A guide to hunting grouse

Everything you need to know to have a successful hunt

By Ken BaileyKen Bailey

Hunting the flush

Photo by Rob Nye

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Ruffed grouse

Species: Bonasa umbellus
Average length: 43 cm
Average wingspan: 56-64 cm
Average weight: 635 g
Variations: red and grey morphs, which are more widespread
Female: dark band on tail fan incomplete in centre
Song: short quit-quit when threatened

The acknowledged royalty of native grouse—prized for both its sporting and table qualities—the ruffed grouse is so-named because of its ruff, or frill of dark feathers around the neck. Referred to locally as “ruffies” or “partridge,” these birds range from Nova Scotia to the Yukon, absent only in the extreme north of Quebec, Labrador, Nunavut and part of the Northwest Territories. The familiar drumming of the male ruffed grouse during mating season is one of the welcome harbingers of spring across its range.

Even in times when their population cycles are peaking, ruffed grouse are only found where there is suitable habitat that offers both food and escape cover (ruffed grouse undergo severe population fluctuations in cycles that range from seven to 11 years, the exact cause of which remains unclear). Look for second-growth deciduous and mixed wood forests-complete with a dense layer, or understory, of shrubs beneath the main canopy—interspersed with natural openings and/or man-made edges.

Ruffled grouse

Illustration by Dave Wysotski

Favoured food shrubs include aspen, saskatoon, hawthorn, hazelnut, chokecherry, willow and alder. In the late fall and early winter, it is the availability of these rich food sources that most affect ruffed grouse distribution. Before the snow arrives, you should also look for ruffies wherever there is clover adjacent to escape cover. Clover is akin to candy to these birds, whether it’s clover seeded for hay or the wild native variety.

The best times to hunt ruffed grouse are at first and last light. They are most active during these shoulder hours of the day in part because these are the transitional periods for avian predators. Nocturnal hunters, such as the great-horned owl, have either just finished their shift or not quite started it; the same can be said of daylight hunters, such as the goshawk and red-tailed hawk. Simply put, it’s a safe time for ruffies to be out and about.

If hunting without a dog, work creek bottoms, cutlines, tree-lined trails and forest edges. All of these locations provide the chance to spot a grouse at a distance as it feeds, suns or dusts itself. You can then plan a stalk to put yourself in the best possible shooting position.

I’ve had considerable luck walking the edges of grass and clover hayfields that abut against dense forested cover. Work these areas slowly and carefully, as ruffed grouse are notorious for sitting tight a metre or two into the cover and, displaying the guts of a gunfighter, holding still as you walk past. A stop-and-go technique will often put up birds that would otherwise hold fast; when you stop, they fear they’ve been spotted and flush.

If you put up a bird, continue to thoroughly work the area. Where there is one there will often be others nearby, as ruffed grouse remain in family units through much of the hunting season.

As much as they use their eyes, experienced ruffed grouse hunters also use their ears. It is not uncommon to pinpoint grouse by hearing them shuffle away on the dead leaves carpeting the forest floor. When you do, immediately walk in on them and you’ll often be rewarded with a shooting opportunity.

If you flush a bird, but fail to down it, don’t hesitate to follow it. Just ensure that you are now hunting with your eyes skyward instead of on the ground, as grouse that have been bumped will invariably settle in a tree. Seldom will they fly more than 100 metres before alighting and, more often than not, they’ll travel less than 50.

If you do down a grouse, mark it immediately. Without a dog to help, it can be all but impossible to locate. I recommend retrieving a downed grouse before trying to shoot another, even one that appears to be an easy shot. Experience has taught me that you’ll put more in the freezer this way over the long run.

Those hunting with dogs have the added flexibility of being able to hunt thicker cover. This is particularly beneficial in poor weather and later in the season, when ruffed grouse tend to occupy more protective cover. A well-trained dog allows you to hang on the periphery of dense thickets while it works the thick stuff and roots out birds that may be hunkered down. Try to set up in anticipation of where a bird will go to seek escape cover if flushed. Keep in mind that, all things being equal, a ruffed grouse will usually swing downwind after it has been flushed.

Solo ruffed grouse hunters can certainly enjoy success, but hunting in tandem provides several advantages. Most importantly, two hunters are by definition twice as likely to find themselves on a potential escape route for a flushed bird. A single hunter invariably finds himself on the wrong side of the cover when birds flush. And a second pair of eyes and ears also helps in spotting and following birds in cover, while dramatically improving the odds of finding a downed grouse.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2002

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