By Nick Simonson
With ruffed grouse numbers still near their cyclical high this fall, opportunities to chase the thundering wing beats of this popular game bird abound from the aspen stands of northeastern Minnesota to the forests of the Rainy River drainage, to the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Gorge areas of northern North Dakota. If you’re just starting out after ruffies or are looking to get back on the trail after autumns spent chasing other upland birds, what follows are some tips that will help you in your quest.
The ruffed grouse presents a shot unlike any other bird. Generally, old logging roads and forest paths where these birds are encountered are rarely wider than 10 yards across with birds usually zipping from one side and into the other, or just off the path in the trees, providing a fraction of a second for a good shot, if any. Additionally, the corridors between stands of aspen and pine or along a swamp – preferred edges thunderbirds call home – provide little time to think about the shot.
To overcome the bird’s home-field advantage, it is important to get some practice in before hitting the trail. Learn to take reaction shots at your local trap range, limit your window of shooting by using shooting windows which restrict your movement. Better yet, visit a facility which has a “grouse alley” type shot, where a sporting clay is flung quickly across an opening in the nearby woods. Any time of shooting will help your aim, but these specific shots will hone your skills for the snapshooting required when pursuing these woodland birds.
Along with a quick shot, the delivery of a wide cloud of pellets will up your chances of connecting with your quarry. Utilize modified, improved cylinder and even skeet chokes if available on your shotgun. Recognize that birds can flush very close, requiring a quick dispersal of shot to cover an effective area. The faster the shot spreads over the first ten to twenty yards, the better your odds are of connecting through the woody cover at close range. All it takes is one or two well-placed size 7½ pellets to connect, the more you can get out there into the bird’s path, the better.
Go Off Road
Too many times I’ve watched road hunters roll down a gravel road in their pickups just before sundown, tossing beer cans out the windows with their shotgun at the ready, despite the illegality of the situation. A couple times I’ve walked just a few minutes behind an individual on an ATV with his firearm in the plastic scabbard at his side, only to flush the birds he breezed by in his hunting efforts. A noble bird such as the ruffed grouse deserves to be met on its terrain in honorable fashion, not unceremoniously jump-shot from a truck or four-wheeler.
The key to great grouse hunting is to put in some extra leg work and visit those trails where trucks and ORVs can’t go. The winding one-person path can lead to the promised land when it comes to ruffed grouse, and the only way to get there is on foot. Those boggy areas that would prevent motorized travel generally can be skirted on foot in the late season, providing you access to a whole new habitat that hunters who stick to their wheels just won’t have. Be ready to walk a few extra miles, and do it slowly, pausing often in order to bag a few extra birds each season. Under a canopy of red, orange and gold, there are few other afternoon walks as beautiful or as exciting when the leaves are scattered by a flushing grouse.
Get an Edge
Key in on places where old growth meets new, where clearings occur and where water winds its way through the woods. Look for distinct areas of forest management, maybe where pine meets aspen, or where mature popples bump up against young trees just establishing themselves. These spaces, along with water sources and terrain can provide a pattern to the area in regard to where birds locate and can be found time and again. Use a GPS to mark flushes on each trail and revisit them on your next walk; that way you’ll be a step ahead of the game later in the season.
Watching a dog twisting and turning around and through bushes, trunks and leaf litter before sending a ruffed grouse booming up through the trees is one of the great sights to behold each fall. Get your hunting buddy in on the action and introduce his nose to a new quarry. They are invaluable in flushing this bird which is fond of staying put until long after the dogless hunter has walked on by, and in finding a wounded one that might otherwise be lost after the shot in the browns and grays of the forest floor.
While the opportunity presents itself, take advantage of thousands of acres of public forest land filled with good numbers of birds this season. Be ready with these tips and learn a few new tricks of your own chasing the thunderous flush of the ruffed grouse…in our outdoors.
The ruffed grouse season starts on Sat. Sept. 12 in North Dakota, and Sat. Sept. 19 in Minnesota.
Featured Photo: Ruffed Grouse success comes with a lot of walking and a good reaction shot. Simonson Photo.