Zero in on Early-Season Grouse

Find prime ruffed grouse habitat, from swamp edges to alder stands, and you'll discover topnotch grouse sport this season.

Photo by Tom Evans

By Frank Jezioro

It had been a warm and dry September. We planned our yearly trip north to arrive around the first weekend in October, hoping that some of the leaves would have fallen off the trees by then. But after two days of searching the normal covers where one would traditionally find grouse, we were at wits' end. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to meet up with a local biologist who offered his advice.

The first question the biologist asked us was what type cover we were hunting. We explained that we were hunting the uplands in stands of poplar 15 to 20 feet high. "That could be your problem," he said. "It has been dry now for about a month. The grouse seem to have drifted into the bottoms along the swamp edges and creek drainages. Look for corners where alder, aspen and willow come together along the wet spots. Don't be afraid to get your feet wet either. Go into the swamp edges, and I think you will find birds."

Armed with this new knowledge, we were off to an area where we normally find woodcock. This cover was a long, sloping hillside that ended at the edge of a large swamp. In the swamp there were little islands of aspen and alder. The bells were placed on the dogs, and Jan Riffe and I headed into the swamp. We crossed a little water that was about 4 to 6 inches deep. Across this wet spot the land rose a few feet and was covered with aspen, alder and the occasional spruce tree. Everywhere we saw a spruce the land was just high enough to be out of the water.

The dogs hadn't gone 100 yards when we heard a grouse thunder out ahead of them. Another 50 yards and Stoney, our 6-year-old pointer, jacked up in an intense point that told us he had the bird nailed in front of him. Stoney was locked onto a little blow down at the base of a small spruce tree. Jan circled around to the right while I made my way to the left. When I was about 10 yards from the dog, I heard the grouse start out. "Bird!" I yelled out to alert Jan. Before he could pick it up, the grouse disappeared among the leaves of a large alder.

We crossed another wet spot and headed to another island with a few small spruces and some aspen. This time it was our setter, Rocky, that located a grouse. When Rocky's bell fell silent we headed in the direction where we heard him last. Again, the grouse was located near a spruce tree. This time it was a large tree with low-hanging branches that touched the ground. Rocky was sure the bird was there and again we began to circle the dog.

This time it was Jan who flushed the grouse. It came out low, offering a clear crossing-right-to-left shot. As the barrels of the 28 gauge passed the bird, I pulled the front trigger. The bird was no more than 15 to 18 yards away and was hit hard. Rocky was on the bird immediately, scooping it up in his soft mouth for a perfect delivery to hand. The rest of the morning was a repeat of the first two encounters. Almost to a bird, the grouse were found in close proximity to a spruce tree or two surrounded with a little water.

With the coming of October, old Jack Frost will dance across the northern grouse range, splashing the aspen, maple and birch with reds, golds and yellows. This is the time of year that all dedicated grouse hunters wait for. Cool weather comes early and with it the opening of the grouse-hunting season.

Experienced grouse hunters know that no matter where you hunt grouse, there are certain types of cover that the birds will inhabit. Grouse are truly birds of the edge. Edge can mean more than just the edges of fields. In October, hunt along the edges of old fields but also search the edges of rights of ways, creeks, gravel pits and old roads. The point is that you are searching for areas of mixed growth where the ground has been disturbed for some reason. Here is where the various young plants and shrubs will grow.

If there are red hawthorns in the vicinity you hunt, the grouse will find them. As soon as the first frosts knock the little berries to the ground they will attract grouse like a magnet.

Just as grouse live in similar cover no matter where they are found, grouse also prefer certain types of cover in the various sections of their range. While there are similarities in grouse cover across their entire range, there are also definite differences. Grouse in the northern range depend heavily on aspen during the early part of the season. They use these young stands of aspen to rear their broods, and until the leaf cover disappears the birds will stay nearby. The canopy of leaves affords good cover.

While you may be looking for stands of aspen 15 to 20 feet tall, you need to be looking at the ground cover. Grouse walk more than they fly, and they will normally not be found where there is heavy grass on the forest floor. Look for small openings or clearings in the thickest of cover. It is in these clearings that you will find the small green plants that grouse search for.

When looking for ruffed grouse, look for areas where the ground is covered with "salad." This is usually a mixture of small green plants, clover, strawberry leaves and even tiny mushrooms. Though grouse eat a variety of buds, berries and nuts, most of their diet will be made up of greens.

Another type of ground understory that will hold birds in October is witch hazel. This bushy shrub produces small catkins that grouse will feed on. The witch hazel provides both food and cover for the birds and is often the understory of larger stands of aspens and hardwoods. While grouse might prefer a stand of younger-growth aspen or birch or cut-over hardwoods, they will seek out larger, older stands of timber if there is adequate ground cover and a thick understory some 3 to 5 feet high.

One type of cover to avoid is what we call the maple desert. It is seldom that you will find any concentrations of grouse in vast sections of maple forest. Usually a maple forest is so thick that it shades out the ground cover, so there is not enough cover for the birds to hide in and nothing for them to feed on. Because of this we normally won't waste time hunting what we call the "sameness' type of cover. Look for a variety of plants, shrubs and trees.

Look for stands of timber mixed with aspen, spruce, white pine and hardwoods. Search out the lowland pockets where aspen, alder and willow come together. If you are hunting vast stretches of cut-over aspen, look for something different in the stand. Find where there are blowdowns, old logs, stumps or an isolated oak or spruce. These are often sentinels for grouse to congregate around. When hunting a large cutting with the same type of trees, there are basically no objectives to hunt to.

To truly enjoy the great sport of grouse h

unting, a good dog is a necessity. I prefer the pointing breeds, but the flushing breeds are used very effectively, too. Both are excellent retrievers and can save losing birds in heavy cover. If you use a pointing dog it must be staunch above all. The dog can't move once a point is established or the grouse will flush before you get there. If you use a flushing dog, then it should be hunting within 20 to 30 yards at all times or, again, it will flush the grouse before you are within shooting range.

Early in the season many gunners prefer size 8 and 9 shot, as the shots are close and in heavy leaf cover. As the season progresses and the leaves drop, the shots can become farther, so changing to 7 1/2s and 6s is a good choice. A good, fast-handling shotgun in 12, 16, 20 or 28 gauge will work fine with a modified or improved cylinder choke for early-season grouse.

(Editor's Note: If you are interested in more grouse hunting information and stories, you can obtain an autographed copy of Frank Jezioro's book, Grouse, Quail and a Splash of Woodcock, by sending a check or money order for $25 to: Frank Jezioro, Rt. 1 Box 183-A, Flemington, WV, 26347.)

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