Ruffed grouse (colloquially called partridge) are the premier upland game bird of northern New England and are both delicious and incredibly difficult to hunt. They often dwell in the kind of thick, previously logged, new-growth forest habitat that is nearly impossible to walk through and offers a wall of brushy cover that can make spotting and hitting birds a tall order.
A hunter with a well- trained canine companion can level the playing field somewhat due to the fact that a good dog can sniff out birds and give the hunter a slight edge. Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to give a hunting dog the proper home and training it needs and are thus stuck hunting solo. All is not lost, however, and the following tips will improve a hunter’s chances of bagging a few grouse without the aid of a dog.
1. Locate Food Sources
Omnivorous ruffed grouse have a varied diet that includes insects, snails, slugs, mushrooms, and the leaves and buds of trees (usually poplar), but they have a particular affinity for the various fruits that are common to their habitat.
Other fruits that may attract grouse include choke cherries, blackberries (if they are still present at the start of hunting season), and the fruit of hawthorn trees or “haws”.
2. Stick to the beaten path
Whenever it is possible, safe, and legal to do so, it makes sense for a grouse hunter to stick to established trails and decommissioned logging roads. The primary reason for holding to roads and trails is that these travel ways provide grouse with a convenient source of dust and pebbles. The birds dust themselves to control parasites, and eat small pebbles to aid in the breakdown of food stored in their gizzards. It follows that grouse often stay within easy striking distance of a path or road. Areas where a food source, such as a stand of apple trees or poplar saplings, is immediately adjacent to gravel path or road typically yield a lot of grouse.
Trails and roads also facilitate easy movement through the thick, brushy, and nearly unwalkable new-growth forests that comprise typical ruffed grouse habitat.
3. On rainy days, take to the pines
Grouse, much like any other terrestrial animal in existence, don’t like to be rained on and will seek shelter during inclement weather. This shelter often takes the form of such coniferous trees as balsams and spruces. Stands of pines that are in close proximity to food sources are particularly good places to look for grouse on wet weather days.
4. Keep one eye on the ground and the other on the trees
An easy error to make while hunting grouse is to keep eyes only on the ground. While ruffed grouse are primarily ground-dwelling birds, they do spend an appreciable amount of time perched in trees. A hunter concentrating on spotting birds on the ground will likely miss birds perched in tress and vice versa.
5. Catch them sitting still
Ruffed grouse are an incredibly difficult bird to wing shoot, especially without the help of a dog to provide advanced warning or a bird’s presence. Not only do grouse take flight in a manner that results in a sudden blur of motion and thunderous wing beats likely to startle an unaware hunter, but the birds are also adept at quickly taking cover by putting trees and thick brush between them and the muzzle of a shotgun. By the time a hunter, surprised by a bird, shoulders his or her gun, disengages the safety, and gets on target, the bird will likely be gone. That’s not to say those hunting sans dog will never hit a flying grouse, it’s just that spotting the birds before they take flight is a surer way to put meat on the grill.
Spotting grouse before they fly is a skill in and of itself as their natural camouflage is just shy of perfect. A good way to spot them is to look for movement rather than trying to recognize their outline on the forest floor. A grouse moves in a very awkward, jerking motion, similar to that of a chicken. This distinctive movement will often give away a bird’s position.
Occasionally, ruffed grouse will also give away their position with sound. The noise that ruffed grouse are perhaps best known for is their characteristic drumming that sounds similar to a distant lawnmower engine starting and stalling. This sound will make a hunter aware of a bird’s presence in a general area, but it is difficult to use it to pinpoint an exact location. Another sound emitted by grouse is a kind of high-pitched, raspy clucking. Grouse will occasionally make this clucking sound when distressed a few seconds prior to taking off, thereby giving a hunter advanced warning of its presence in the immediate area.
6. Walk slow, pause often
This last piece of advice is perhaps the single most important. Most of us have become conditioned to walk through our day to day lives as quickly as we possibly can. This mindset is perfect when navigating the local supermarket, but it will lead to certain failure on a hunt.
Rather than walking quickly and continuously, it is important to move at what at first will seem like a snail’s pace, and to pause every few steps to thoroughly scan the woods. Walking in this manner will not only result in the spotting of more game, but will also result in a hunter noticing other interesting details about the woods that would be missed when hiking at forced march speeds. Noticing such details as a vibrantly colored mushroom, a hawk or eagle circling high overhead, or even just a really cool looking tree are as important to the experience of hunting as bagging game.
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