Michigan provides some of the best ruffed grouse hunting in the lower 48

Like the approaching fall, signs are prevalent that the ruffed grouse cycle has passed its peak across much of Michigan. Grouse hunters may want to make sure they plan a few extra hunts this fall while numbers are still near the top of their cycle. Michigan DNRE Upland Game Bird Specialist Al Stewart reports, “Although drumming routes were not conducted statewide in 2009, 42 drumming routes were run in the Upper Peninsula and two routes were run in the northern Lower Peninsula to monitor local populations. There was about a 17% decrease in the average number of drums heard per route between 2009 (18.0) and 2010 (14.9).”

Data from last year’s hunt also illustrated that changes were on the horizon. Flush rates for ruffed grouse reported in the Michigan Hunter Cooperator Survey for the 2009 hunting season were 28.6% lower than the average number of grouse flushed per hour in 2008. Ruffed grouse flush rates were highest in Zones 1 (Upper Peninsula) and 2 (Northern Lower Peninsula). Early season reports for the 2009 season from ruffed grouse and woodcock cooperators reported the highest flush rates for grouse from Grand Traverse, Benzie, Kalkaska, Wexford, and Oscoda Counties.

While grouse numbers have declined, hunters that also seek woodcock can expect to see a few more birds in the woods this fall. US Fish and Wildlife woodcock singing-ground counts in 2010 showed a 2.8 percent increase in singing males in Michigan over 2009 with 4.16 singing males heard per route surveyed. This is good news as woodcock numbers were down in 2009. Data from the Michigan Hunter Cooperator Survey showed that the average number of woodcock flushed per hour statewide by cooperators was slightly lower between 2009 (0.9) and 2008 (1.3). Woodcock flush rates were highest in Zone 2 (Northern Lower Peninsula), followed by Zones 3 (Southern Lower Peninsula) and 1 (Upper Peninsula), respectively. Early season reports during the 2009 season from cooperators found the counties having the highest flush rates for woodcock were Gladwin, Roscommon, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, and Wexford.

Stewart concludes, “We expect the grouse population this fall is going to be just below the cycles high point based on 2009 average flush rates from hunter cooperators. Average flush rates were lower than anticipated for both ruffed grouse and woodcock; however, we expect 2010 hunting opportunities to remain good. With favorable spring production, fall ruffed grouse and woodcock numbers could be similar to last year.”

Besides the drumming counts, weather conditions during the spring nesting and brood rearing period are a major factor determining fall Michigan grouse populations, Fortunately the important late May and early June brood rearing season occurred before this summer’s rainy period and allowed grouse chicks to be past the vulnerable first couple of weeks of their life. Anecdotal reports across Michigan indicate good ruffed grouse brood numbers with expectations for a good 2010 hunting season.

Michigan remains an important destination for out of state ruffed grouse hunters as it continues to provide some of the best ruffed grouse hunting remaining in the lower 48 states. A plentiful amount of land open for public hunting across the state is a draw for grouse hunters and ongoing timber management especially on state and industrial forest lands continue to provide habitat for these birds.

Thick, dense shrubby cover is important habitat for ruffed grouse and is a key for finding these birds in the fall. Young forest habitat, especially regenerated stands from 10 to 20 years of age, will hold the most birds. In much of the state, young aspen stands make up their prime habitat. The birds seek aspen or other similar habitat that provide dense cover to provide security from predators. In southern Lower Peninsula, aspen isn’t as abundant and the birds can be found in young oak stands or shrubby woodlot edges.

Locate an area with quality cover and a good food source nearby and your chances of finding grouse go up considerably. Popular fall grouse foods in Michigan include acorns, clover leaves, crab apples, hazelnut catkins, thorn apples, wild strawberry leaves, and wild grapes. Inspecting the crops of harvested grouse will quickly show you what the preferred food source in the area is. This summer’s rainfall was at or above normal levels resulting in lush vegetation with good seed and fruit production. This most likely will result in a greater dispersal of birds than in 2009. If dry conditions do develop during the fall, grouse will concentrate close to wet areas as the vegetation at those sites remain lush later in the fall with more dependable food sources present.

Unlike their grouse brothers, woodcock typically do quite well during wet periods as earthworms, which make up a majority of their diet, are easily obtainable. Woodcock can be located in young forest habitats often less than 10 years old that are close to wet areas. Large fallow fields or openings close to feeding sites are also important for fall woodcock as they provide overnight roosting sites for the birds.

Good luck this fall in your quest for two of our finest upland game birds in one of the best hunting areas in the country. