HUNT THE DEEP WOODS FOR GROUSE
“… it’s good news if you … don’t mind … finishing the night with hands and knees etched with bloody lines by thorn bushes.”
There are certain game animals that have learned to thrive while living in man’s backyard. Whitetails, cottontail rabbits and a host of others have adapted to our existence, and have learned to use our homes and landuse practices to their benefit. Then there are animals that go the other way.
Ruffed grouse live in the big woods, and although you might see a bird or two sitting in a backyard crabapple tree in the dead of winter, they generally don’t do well around human activity. They are big-woods dwellers that find catkins, berries and general peace where most hunters won’t go.
For the aspiring grouse hunter, this is good news. Scratch that; it’s good news if you’re willing to work and don’t mind busting brush and finishing the night with hands and knees etched with bloody lines by thorn bushes. It’s not walk-the-trail hunting that yields the most encounters. You must think differently than your two-legged competition, especially if you plan to hunt public lands. Traitorous Trails
Access roads, two-tracks and ATV trails are the places where hunters and their bird dogs tread. This is because enough birds can usually be killed from them, of course, but more importantly, because it’s so easy. Walking through 4-inch grass with a shooting lane directly in front of you is dream hunting, but it isn’t the most productive way to fill your game bag—at least not after opening weekend.
The concentration of pressure is intense on walking trails, but becomes a totally different beast where ATVS are allowed. Some days it seems that every hunter in the county is cruising slowly on a four-wheeler trying to spot an out-of-place “brown bowling pin” in the path ahead of them.
These hunters, if you can call them that,
kill birds. But, they also educate birds, and they make those trails an ideal place to hunt where encountering birds is a rare opportunity. True walking trails are better, but they also receive plenty of hunting pressure. This is why, if you’re really interested in a flush-filled day, you need to leave the beaten paths. Mapwork
Identifying where grouse are likely to live isn’t easy until you set foot in the woods. Then, it gets easier, but not easy. During October and November, there are many options at the grouse buffet, and it can be daunting to pin down any food source that might concentrate birds. Gray dogwood berries are oftentimes a solid bet during the early season, but good luck identifying them on an aerial photo.
The better bet is to look at your chosen grouse ground on some sort of aerial photo service, like Google Earth, and identify edges. This can also be done with most maps on the average smartphone, which simplifies the equation.
Scour the bird’s-eye-view photos until you see edges. They’ll be anything from where lowland meets high ground, clear-cuts meet older growth forests or islands of cover in an otherwise cookie-cutter forest. Any place with a hard edge between two types of cover is a good place to walk and work the dog. Grouse, like white-tailed deer, love edges for reasons only they know. It could be because that is the most likely place to find multiple food sources, or maybe it’s because food sources are located next to excellent cover. More likely, it’s a mix of many reasons we can only guess at. Either way, when you go in blind and get off the trail, don’t barrel your way through the woods. Rather, hunt and sneak your way through. Beating Wings, Now What?
One of the reasons that trail hunting is so popular is because it’s usually easier to get a shot off there than in the woods. Deep-woods
“... if the initial bird escapes, his buddy might be right behind him. If you’re ready to shoot, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with some of the tastiest game ...”
hunting results in a frustrating amount of flushed birds that don’t offer shots. This is especially true, if like me, you hunt behind a flushing breed of dog like the Labrador retriever. Pointers offer a better chance of getting off a shot, but they come with their own challenges in the big woods.
Knowing this, it’s best to go into the woods with the attitude that you’ll flush birds you simply won’t get to shoot at. That’s grouse hunting. Your best bet is to listen to a bird that flushes and try to pin down where it flew and attempt a reflush. The odds of getting the same bird up twice aren’t high, but it happens enough to always justify the effort.
The other thing to consider when birds start erupting from the cover is that, while you won’t run into wintering coveys right now, you very easily could run into a few
birds together. The first flush often isn’t the last flush in a spot, and that means if the initial bird escapes, his buddy might be right behind him. If you’re ready to shoot, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with some of the tastiest game out there.
It’s also important to note where birds are flushing from so you can attempt to run a pattern. If the birds are on the edge of a swamp, make note of that. If they are in the high woods and seem random, that’s a clue as well. Game animals don’t waste much energy in their daytime movements, and there’s usually a good reason to be doing what they are doing. The Recovery
With a dog, finding downed birds shouldn’t be too challenging. Here’s the thing though: You must do your part. If you know you hit—or suspect you hit—an escaping bird, it’s necessary to execute the best recovery efforts possible. This means pointing the dog downwind from the bird and giving it plenty of time to work the cover. Grouse don’t run quite like pheasants do, but they do run.
Occasionally, you’ll clip a wing and the bird will take off 100 yards in a direction you didn’t expect. This is the dog’s territory, and it needs the right training, direction and patience. The most common mistake I see hunters make is assuming that the bird won’t be recovered after a few minutes. A welltrained dog will see a trailing job through to the end if you give it enough time and don’t mess with its efforts. Occasionally, my hunting buddies and I will have to wait 15 minutes for my dog to locate a downed bird.
It’s also important to note that not every bird shows that he took a pellet or two. Sometimes in the thick stuff, shot opportunities happen in the blink of an eye, and it’s easy to assume that the bird escaped unscathed. Keep an eye on every bird you shoot at to see where it goes. The worst that can happen is you get a chance to reflush a healthy ruff. The best that will happen is that your dog will nose around and find a bird that appeared fine but was actually hit. When you hunt with a rockstar grouse dog, you find out that this is more common than most of us would assume. The Timber Less Traveled
You can find a few ruffed grouse living next to trails and roads, but those birds are going to be heavily pressured. If you’re truly interested in finding the numbers of grouse that will support a season of hunting, you’ll need to start examining aerial photography and hunting where others won’t. It’s not as easy to walk—or shoot—but the birds will be where the hunters are not, and that’s the best start you can have to rounding out a coveted ruffed-grouse limit. MP
(below) Grouse are elusive birds that shy away from areas frequented by humans. (opposite) It’s tempting to walk twotrack and ATV trails when looking for grouse, but the birds around those areas receive disproportionate pressure. Instead, plan to leave the easy stuff and hunt edges where two types of cover meet. (PHOTO BY TONY J. PETERSON)
(below) A flushing dog that ranges even 25 or 30 yards ahead of you is no good in the grouse woods, which necessitates an emphasis on training for close work. It takes time, but it’s worth it.