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
The ruffed grouse season starts on Sat. Sept. 12 in North Dakota, and Sat. Sept. 19 in
By: Nick Simonson