Hunting grouse can be one of the best ways to spend a fall day. You don’t need a ton of gear, just yourself, a trusty shotgun, a pocketful of shells, an orange vest and maybe a good dog. Decent boots are a plus as you’ll find yourself in some thick cover at times. A grouse hunt is never a waste of time, even when you don’t bag any of the tasty birds. Like any game species, grouse should be scouted, and you don’t have to wait until fall to do it.
Spring is actually one of my favorite times of the year to scout for grouse. There are a few other activities going on after winter releases the icy grip that get me out into the woods, so combining them with a grouse pre-hunt is always fun.
Also see: a recipe for your grouse.
Of turkeys and grouse
A few years ago I was out hunting turkeys during the spring season. I was on my family farm in the same area I always hunted for turkey and deer. It is usually a good spot, although that spring, the turkeys were especially difficult. I finally had a good tom pinned down. He was working up a fence line toward a thick mix of pines and scrub hardwoods. I was working up the tree line through the thick stuff. We should have met in a stand of tall red pines. It didn’t work out that way.
The tom was intercepted by a couple of hens, which were working in from the west. No matter what I threw at him call-wise, he wanted nothing to do with me. I guess two birds in the hand were better than the one in the bush. In my fevered calling, I made a few weird noises with the old slate call. I guess it sounded pretty good to another bird, however. I soon found myself face to beak with a male ruffed grouse in full display mode. That little guy strutted and pranced and drummed at me from a fallen pine – it was quite a display. He even displayed some aggression toward me, which was almost humorous.
I remember when I first heard that sound, the unmistakable drumming of a male grouse. I was very young, and my parents had taken me into the woods in search of delicious morel mushrooms. As we silently walked along, in an effort to not scare the mushrooms I guess, I heard a deep thump that steadily repeated and sped up. My tricky uncle told me it was the “Mushroom Troll” who was out planting mushrooms. After a good laugh, he explained that it was a grouse. To this day, I associate that sound with morels. Have you ever had grilled grouse breast with morels? Amazingly delicious, but I digress.
Marking his turf
Of course, the drumming sound isn’t just for mating. The male grouse uses it as a way to mark his territory, usually a piece of land under ten acres in size. Drumming is a good way, however, to determine if you should look in the area for grouse. This chunk of land is usually “shared” with a couple of hens, but they won’t be together. Grouse are loners, so you’re going to spend some time walking around looking for them. I’ve very rarely seen grouse together. In fact, I have only seen grouse together once, and that was during a pretty rough winter. Those two birds were in the same crab apple tree eating leftover fruit.
Locating mating birds is an important part of scouting for fall. The brood that hatches from the pairing usually results in anywhere from four to eight birds that reach fall as mature adults. Hatchling mortality is fairly high, but if conditions are right, that one male you found in the spring could produce two sets of offspring that could result in an additional 15 to 16 birds. The young grouse don’t travel that far, usually establishing their own territories within a mile of where they were hatched.
The fact of the matter is that grouse don’t have a very long lifespan. According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, only 1 in 2,200 grouse chicks will live to be eight years old. They are also an important part of the food chain for meat-eating predators as well as being a terrific game bird, so you’re not the only one hunting them. In the Great Lakes area, where I live, there is a loose ten-year cycle for grouse. As with most game animals, the populations fluctuate on a pretty regular basis. Why do I bring this up? I do so because it points to the importance of spring scouting. Taking a good look around in the spring, especially after a hard winter, will give you a decent idea as to the health of the overall population in your area. On a downward side of the cycle, and after a rough winter, you may not find as many birds. With the birds being spread out as they are normally, and with all of the other great hunting opportunities we have in the fall, you need to spend your time wisely. Wouldn’t you rather hunt a stretch of woods where you have a decent shot of at least seeing a bird? I know I would.
In the end, the best reason to scout for grouse in the spring is to just be outdoors. I know I don’t have to give you an excuse to go, but when you’re out chasing turkeys or the elusive mushroom trolls, keep an eye and an ear out for grouse and make a note to yourself to return in the fall with a suitable grouse gun and a pocket full of shells.