath a long-neglected apple tree.

Unfortunately, those scenes are disappearing as fast as the habitat those pictures depict. Classic abandoned farmsteads have either grown up into mature timber or have been carved up and sold to make room for an ever-increasing human population.

Old fields, abandoned farms and orchards are becoming few and far between, and morning hunts that once consisted of driving from one prime pocket to another are becoming passe.

Fortunately, wildlife managers understand the importance of creating and maintaining clearings and stands of regenerating cover for grouse and other upland game. These habitat conditions also occur as side effects of commercial timber harvesting on federal or commercial properties.

Most of our national forests are under some sort of active forest management and are open to hunting. In the South, most private land is leased, but paper companies in most northeastern states allow free-access hunting on their land. Some even encourage it.

There are still plenty of birds and places to pursue them. But both grouse and hunters must learn to adapt to different habitats.

Photo by Tom Evans

Clearcutting was actually going on long before the Industrial Revolution, and older sportsmen who grew up hunting in and around the cuts already know many of the hows and whys of hunting those suddenly-altered landscapes. The rest of us have had to learn it the hard way.

As a young wildlife biology student, one of the first things I was taught was the importance of edges, or as we scholars called them, "acetones." This is the transition between mature forest and open land or regeneration. Edge is important because it provides a combination of cover types in close proximity to each other. The forest provides shelter, cover, and roost and nest sites for grouse, deer and squirrels, but blocks much of the sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Meanwhile along the edge, sunlight can penetrate, resulting in a lush supply of plant and insect foods. In open habitat there is abundant food but less cover. That is why you'll find the greatest concentration of upland game along the edges of such cover, and this is especially true for grouse.

Clearcuts provide a bumper crop of preferred foods such as berries and leaves. At dawn, grouse will fly into the open clearcuts to feed, and you may find them well away from the treeline. By midmorning, when most gentleman bird hunters are afield, they'll most likely be along the edges, where food is still abundant but cover is but a few wing beats away. Clearcuts with uneven edges are better for obvious reasons - they have more edge!

In addition to providing better cover, there's another good reason to hunt the edges of cuts. As alluded to above, the grouse's primary means of escape is to fly through thick cover. When flushed, they'll most often head back toward the woods. A hunter with dogs should stay toward the woded edge and let the dogs work into the middle of the cutting.

A pair of dogless hunters can also team up using the same strategy. In the latter case the "dog" may get shots at close-flushing birds. Meanwhile, his partner should be on full alert because by the time the birds reach the wood line, they'll be flying under a full head of steam.

An even better situation is where several clearcuts occur in close proximity, such as in a checkerboard pattern. This is where a little scouting can really pay off. The easiest method is to drive on back roads and scout new clearcuts, a great way to spend a late summer or early autumn day. If you don't have the time or the means for that, a recent set of aerial photos will serve you just as well. You can also get some good information by paying a visit to the local wildlife or forestry office, or the commercial forester if you're hunting private land. They'll usually have detailed maps showing the location, age and species composition of various clearcuts.

Another advantageous by-product of logging is dirt roads. Grouse are gallinaceous birds, and after feeding they typically ingest gravel, which they use to help grind up food in their gizzard. Thus, late in the morning you'll often find birds picking gravel on open skid roads and in log yarding areas. A leisurely stroll down an old tote road around noon can be a productive way to end a morning's hunt.

Grouse also seek out bare patches of dry, sandy soil so they can dust themselves. You'll sometimes see small, rounded depressions where they've taken a dust bath to rid themselves of parasites. Take note of such areas for future midday hunting forays.

Even better than clearcuts are shelterwood cuts. In a shelterwood cut, most of the marketable timber is cut, but the best trees are left to provide seed and partial shading for regeneration. Under such management virtually the entire cut area serves as edge cover, providing ideal habitat for grouse.

While grouse can obtain most of the moisture they need from moisture in the vegetation they eat, water still plays an important role, especially in the clearcuts. Most state regulations prohibit the cutting of vegetation in and adjacent to wetlands, but these areas are naturally more difficult to work in. Thus, most woodcutters avoid them and more edge cover is likely to exist wherever wetlands occur in clearcuts.

Furthermore, the moist soil in these wet areas promotes better succulent growth, and thus more food is provided for the birds. Stream corridors are especially bountiful, their long, linear edges winding sinuously through the middle of clearcuts. These moist bottoms are also favored by woodcock, which can provide a nice bonus when in season.

Another beneficial aspect of clearcutting is that the two species that most often invade newly cut areas, birch and aspen, are favorites of the grouse. An area managed specifically for grouse may have several adjacent cuts of different ages. New cuts provide brood cover and abundant insect life for the rapidly growing young. Regenerating stands provide abundant fall foods, and mature stands provide an important source of winter food where

the birds can pick buds from the treetops, safe from deep snow and predators.

The savvy clearcut hunter can exploit these seasonal preferences on well-managed land. Early in the season, you may find birds around the newest cuts, particularly if insects are still abundant. During most of the hunting season, however, you'll find birds in the younger pole-stage stands, which offer some overstory protection from avian predators such as the goshawk, but still receive enough sunlight to have lush ground cover. Late in the season, you may find birds in the older stands as they switch their diet to buds and catkins.

Late-season hunters should also take note of topography and surrounding cover. As winter's cold sets in, grouse will seek protection from the elements, and they'll find it most often in softwood stands and below east-facing slopes. They'll still move into the clearcuts to feed, and you'll most often find them in areas adjacent to good cover.

Despite what some hunters may tell you, size does matter, at least when it comes to clearcuts. The edge effect only goes so far. In clearcuts of 50 acres or less, you could flush a bird almost anywhere. However, when you get up into the 100 acre-plus range, your best odds are nearer the edges, unless there are wetlands or watercourses in the interior of the cut.

One last word of advice about hunting clearcuts. In the north woods there's a saying: If you flush a grouse in a clearcut with one standing tree, it will somehow put that tree between you and he. Speaking from experience, there's a lot of truth to that. The bird erupts from a tangle of brambles with a thunderous roar that starts the heart pounding. You mount your gun and follow the bird, swinging past and just ahead. Then, at the precise moment your finger touches the trigger, your vision is suddenly obstructed by an old snag that absorbs a full load of No. 7 1/2s. The bird reappears, unscathed, on the other side, sets its wings in a pert salute and glides to the far side of the cut.

It's frustrating for sure, but that's why they call it hunting!

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