Getting Started Grouse Hunting
By J. Oswald
For those of us that have discovered the excitement of hunting ruffed grouse in the Upper Midwest, the temptation is to focus on the next piece of upland equipment… a slick over/under, maybe a sturdier pair of boots or briar chaps. As outdoorsmen and women, we know this feeling all too well. A half hour with the latest Cabelas or LL Bean catalog can leave even the thriftiest sportsman with an urge to buy unnecessary gear.
The aspiring grouse hunter can take heart in knowing that costs of entry to this particular outdoor pursuit are surprisingly low. In fact, much of what is needed to hunt grouse can be found in the average Midwest hall closet or basement. A hunter can be ready for action in a pair of lightweight boots, a blaze orange cap and a vest or jacket holding shells, license, snacks and other essentials (i.e., a good map or even a GPS with fresh batteries).
This is a minimalist pursuit, akin to a day hike with a shotgun. If you don’t have a shotgun, odds are you won’t have too much trouble finding a neighbor or relative with enough free time and spare armaments to get you started. Shotguns with the right combination of light weight and short barrel length will perform well during long days pushing through tight cover. Semiautomatics or double guns are excellent choices for their quick handling and rapid follow up shots.
Regarding shot and choke selection, fully expect to hear lifelong debates among grouse enthusiasts about which combination is best. A good recommendation would be to start light in both regards, such as an improved cylinder or skeet choke paired with #8 shot. This combination will deliver a wide pattern at close range, perfect for birds flushed from underfoot. When conditions in the field present longer shots, today’s hunter can simply choke up for tighter patterns thanks to the interchangeable choke tube. Realize, however, that this point quickly becomes irrelevant without the ability to find birds. An old adage says that while novices concentrate on hardware, veterans focus on software. This applies perfectly to grouse hunting, as a little knowledge and woods-savvy will outperform a truck full of the latest gear every time.
Identifying productive cover is the most challenging part of this sport. Developing this skill is critical to success for any grouse hunter, and it comes through a combination of careful observation and a commitment to learning about grouse habitat and behavior. Take notes when birds flush, especially regarding the type of plants and forage in the immediate area. A field guide to shrubs and trees can help identify the surrounding “stuff.” Harvested birds also hold information in the contents of their crops. When birds are field dressed, the hunter should inspect these for up-to-the-minute clues about the day’s menu. Discovering matching forage in similar cover will often yield an extra bird-in-hand.
The Upper Midwest is full of places to begin a grouse hunting adventure. Wisconsin’s county forest system is an excellent place to start. Since these forests are actively managed for timber harvest, the hunter can expect to find easy access to a wealth of thick, young forest cover prized by ruffed grouse. Remember, these birds prefer diverse, early succession forest growth that provides them with excellent protection from predators and lots of diet choices. The county forest harvest management system ensures both grouse and hunters a steady, rotating supply of this cover. Any county north of US Highway 10 in Wisconsin is a good place to begin the search, with a few counties south of this line showing potential.
The national and state managed forest systems are also good prospects with ample public access for hunters. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin, the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan all hold their share of ruffed grouse. Logging roads within any of these systems are great places to begin since they are usually lined with the brushy transitional cover that holds birds. Since the logging trails themselves provide the grit needed for digestion, these areas can attract birds early and late in the day.
With easy access, cheap licenses, long seasons, and minimal gear requirements, grouse hunting can be just the ticket for the jaded sportsman looking for a new way to connect with the outdoors. But don’t be fooled by the low cost of entry and easy access, as this activity demands more calories than it yields. Try to keep a positive attitude and enjoy the thrill of matching wits with one of the wildest and most elusive game birds in the world.