November 06, 2020
Count the flushes. It's something I remind myself every time I turn my dog loose in a grouse covert. Early in my stumble-bumble-fumble grouse hunting career, I learned that passionate hunters thrill as much to hearing the elusive bird escape as they do to shooting one. That should tell you something. Adjusting your expectations is one way to maintain your sanity when hunting these mystical forest dwellers. The fun is in the journey, not the (presumed) destination of meat on the table.
My first grouse hunt resulted in a litany of scratches on me and gouges on my gun, a literal poke in the eye, a lot of gasps and numerous whispered utterances of 'did you hear that?' from my hunting partners. I shared credit on a single bird and still had a wondrous day, because I learned first-hand how ruffed grouse capture the hearts of hunters.
Ruffies are the subject of lore and legend, celebrated in paintings and books, faded magazine covers and whispered tales. Smoky single malts and ancient side-by-sides are part-and-parcel of grousing, where tradition is honored in camps from Maine to Wisconsin.
But it's not really hunting unless there's the possibility of shooting something. To plan your own successful grouse hunt, here's some advice I've complied over the years from pro guides, biologists, avid hunters and other struggling duffers like me who've learned how to hunt grouse the hard way.
The bird: Bonasa umbellus is called by many names, some unprintable in a family magazine. In parts of the West they can be naïve, almost tame. These "fool hens" or "limb fruit," are easily taken with thrown rocks or a canoe paddle. The more sophisticated, hard-hunted birds of the Midwest and East are known in various circles as "drummers," "thunder chickens," "partridge", "mountain pheasants" and "Maine chickens."
A ruffed grouse's daily routine is simple and driven by its stomach, and a savvy hunter will follow its food sources. Grouse forage among thickets of aspen, alder saplings and low-growing shrubs. Food sources vary by region, but soft mast is a good place to start early in the season. Key on berries, mushrooms, wild grapes, forbs and young green leaves, as well as the fruit of dogwoods, sumac and greenbrier. Later in the season, acorns, ferns, alder catkins and buds fuel birds into winter.
Ruffed grouse thrive in young, managed forests, including clear cuts, paper-company land and recovering burns. They'll forage for grit along gravel roads, so if you hunt beyond locked gates, give those some attention. Unless you've got a line on secret coverts, waste little time in deep, dark, mature forest primeval. Edges are another ticket to grouse. Fields next to forest, utility rights-of-way, old orchards abutting conifers, the margins of riparian zones and marshy spots and evergreens near hardwoods all are worth a walk.
LEARN MORE: Grouse Hunting Off the Grid
The Dog: A steady, close-working pointer ensures safe gunning and a chance to get close enough for a shot. Same goes for flushing dogs that "hup," or sit, to flush. A dog that hunts dead after a successful shot will recover more of the game you shoot. Believe me, you'll want to bag every bird you think you hit because there won't be that many. Word to the wise: Ticks are a great annoyance in the grouse woods, so take precautions for both yourself and your canine companion.
The Shot: Skeet shooting was invented by inveterate grouse hunters who wanted to miss fewer birds, and it's a great way to refine your shot prior to hitting the woods. Practice shooting from a low-gun position.
Shooting like a predator—focused intently on the bird and nothing else—can be the difference between an empty vest and bragging rights. Tree trunks, branches, leaves, hinky footing, a morning hangover—they all disappear when you're bearing down on the head, rather than the whole body, of a rising bird. Don't stop walking in on a pointed bird until you're at a spot where you can safely swing your gun. Snap shots are the norm for grouse, but always set your feet before shouldering your gun.
The Gun: Wide-open chokes might get a few pellets into a bird that jinks left when you swing right. Light, easy-swinging doubles are de rigueur, but a gun that instills confidence is paramount. Literature and social media alike are full of .410 and 28-gauge fans, but newbies are better served with a wider pipe. High-base shells in shot size 7 1/2 put a lot of pellets in the air and provide plenty of killing power.
The Other Gear: Briar pants, leather roper gloves and shooting glasses counter the sticking, stinging, gouging stuff you'll encounter in the grouse woods. Your dog will appreciate a vest to turn away sharp branches and roots. Take a map and compass, as some country is steep enough to obstruct GPS satellite and cellular signals. Sturdy, calf-high, waterproof boots help you cope with ankle-twisting deadfalls and swampy ground. A GPS or beeper collar will allow you to keep tabs on your dog, but a good old-fashioned bell works just as well in most places.
The Strategy: Hope and faith dominate the grouse hunter’s mindset. Simply drop the tailgate and loose the hound and you might find a few birds, or, more likely, hear them ghosting away. You'll have more success if you do your homework ahead of time.
Start your scouting at home with Google Earth and maps like those offered by Scout-N-Hunt (mobilehuntingmaps.com), which are designed specifically for upland hunters. The folks at Scout-N-Hunt track timber cuts and burns in grouse-heavy states, giving you a head start on identifying ideal habitat. Target young forests that are 5 to 15 years old and feature plenty of aspen or alder with small-diameter (2 to 4 inches) trunks. Beyond that, ask around. Talk to locals and other hunters. Scour books and the internet. Consume as much grouse knowledge as possible before you even lace up your boots.
The Tactics: Old tote roads and snowmobile trails make for easy walking, but in hard-hunted areas, well-worn paths are the route of many and the salvation of few. Go off-grid, exploring the edges you found on your maps, giving your dog plenty of time to snuffle through the thick stuff. Hustling to a point and keeping your gun at port arms will probably get you a few extra shots over the season.
Ruffed grouse are lauded for their willingness to hold for a pointing dog…until they don't. They might run off before a dog gets close or frustrate your dog by waddling away as he stands, trembling, wondering where the heck you are.
If your dog is steady to flush, send him quickly after a shot because even rag-dead birds will drop far from the feather cloud. Mark the fall carefully. Wing-clipped grouse might glide hundreds of yards and hide, so teach your dog to "hunt dead" and work him into the breeze.
Hunting with a buddy? Up your odds by having one hunter flush the bird while the other sets up for a shot in the direction you think the grouse will fly. Likely bolt holes include an opening in the trees, down a hill and toward a rise or knob in the landscape. If your dog is tracking a bird sneaking off in the underbrush, try getting ahead of its likely route to cut it off.
If you're dogless, you can often get unseen birds into the air by stopping every few dozen yards. Count to 10 and a skittish ruffie might think he's been discovered and take to the air. If there are other hunters in the area, go where you think they've pushed the birds, but do so without intruding on their hunt.
Ultimately, we hunt grouse to walk in beauty, explore magic domains where leaves of gold drift on the wind. We meet ghosts of pioneers and marvel at our dogs' earnestness. Memories make up a successful day in a grouse covert. And we count flushes, because often that's all we bring home.
There's a chance you'll find grouse anywhere you find young, managed forests. Learn the ropes by trying some of these well-known areas around the East.
- Maine: The Golden Road from Millinocket to the Canada Border (1)
- New Hampshire: The Kilkenny Range of the White Mountain National Forest (2)
- Vermont: West Mountain Wildlife Management Area (3)
- Connecticut: Kollar WMA (4)
- New York: Rattlesnake Hill (5) and Erwin (6) WMAs
- Pennsylvania: Raystown Lake (7) and State Game Lands 104 (8)
- West Virginia: Rehabbed coalfields in Mingo (9) and Pocahontas (10) counties
- Virginia: Little North Mountain WMA (11); the VDGIF’s website has a handy "Young Forest Finder"