July 27, 2021
Jeep has long since departed and I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired, so here goes.
It was 1976, and we were visiting my grandparents in northern rural Vermont one fine autumn day. My grandfather, nicknamed "Jeep" because of the post-World War II Jeep Willys he drove, decided to take me for a walk in the woods. We carried a single-shot .22 and we were accompanied by a grossly overweight beagle.
We weren’t overly stealthy, but as we approached a stand of wild apple trees, Jeep stopped me, whistled the dog over and pointed out a ruffed grouse pecking away on the ground some 15 yards ahead. He pulled back the hammer of the .22, handed it to me and told me to try to shoot the grouse.
So I did. With a single shot. From a .22. Stone dead.
In the 40-some-odd years since that walk in the woods with Jeep, I’ve gone on to shoot a lot more grouse (though I’ve missed even more). I’ve traded in the rimfire for a classic American shotgun. My first grouse was the only one I’ve ever shot with the help of a beagle. These days it’s a French Brittany, German shorthair or even Labs.
I’ve chased ruffed grouse in Wisconsin and Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick and places in between. And while I still hunt in northern Vermont, grouse hunting has transformed dramatically in a generation.
If you’ve never been a serious grouse hunter, this story is for you. There’s plenty of fun and natural history to find enjoyment in being the kind of upland bird hunter that occupies that space between using a .22 and a fat beagle and having a professionally trained pointer and a high-price shotgun.
While times have changed and grouse populations are on a heart-breaking decline, there’s no better place to be a fledging bird hunter than in the northeastern U.S.
Grouse Are Where You Find Them
Throughout North America, ruffed grouse are generally found along the 45th parallel, which is located halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. In the U.S., ruffed grouse occur in the greatest numbers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Along the fringes, states like West Virginia and Virginia have small, but huntable, populations, particularly in the mountainous regions.
Regardless of the state, the key to finding grouse is finding the right habitat, and that means finding what are known as "early successional forests." In a nutshell, these are young forests where there is an abundance of flowering plants, browse, insects and soft mast.
Admittedly, finding early successional habitat is getting tougher throughout most of the ruffed grouse’s range. The loss of this type of habitat, which requires active logging, natural disturbance or management, is one reason why grouse numbers are in steep decline, along with other critters like songbirds and butterflies.
With plenty of places in the region not holding any grouse to speak of, where do you begin to look? The commercially logged paper lands in Maine, northern New Hampshire and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom are the honey holes here. The Tug Hill Plateau in northern New York is a solid bet, too. In Pennsylvania, where the ruffed grouse are the official state bird, the central part of the state in the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains are the hotspots. In West Virginia, the mountains of Randolph and Greenbrier counties still hold decent numbers of birds.
A general rule of thumb is that the woodlots where you find whitetails will quite often be where you also find ruffed grouse—except in New Jersey. While the Garden State has plenty of deer, it serves as a cautionary tale for the future of ruffed grouse in the region. In 2019, after decades of habitat loss and changes in farming practices, New Jersey stopped offering a ruffed grouse season for hunters. Let’s hope that isn’t a bellwether for other Northeastern states.
A Dog’s Life
Hardcore grouse hunters have argued long and loud for decades about the best dog to use when hunting ruffed grouse. There are two factions, each ready to go to war with the other: pointer partisans and flusher fanatics.
Look at the paintings of David Maass to see how a pointer is supposed to work. It smells the bird, pins in a frozen state and the hunter approaches to shoot the bird as it flushes in a thicket of alders and apple trees. It doesn’t always work that way, but when it does it’s magical.
A flusher—typically a springer or cocker spaniel—hoovers around the woods, getting on the scent of the birds and flushing them toward the hunter. Flushers don’t always work perfectly either, but it, too, is pretty special when it all comes together.
Labs generally work as flushers (some will point, but that’s a whole other war being fought elsewhere). If you’ve got a half-trained Lab that may be your duck dog, it’s better than no dog at all.
And, despite what the purists say, you can hunt grouse without dogs. It’s a lot of work, and a good dog increases your success rate exponentially, but it can be done.
Guns and Such
In the grouse-hunting game, it’s easy to spend thousands of dollars on beautiful side-by-side shotguns. Traditional American classics like Parkers and A.H. Foxes harken back to an era of vest-wearing, pipe-smoking gentleman like Burton Spiller, whose written works (read Drummer in the Woods if you can find it) remain today as the legacy of the poet laureate of grouse hunting in the 20th century. But any shotgun, in gauges 12, 16 or 20 will work. It’s likely more grouse have been killed with the Remington 870 than all the European brands combined.
You’ll need your gun’s chokes to be as wide open as you can get. My go-to gun is a 20-gauge over-under with skeet 1 and improved cylinder tubes. A modified choke will suffice, barely. Grouse have glass jaws and you don’t need to center them to bring them down. Stack the odds in your favor by getting that pattern as wide open as possible.
While ammo supplies across the country have been abysmal for the past few years, grouse loads are easy to find at gun shops and big-box stores alike. No matter the gauge, shot sizes of 7 1/2, 8 and 9 will do the trick.
If you’re going to chase grouse more than once a year, do yourself a favor and buy a good pair of brush pants. Sure, heavy-duty Carhartts can work (as can jeans, in a pinch), but grouse, as we noted, often live in some of the nastiest, thickest parts of the woods. There will be briars. There will be brambles. Anything but brush pants (or chaps) will come out torn and shredded.
A pair of leather gloves is a must. You can always tell a hard-core grouse hunter by the number of scrapes and cuts on his hands come October. A good pair of shooting glasses is strongly recommended, mostly for your own protection. A game vest is a good idea to carry shells and, hopefully, dead birds. A water bottle, too. You will likely work up a sweat.
And don’t skimp on your footwear. Ruffed grouse hunting requires putting in some miles, so quality hiking boots or lightweight hunting boots are key. Good wool socks help, too. Don’t go into a grouse cover with Nikes and gym socks.
Also, don’t overlook the importance of wearing lots of hunter orange. Grouse will flush at the most inopportune times in the thickest cover, and you’ll want to know where others are before you pull the trigger as much as you’ll want them to know exactly where you are.
Hunting Tricks and Tips
Here you are. You found a good piece of habitat, loaded with briars and brambles (also, some softwoods that provide roosting cover during inclement weather). You’ve got your trusty 20 gauge. Maybe you have a Labrador or a friend’s bird dog at your side. You’ve got some brush pants and plenty of hunter orange. You’re ready to hunt.
While ruffed grouse certainly live in some of the deepest, darkest parts of the forest, they also are attracted to gravel for the grit they need to aid digestion. That means you don’t always need to get far into the woods to find them. As soon as you enter a grouse cover or venture off an old logging road, be ready.
You will burn boot leather (and, as an added bonus, calories), so be prepared to walk. A slow, steady walk is best, and don’t worry much about making noise. Once you find lots of apples, aspens or alders be on the lookout. These are the foods grouse love. If a bird flushes and you either have no shot (likely) or miss it all together (more likely), don’t be afraid to follow up where you think the bird might have flown. Grouse typically don’t go more than 100 yards before landing again.
Most of all, enjoy yourself. We may be long past the "good old days" of grouse hunting in the northeastern United States, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some great days in the woods right now.