I smiled as the rocketing ruffed grouse dipped and made its signature hook to the right before disappearing into the mystery of the northern Minnesota buck brush, knowing it would touch down less than 100 yards away. While these forest birds swiftly take to wing, their relatively small pump stations require that they return to earth almost as quickly. I’d flushed the grouse shortly after parking the Polaris Ranger and venturing off on foot with Bullet, my Brittany, but wasn’t able to get a clear shot.
I wasn’t smiling now. I was on my hands and knees trying to peer through the thick tangle of tag alders and red willows that blocked my advance. Somewhere up ahead, Bullet’s bell had gone silent. Shielding my face with my forearm, I pushed forward through the brush and, predictably, received a stinging slap to the cheek for my efforts. I rubbed my hand over the welt where the red willow had slipped my block and cursed under my breath. Pulling my cap down tight, I forged ahead, cursing again as a flurry of invisible wings erupted not 30 yards in front of me and the muffled sound of my dog’s bell followed in pursuit. One-hundred-yard flight or not, I was done with this bird. There was no way I’d be able to get a shot in this thick cover.
I blew my whistle, and to my surprise Bullet showed up a few seconds later. Apparently, he’d had enough, too. Back at the Ranger, I coaxed him into his crate, stowed my shotgun and fired up the UTV. It was the opening weekend of Minnesota’s small game season and there’d be other grouse. Unfortunately, I could expect more of the same outcome—most of the birds would be hugging heavy cover and success would be measured in pointed and flushed birds, rather than those put in the game bag.
When it comes to ruffed grouse, I’m primarily a road hunter. There, I’ve said it. I’ll qualify that by adding that, considering the vastness of the state forests where I do the majority of my grouse hunting and the distance between honey-holes, it’s the only reasonable way to effectively hunt these remarkable birds. Cruising dim forest two-tracks via four-wheel-drive pickup, ATV or UTV puts me in contact with more grouse habitat and, therefore, more grouse. But I still have to do the legwork. Much of the time, I drive around until I spot a grouse (which usually flushes or runs back into deep cover) and then turn out my dog to relocate and point or flush the bird. Oftentimes, there will be additional hidden grouse nearby—bonus!
But I also drive from traditional hotspot to hotspot, and then get out and walk. Here I typically follow the edges of good grouse cover or walk forest roads while my Britt busts the brush. I listen for Bullet’s bell, and when it stops I’ll walk into the cover for the flush. If he gets too close and bumps the bird, I have a better chance of a shot if I’m out in the open. Grouse will often swing out into clearings or over roads before dropping back into heavy cover. If I don’t get a shot on the first flush but am able to determine which direction the grouse went, I’ll regroup and work for a second or even a third flush. Even if these attempts are unsuccessful, my dog gets some extra work.
The great thing about early season grouse is that they’re typically still in family groups, with young-of-the-year birds tailor-made for pointing and flushing dogs of all skill levels. Cruising backroads early in the morning and again before dark is most productive, because the birds are usually out looking for crumbs of sand and gravel to help digest their food. Cover as much good grouse habitat as you can during these productive hours. Your bag limit might just be around the next bend in the road.
During midday, seek out shaded, swampy areas and thick clutches of tag alders, where grouse generally loaf during the heat of the day. Find likely looking cover and, if possible, work your dog into the wind as you slowly approach them, shotgun at the ready. The more you hunt grouse, the easier it will be for you to recognize their favorite hangouts.
Grouse In The Grass
It was late in the morning when I exited the state forest and merged onto a county road that would take me to the croplands and CRP fields where I hunt deer each November. I’d managed to kill two grouse and had bumped several others while covering miles of forest roads with the UTV, stopping off periodically to walk my favorite wooded coverts. Tired of busting the heavy brush, Bullet and I had earned a break, or at least a change of scenery. While somewhat scarce and often difficult to find, there are pockets of sharp-tailed grouse in northern Minnesota and the open, pointing-dog-friendly terrain they prefer is a welcome contrast to hunting the big woods.
As I eased around a bend in the road and onto the edge of a CRP field adjacent to “Ole’s Swamp,” one of my favorite whitetail haunts, I smiled for the second time that day. A covey of sharp-tailed grouse took to wing less than 100 yards in front of the UTV in typical popcorn fashion, one or two kernels at a time. I watched as they crossed the field in broken-winged flight and then settled into light cover on the edge of a finger of swamp grass that extended from the woods on the far end of the field. I was still smiling as I opened the dog crate, grabbed my shotgun and pointed Bullet into the wind.