Why Is Grouse Hunting So Addicting?
Whether you’ve hunted your whole life or you’re a newcomer, you really should try ruffed grouse hunting. Aldo Leopold, perhaps my favorite conservationist, once stated:
Everybody knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse…subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.
I first read these words well after I had been on my first grouse hunt as a kid. College and out-of-state work took me away from grouse hunting for many years. But those words convinced me that I needed to get back out into the woods. I needed to chase the ruffed grouse (also called “partridge”) again.
I really doubt I’ll ever miss another season.
You owe it to yourself to experience this first-hand too.
Why You Should Try Grouse Hunting
Grouse hunting is many people’s first introduction to hunting for several good reasons:
- Vast public lands are available and many are managed specifically for forest wildlife like ruffed grouse.
- You don’t need much hunting equipment – just a good pair of boots, some blaze orange clothing, and a shotgun.
- The season is open during the best fall weather and beautiful scenery.
- You can easily solo hunt or group hunt, depending on your preferences.
- For local Minnesotans, the DNR recently released that the 2017 grouse population is up 57% from 2016 based on drumming counts – and it’s not at its projected peak yet!
For these reasons, this is a great time to get out for your first ruffed grouse hunting trip.
Basic Ruffed Grouse Biology
What is so special about the ruffed grouse that earns it this reputation? Check out this post I wrote for the Project Upland website for a detailed species profile. They’ve got plenty of beautiful partridge hunting videos if you’re curious to see what it’s actually like. The Ruffed Grouse Society website obviously also has lots of great resources about biology and grouse hunting tips. But here are just a few fun ruffed grouse facts.
- The ruffed grouse is a forest-dwelling bird that is roughly the size of a small chicken.
- They have a ruff of feathers (hence, the name) around their neck that are used for territorial and courtship purposes.
- Their tail fans have distinct bands that match the color of their ruff feathers.
- Male grouse have a curious habit of “drumming” with their wings throughout the year. Ruffed grouse drumming can be heard from great distances as a low thumping sound. They perch on fallen tree trunks (drumming logs) and beat their wings to produce the strange noise.
- Ruffed grouse grow comb-like appendages on their feet to act as snowshoes during the winter.
- They have surprisingly reliable 10-year population cycles, where the population peaks, drops, and peaks again in that time.
Ruffed Grouse Habitat
As far as where to find grouse, the best grouse habitat should include a mix of forest types with various ages. Think of a patchwork quilt – the best habitat will include lots of different types in close proximity. The name of the game with ruffed grouse habitat is thick cover. Dense aspen stands, alder thickets, or young conifer plantings are all prime spots to flush ruffed grouse.
That being the case, ruffed grouse country isn’t always for the faint of heart. The best grouse covert (i.e., habitat) should have you ducking, weaving, and getting whacked in the face by branches pretty consistently. But it’s so worth the effort! Once you flush even a single grouse in these areas, it’s hard not to smile (even if you miss). Ruffed grouse hunters seem to wear this rugged determination as a badge of honor.
Dense and Young Cover
Ruffed grouse need young forest habitat to really thrive. What do I mean by young forest? When a fire or windstorm disturbs a mature forest, the forest canopy opens up and lets lots of sunlight down to the forest floor. It responds by sending up lots of young tree sprouts that will ultimately form a dense thicket of cover. The same goal is accomplished when we do timber harvests. Clear-cuts might look devastating to us, but they quickly become prime habitat for young forest wildlife species like the ruffed grouse. Check out the images below.
Here’s the same clear-cut area by the following fall. What a difference one growing season makes. This is good grouse habitat now, but it will be great for the next decade!
How to Hunt Ruffed Grouse
Hunting ruffed grouse is ridiculously easy in concept, but it doesn’t always come together so well. The really basic idea of grouse hunting is to go to a property with the right habitat, pick a direction, and start walking. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the theory.
As I mentioned above, you don’t need any special hunting gear or a grouse hunting dog. I go grouse hunting without a dog or hunting partner every year with great success. When I started, I wore some very basic upland hunting gear (blaze orange vest and blue jeans). While I now wear upland hunting pants with briar protection and a nicer vest, I still carry nothing more than my shotgun, shells, and a bottle of water. Let’s look at some more specific details for hunting grouse.
Use the Ideal Grouse Gun and Ammunition
You don’t need much (or want much) firepower for grouse hunting. They’re relatively small birds and you could destroy the meat. You can hunt grouse easily with a .410 shotgun if you’re comfortable taking only close and open shots. But a better bet would be a 28, 20, 16, or 12 gauge shotgun. It’s easiest to find shotgun shells for the 12 and 20 gauges, making them better choices for grouse hunting guns as a beginner. Since you can also hunt other small game animals, pheasant, waterfowl, turkeys, or even big game animals with it, I’d recommend a 12 gauge for grouse hunting.
The best shotgun shells for ruffed grouse should include 7 or 8 shot, which is small enough to not obliterate the bird, but big enough to reliably/ethically kill them.
Find the Right Areas
The western Great Lakes states (i.e., Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) are often seen as the best place to hunt grouse in the country due to sheer amount of public land and high quality young forest habitat. In Minnesota alone, there are millions of acres of public land and dozens of Ruffed Grouse Management Areas (RGMA). These are perfect places for new grouse hunters to dabble in upland bird hunting.
The best grouse habitat in most of these states is found in aspen-white birch forests that have been cut within the last decade. But start by finding an area with a mixture of young forest and mature forest – that will likely be the best place to grouse hunt. Similarly, look for transitions between swamps and forests, especially when they have alder or dogwood shrubs growing there. Grouse feed heavily on the catkins of alder, aspen, hazel, and birch, and the berries of several dogwood species or winterberry. Walk along these transition zones and don’t let your mind wander too much. Grouse are notorious for surprising the most focused hunters!
Know When to Go Fast and Slow
One of the biggest ruffed grouse hunting tips I ever got was to slow down! When you’re partridge hunting, you usually need to cover a lot of ground to find enough birds to get a limit. So it’s tempting to speed-walk through the forest. But if you’re grouse hunting by yourself, smart birds will often hide themselves and let you walk right by them. So what should you do?
In areas with the right habitat (e.g., thickets, dense young forests, etc.), move slower and keep your shotgun ready to mount to your shoulder. Move in a zig-zag pattern instead of a straight line to cover more ground. Also, periodically stop (rather suddenly) in small openings for 30 seconds or so. This will often unnerve grouse and cause them to flush, giving you a chance to shoot. Learning where to consistently find and how to outsmart these birds gives you such a sense of accomplishment.
Get Out Ruffed Grouse Hunting
I hope these ruffed grouse hunting tips have helped you feel confident enough (or curious enough) to try grouse hunting this fall. It’s the most perfect way I can think of to learn to hunt. But even seasoned hunters will find something special about chasing these elusive birds.
At the very least, you’ll enjoy a fall day in a beautiful and wild place. And that’s never a waste.