How fortunate we are to have the “king of game birds” available in thirty-eight states...and all Canadian Provinces. Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) provide the ultimate challenge for the pointing dog and upland hunter. It’s a hunter’s desire to locate good grouse cover, be given a solid point and then rewarded with a straightaway shot after the flush.
The chances this fall of experiencing the above scenario can be greatly increased with pre-season scouting. You may have some reliable coverts you visit every year; however, grouse coverts mature and at some point in time are no longer productive. Pre-season scouting should be performed to add two or three new coverts each year to your inventory.
Grouse are territorial. They pick a territory according to available habitat. The habitat must have a year around food supply, good cover and water. All three ingredients must be present.
I still search for new grouse cover the old fashioned way. During non-hunting season, I drive the back roads looking for likely grouse habitat. There are two things I look for initially; (1) a ridge of hardwoods with (2) stands of conifers just below the hardwoods. If you’re really lucky, you might find hardwood growth in different stages with conifers interspersed. Working from the top of the ridge down, we start with a hardwood stand such as birch, aspen, or oaks, then stands of conifers, then aspen or birch in the 7-15 year stage and then alders. Somewhere in this mix we want water. We could have a nice seep higher up with a trickle down to a small stream.
Let’s examine each habitat ingredient. Conifers provide much needed cover. Avian predators have a difficult time penetrating conifer trees plus the conifer provides much needed protection during storms. You won’t find grouse unless there are conifers present. The hardwoods both above and below the conifers provide winter food; they feed on the catkins and buds of these trees. As we work down the ridge past the conifer stands and the aspens and birch , but before we come to the alders, we should look for a myriad of food sources. A couple of trees we don’t often look for but offer outstanding grouse food are the black cherry and the hophornbeam. Black cherry buds provide more protein and carbs than any of the more recognized budding trees such as the aspen or birch. The hophornbeam catkin is second only to the black cherry in carbs.
We mentioned that good grouse cover contains a year round food supply. Buds and catkins are late season and winter food. How about summer and early hunting season? Well, as we navigate down are grouse ridge and approach the bottom, we’re looking for thick and thorny cover. For grouse, the thicker and thornier, the better. Near or even mixed- in, we look for low berry producing shrubs. These will typically be found in damp soil such as a seep or near a small brook. Due to the wide distribution of grouse, listing wetland indigenous shrubs for your specific area would be difficult. You may have blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, bunch berries, strawberries, winterberry and on and on. Study which berries are available in your area and learn to identify them. Grouse feed heavily on berries until the berries are gone in late fall.
Here’s an important tip. Grouse are territorial and typically stay within their territory (10-20 acres). If, however, there is an abundant supply of berries in a certain location, grouse will make a long journey to join the feast. Don’t ask me how they know about the feast…they just do. I know a grouse guide in Ontario, Canada, who takes his hunters to wild cranberry bogs. The bogs are along a river. When the cranberry crop is good, he’ll often have 50 flushes in 100 yards. When there are no cranberries, there are no grouse.
Grouse prefer a ridge that gets an early sun and that means facing the east. If there has been a frost, they’ll hangout under their conifer roost until the sun thaws the frost. They’ll then start their journey down the ridge. They’re in no hurry unless there is a berry feast waiting. A berry feast often results in an all day feeding binge. If feeding on buds, however, a typical day means wandering down the ridge, finding a nice sunny spot to linger, then moving on to the budding trees for an early afternoon feed. After “budding” as the old-timers call it, they’ll head back to their roosting area.
Of course, an exact pattern cannot be predicted. Here’s an interesting behavior worthy of discussion. Many grouse hunters feel you only see grouse on the gravel roads in late afternoon; after they’ve been “budding”. The opinion is that they only look for gravel for their crop after they’ve eaten. I can’t subscribe to that. I’ve seen grouse picking up gravel as early as 9:00 am. Have they already fed? I would be surprised.
The ideal grouse ridge I’ve described above is located in the big woods; however, what about old abandoned apple orchards? Well, if you have one located on your GPS, congratulations! Old abandoned apple trees provide grouse ice cream. I hunt an old abandoned farmyard in Maine that has three apple trees on a woods lot corner. Abutting the apple trees is a stand of white pine. Beyond the white pine are aspens. There is always at least one grouse under or around those apple trees. Everything they need is within a 50-yard circumference.
A good friend was hunting Upstate New York last fall. He discovered an old abandoned apple orchard. The first apple tree he approached produced a nine- bird flush. Wouldn’t we all like to have about a dozen of these special areas in our GPS!
Grouse hunting will be more fun and productive if you’ve conditioned your legs, heart and lungs. So, with strong legs, heart and lungs, good luck finding those very special coverts that will produce good dog work, plentiful shooting and the finest wild table fare provided by nature.
Paul Fuller is host of Bird Dogs Afield TV. For more information on Bird Dogs Afield, go to www.birddogsafield.com.