A Basic Guide for Hunting Ruffed Grouse - Tips, Strategy, and Gear for a Successful Ruffed Grouse Hunt
- 27 Jul, 2020
The crisp cold air bites at my cheeks as I stop and blow into my numb hands on a Cold November day in the upland forests of Northern Wisconsin. After a few minutes of hand warming and the never ending task of pulling burrs out of my beat up Levi's, I continue my journey through dense sections of young aspen stands so thick you can barely walk through it without tripping. I stoop down as I pass under some crisscrossed aspens and as soon as my foot plants onto the ground an incredibly loud thumping noise accompanied by a brown flash 3 feet from my face causes me to have a mini heart attack. As I'm almost jumping clean out of my boots, I raise the barrel of my trusty old Mossberg 500 and fire from the hip, quite literally, and see the bird fall. "Second bird this morning, not bad!" I thought.
Same Bird Different Places
Ruffed Grouse can be found in 36 out of the 50 continental states, and live in a variety of different habitats with certain types of vegetation being prevalent in one location but not others. From Montana to Pennsylvania to the northern Great Lakes where I call home, and many places in between. Their diets consist of local fruit bearing shrubs and plants that differ from one region to the next, but one constant can be said of ruffed grouse despite where they are found, and that is their preference to inhabit thick and dense woody terrain.
Dogwoods, Aspen thickets, Tamarack filled river bottoms, All of these places places conjure up memories of cool crisp days with bright blue skies, walking miles in search of a bird. Grouse tend to stay relatively close to their preferred food sources. Areas with stands of hawthorn berries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and even apples can be a great place to begin searching, especially if these areas are adjacent or in very thick and young forest or undergrowth such as dogwoods and young aspens. The best grouse grounds are usually fresh forest, their forage plants need quite a bit of sunlight. The sweet spot is a forest area growth age of around 20 years, once you get passed that age the tree canopy becomes dense and doesn't allow for the proper undergrowth and food plants that ruffed grouse prefer. Other areas that I prefer to hunt in the uplands of Northern Wisconsin are river bottoms. River bottoms typically have thick stands of dogwood, tamaracks and forage plants that grouse thrive in. With that being said, grouse tend to shy away from areas with constantly wet or swampy ground, keep this in mind if your thinking of checking out a river bottom.
Ruffed Grouse have very cyclical population levels that rise and fall over a ten year cycle. In the Great Lakes states high population numbers normally coincide in years that end in 0, 1, or 2, and years with the lowest numbers of populations normally being years ending with 5 or 6. These years are more of a trend and some low density years may be better than others. This cycle comes in what can be described as a wave, starting at the Northwest and Northeast ends of the United States and sweeping to the south and southeast portions of the country.
This decline and rise over the course of a decade is believed to be the result of multiple factors such as weather trends and variations and how that impacts the abundance of their food sources. This combined with predators like the goshawk, coyote and horned owl among others all coincides with this cycle which is actually still poorly understood to this day.
Northern Wisconsin Drumming survey data 1964-2019 Credit: dnr.wi.gov
Tools for the Job
Different hunters have different preferences on exactly what equipment to use with Grouse hunting to a certain degree, I can only speak for what I prefer or what people I hunt with prefer.
I grew up a poor backwoods kid and in my life of grouse hunting I always kept it pretty simple, and still do. I use a standard pump action 12 gauge, some very avid and die hard grouse guys and gals prefer to use over-under shotguns, and to be honest, I'm sure I will end up getting one simply because its the iconic upland bird hunting style of shotgun. Most grouse hunters including myself use an Improved Cylinder choke as well but that can also depend on other factors.
Ammunition is also incredibly important. I use anywhere from #6 to #9 sized shot and this as well as minor changes in choke selection can be different depending on the time of year. Early in the fall the leaves and higher density of vegetation in the woods can make things very difficult, many hunters in these situations might switch to a semi open choke as well as 7# to 9# sized shot to increase the spread of their patterns and number of shot to get through the dense vegetation. As the leaves die and the forests open up its really hard to beat an improved cylinder choke and #6 shot.
Ruffed grouse hunting in its most basic form is pretty straightforward, find areas that have a population of grouse with dense cover and forage and you will eventually find birds, hitting them consistently is the hard part, and I have missed more birds growing up than I can count, but grouse hunting is a great way to really pay attention to details in the woods, explore, and discover new areas. Grouse hunting is also very accessible to people who do not have access to private land and there are usually plenty of state parks or other types of public land that can offer some truly great grouse hunting opportunities.
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