By Nick Simonson
While most North Dakotans are more familiar with prairie birds like pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge, options exist to pursue ruffed grouse in the state’s forested areas, like the Pembina Hills or Turtle Mountains in the northern tier of the Peace Garden State. Additionally, the northeastern third of Minnesota is just a few hours’ drive away with good hunting and plentiful public lands available for those looking to harvest a thunderbird or two this autumn. With numbers in Minnesota at the peak of their 10-year cycle, there hasn’t been a better time in recent memory to get out after ruffies, and what follows are some tips to prepare for and pursue these unique upland birds.
Don’t Think, Just Shoot
Ruffies are fast in flight, evasive in their exits and flustering in their flush. Able to accelerate like a pheasant in a 30 mile-an-hour wind from the get-go, ruffed grouse are accustomed to zipping through the tiniest lanes formed by branches and trees, and rarely do they present a very open shot. Flushes are accompanied by a booming wingbeat and some rattling vegetation, and in the quiet of the woods, they can be startling. By the time the rush subsides, they are often out of sight, so being ready to shoot and just doing so instinct is key to connecting.
Grouse hunting requires a good deal of walking as well, and that can lead to tired arms and guns resting on shoulders. Don’t do that; because the second the gun isn’t ready, a bird will flush, guaranteed. Hold a chosen shotgun in a trail-carry position so it is ready to be snapped up and fired. An instinctive shot is required to put some pellets out there in hopes of connecting, as many are absorbed by branches, leaves and trees, so don’t give these birds a “pheasant lead” when they break cover – just shoot and hopefully one or two pellets will find their mark. Many a bird that was considered a miss has been found when a few fortunate pellets connected. Make certain to search around the area the bird was during the shot, as it doesn’t take much to bring them down. Ultimately though, the faster the shot, the better the chance of connecting with these birds. Remember – don’t think, just shoot. Instincts drive success in ruffed grouse hunting adventures.
Ruffed grouse can are best pursued with shotguns in gauges between 12 and 20, and shells with small shot in sizes 6 or 7 1/2 will help put more projectiles out there when these birds do take to the air. In tight quarters – and more often than not, close range – open chokes like Improved Cylinder, Cylinder or even Skeet will provide a wider pattern capable of catching up with a nearby bird. A second shot is rarely available, however in the early part of the season, young ruffed grouse can be found in smaller groups which may not have disbursed from the summer brooding area, so a second bird might present a shot close by or right after the first one flushes. Most of the time however, these birds are alone, due to their territorial nature and an over-under shotgun will suffice, and is typically a lighter option for hunters in the field to prevent fatigue.
Durable, waterproof boots are a necessity, as the walking required through swamps, woods, clear-cuts and brush can be challenging. A set of brush pants will also allow for some off-trail wandering into scrub or small aspens where ruffies love to loaf. Don’t forget a blaze orange vest and hat, and pack a small survival kit with compass and GPS. Many a prairie bird hunter has found himself lost in the great north woods, due to getting turned around in the unfamiliar surroundings and the inability to see past the next set of trees.
On The Edge
Like most upland birds, ruffed grouse need the basics to survive – cover, grit, food and water – so identifying where those needs are fulfilled will help in the location of birds. Cover is the most important aspect to consider when hunting ruffies, and finding edges in the forest is quite similar to finding them on the prairie for pheasants, only on a grander scale. Many forests are managed through timber harvest, and a clear cut from five years ago often abuts an established stand of trees, giving birds the edge they need, from the more open forest floor under old pines, to the thickets of alders and popples in the newly-established area. Walk the line between these two sections, and work dogs in and out of the denser cover to get birds in the air and out into the relative openness of the established stand of trees.
Additionally, swampy edges also hold birds in drier years like the one North Dakota has experienced, and highlands, like ridges or upward slopes in the forest will attract them when the autumn is wetter, like this one has been in northern Minnesota. Rain will also drive birds into thicker cover, like pines, where they can stay dry and they will often roost above ground level to avoid getting wet until a system moves through. Areas where gravel is present provide a “must-walk” path, as this source of grit will bring ruffed grouse out in early morning and late afternoon to dry off and collect the bits of sand they need for digestion.
Finally, food sources can also play an important role in determining where to hunt. Ruffies are omnivores that eat insects as chicks, but as adults predominantly turn to plant buds, leaves and berries, and when walking forest trails, remember “red means stop.” The red berries of plants, especially highbush cranberries, should give hunters a moment to take a pause in their journey and step off trail or let their dogs sniff around, as feeding or loafing grouse may be in the immediate area. While grouse get their water from much of what they eat, small ponds or streams will provide hydration options in dry seasons and create a walkable edge worth noting on the map.
Where to Go and When
In North Dakota, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s PLOTS map will point hunters to those public areas in grouse country, including a number of State Forest Lands open to public hunting between US 281 and Hwy 14 in Bottineau and Rolette Counties. Additionally, a sprawling, contiguous stretch of Wildlife Management Areas in the Pembina Hills along with many adjacent PLOTS parcels will give a northeastern option to visiting hunters from Fargo and Grand Forks.
For a trip to Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources’ Recreation Compass will help hunters find areas to target from east of Detroit Lakes on up to the shores of Lake Superior. Additionally, the DNR has specifically identified public hunter walking trails geared to grouse hunting and has compiled a listing of these well-maintained and fairly easy-to-follow paths on state or national forest land and certain WMAs.
While the season opens in both states well before trees begin losing their leaves, and birds are taken in the early portion of the fall, about the time that trees drop their foliage is the best time to be on the grouse trail. Birds become easier to see with less obstruction along their flight paths, and shotlines become clearer, at least psychologically. As a result, the period from the first of October until the start of deer season, or the first significant, lasting snow, whichever is later, is prime time in the grouse woods. Give ruffed grouse a try this autumn as the peak of the season approaches, and use these tips for a successful new experience no matter where you might find a flushing thunderbird in the upper Midwest.
(Featured Photo: A ruffed grouse fans its tail and dries off along a roadside in the morning. Look for these birds near grit and gravel, as you would pheasants, in the early morning hours and just before dusk. Simonson Photo)