Successful ruffed grouse hunters think in terms of opportunities rather than bag limits, though the first can lead to the second. They put themselves in the right place at the right time, then they make the right moves. Whether you hunt with or without a dog, your success depends on knowing something about the birds, where they’re likely to be and what they’ll be doing as autumn progresses.
There are no shortcuts in grouse hunting, no gimmicks, no tricks to make it simpler. “Easy” is rarely part of a grouse hunter’s lingo. The only angle we have is our knowledge of where grouse live and what they need to survive.
In general, prime ruffed grouse habitat tends to be the earlier successional stages of forests, a variety of cover ranging from buggy-whip saplings to trunks the size of a hunter’s forearm. Grouse are birds both on the edge and of the edge; they’re drawn to transitional areas between, even subtle seams within, different cover types. Regenerating Northern clear-cuts with dense shrub understory exemplifies this habitat type, especially when they’re intermixed with older stands of aspen, oak and some pines. From New England to the northern Midwest, grouse seek out areas that provide thick, woody, protective cover that’s close to or includes a food source.
By way of example, one of my favorite coverts is an abandoned farmstead with gone-wild apple orchards, berry brambles and fields regenerating in aspen, oak and birch. On its way to a creek-bottom thick with alders, the land slopes down through older hardwoods and small stands of conifers interspersed with shrubbed clearings. Several weedy farm roads bordered by stone walls weave through the covert. This classic chunk of hunter’s dream cover provides everything ruffed grouse require year ’round.
When it comes to grouse, there are no graven-in-stone rules. That said, for hunters as well as birds, in ruffed grouse country autumn can generally be broken into two loose parts—early and late. The birds’ habits shift with fall’s progression, and so should ours if we wish to have a fair crack at them throughout the season.
Early season hunting has disadvantages cheek-by-jowl with benefits. The coverts are still thick with foliage, turning hunting into a game of point and shoot. Mornings begin cool, but by midday temperatures can top 60 degrees, heating up both hunters and their hardworking dogs. On the plus side, more grouse—mainly young birds without a territory—are scattered over a wide range of habitat, taking advantage of nature’s buffet table. More on this in a moment.
Because of screening foliage, grouse shooting early on is close work, requiring speed and finesse not firepower. I take most of my October birds inside of 25 yards with No. 8s in a lightweight, skeet-choked over-and-under sporting 24-inch barrels. In typically dense, vigorously growing cover, long barrels choked tighter than improved cylinder can be a handicap.
Wise word has it that grouse hunters should head for the truck about midmorning and stay there until late afternoon. Like many bits of conventional wisdom, this one does not tell the whole story, though it’s true that a day’s first and last hours are easier on dogs because they’re cooler, with better scenting conditions. Birds are on the move then, warming on sun-dappled slopes—always good places to begin a morning hunt—and feeding before shifting to resting cover or a night roost.
Under normal circumstances, grouse spend much of each day roosting, alert but taking it easy. And they can be hunted. Each year, I take birds at midday by hunting resting cover. Last blasts of summer-like warmth, for example, will push grouse into creek-bottoms, timbered swamp edges, damp alder thickets, any place that’s cool and shaded. Look for them there.
Don’t let rain chase you from the woods. A light to medium drizzle, at any time, doesn’t bother grouse and can work to your advantage by quieting the uplands and cooling a dog and boosting its scenting power. Conversely, hunting in a downpour is rarely productive. Likewise, strong wind turns grouse into hair-trigger spooks and precludes even top dogs from homing in on bird scent.
Under typical early autumn conditions, successful dog work can be summed up by one word—control. “Hunt close” takes on relevance in thick October cover, especially for spaniels and flushing retrievers, though hawk-wild, over-the-horizon dogs of any breed will give you heartburn and little else. But a savvy pointer or flusher that hunts to the gun translates into grouse. This doesn’t mean a dog should be a boot polisher; rather, that a gun dog working at a controlled range will sharpen your edge. Note that wing-tipped grouse can “beat feet” like pheasants; thus, a solid retriever is a true plus.
Hunting without a dog must be an exercise in concentration. A hunter alone can’t match a dog for ground coverage and should focus on specific objectives, places where grouse are likely to be given the day’s conditions. Stay free of entangling vegetation, always be ready for a flush and don’t race through the coverts. A handy technique is to stop abruptly every 30-40 yards—distance depends on the cover type—stand quietly for a half-minute or so, then take another step. Nearby grouse often get rattled either by the sudden silence or by the second step and will flush, providing a shot from a prepared stance.
