Ruffed grouse (colloquially called partridge) are the premier upland game bird of northern New England and are both delicious and incredibly difficult to hunt. They often dwell in the kind of thick, previously logged, new-growth forest habitat that is nearly impossible to walk through and offers a wall of brushy cover that can make spotting and hitting birds a tall order.
A hunter with a well- trained canine companion can level the playing field somewhat due to the fact that a good dog can sniff out birds and give the hunter a slight edge. Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to give a hunting dog the proper home and training it needs and are thus stuck hunting solo. All is not lost, however, and the following tips will improve a hunter’s chances of bagging a few grouse without the aid of a dog.
1. Locate fruit sources
Omnivorous ruffed grouse have a varied diet that includes insects, snails, slugs, mushrooms, and the leaves and buds of trees (usually poplar), but they have a particular affinity for the various fruits that are common to their habitat. For example, Vermont, where I learned to hunt, has an abundance of now-wild apple trees mixed into its thick, new growth forests. It is inevitable that when apples are an option, grouse will forsake greens, bugs, and slugs in favor of the sugary, high calorie fruit. Indeed, most of the grouse I bagged while living Vermont were shot within 30-yards of an apple tree.
In areas where wild apples are uncommon, as they are in eastern Maine where I currently hunt, an observant hunter willing to do a little exploring will likely still be able to find concentrated sources of fruit bearing plants. For example, hobblebush, which is common to the woods of northern New England, yields bright red berries that are relished by grouse.
Other fruits that may attract grouse include choke cherries, blackberries (if they are still present at the start of hunting season), and the fruit of hawthorn trees or “haws”.
2. Stick to the beaten path
Whenever it is possible, safe, and legal to do so, it makes sense for a grouse hunter to stick to established trails and decommissioned logging roads. The primary reason for holding to roads and trails is that these travel ways provide grouse with a convenient source of dust and pebbles. The birds dust themselves to control parasites, and eat small pebbles to aid in the breakdown of food stored in their gizzards. It follows that grouse often stay within easy striking distance of a path or road. Areas where a food source, such as a stand of apple trees or poplar saplings, is immediately adjacent to gravel path or road typically yield a lot of grouse.
Trails and roads also facilitate easy movement through the thick, brushy, and nearly unwalkable new-growth forests that comprise typical ruffed grouse habitat.
3. On rainy days, take to the pines
Grouse, much like any other terrestrial animal in existence, don’t like to be rained on and will seek shelter during inclement weather. This shelter often takes the form of such coniferous trees as balsams and spruces. Stands of pines that are in close proximity to food sources are particularly good places to look for grouse on wet weather days.