Anytime during October’s first weeks, be ready for multiple flushes of birds in a covey-like cluster. These are usually young-of-the-year birds in their dispersal period, wandering from the brood area in search of permanent home grounds. Often, these bunches are a family group, or several of them, drawn to a particular spot by an environmental attraction such as abundant food.
And food consumption is a driving force at this time. Because early fall is a bountiful period and the birds will eat almost anything available, it’s hard to pin down preferences. Good bets are wild grapes, cherries and blueberries along woodland edges—virtually any fruits in quantity with escape cover close by. Grouse consume sumac, bittersweet and green briar. They thrive on aspen buds—always a key element in grouse habitat—as they do on leafy material like ferns, grass tips and clover. Acorns are important as long as they remain available; oak stands with ground cover frequently hold ruffs.
Early season hunting can be a bonanza for those who know where to seek grouse. Late-season birds are a different story, though they can be equally satisfying. That old saw, “Guns don’t get ruffed grouse, legs do” is a rule of thumb backed up by research that shows grouse are most commonly hunted within a few hundred yards of drivable roads. As early autumn departs on chill winds and ruff populations thin via hunting and natural mortality, sportsmen who wear out boot soles and hunt off the beaten track are more likely to put birds in their game bags.
As winter nears, fewer grouse are dispersed over wider areas and we begin to walk farther for fewer flushes. Marginal habitats that held grouse in October will be empty as surviving birds shift to better covers that will maintain them for the cold season. But leaves are down and corridors have opened through the hardwoods, giving us added moments for a shot. This is the time when many hunters switch to improved cylinder and/or modified chokes and trade No. 8s for harder-punching No. 7½ shotshells.
We can cut dogs a touch more slack in late autumn, and we don’t have to worry about them going down with heat stroke. They have a month and a half or more of grouse hunting under their collars and should be settled into a seasonal routine. They’ve relearned the game. Good dogs can be followed now, not over-controlled; pointing dogs, in particular, can be allowed the freedom to range farther and cover more ground.
Grouse will be found more often on upland slopes where they seek the sun and on bluffs and points where they can see or hear what approaches them. The security of screening foliage is gone, as are October’s warmer temperatures and cornucopia of food. Late-season habitat, which for grouse means where they’ll spend the winter, must provide birds with protection from the weather and predators, both ground and aerial, and be near foods that can carry them until spring. Frequently, this habitat is a mix of hardwoods, especially aspens and oaks, and conifers or, equally good, tracts of hardwoods abutting conifer stands. If the hardwoods have an understory of frost-hardy herbs and shrubs holding berries, they are doubly attractive.
Conifers such as pines, spruce, firs and hemlocks are primary cold-weather roosting sites, day and night. They are excellent places to hunt, but toward the edges not the deep interior. In low-snow areas or years, ruffs might also shun large hardwood stands lacking or distant from evergreens. When they cannot burrow into snow for warmth—which they commonly do—they’ll roost in conifers or under the sagging shield of lower limbs.
Jump shooters without dogs often work evergreens as a team—one inside the cover, one on the outside—to hunt these roosting sites. Conifers can be just as productive for hunters with dogs. Either way, trying to pinpoint a grouse thundering out of or from underneath a pine tree makes for fast, tough shooting. Another tactic is to look for tracks or disruptions where birds have burrowed or flown into snow. Be warned that a ruffed grouse exploding out of a snowdrift can cause you to flinch.
Buds are an important late-season food, with aspen, cherry, apple and birch topping the list. In general, as autumn, cold weather, then winter intensifies, aspen buds and catkins and twigs become increasingly important. Never overlook an aspen stand or bypass acorns, lingering fruit and berries. Always hunt hardwoods adjoining conifers. Remember a fundamental principle: At this time of the year grouse are into surviving. They need food and protective cover, and if habitat doesn’t have both, the odds are long that you won’t find late-season birds in it.
Aldo Leopold, the 20th century’s outdoor guru, wrote, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed grouse hunting.” Learn the patterns of ruffed grouse, where they call home, what they eat and how they shift with the demands of the season, and you’ll never again be satisfied with “ordinary hunting.”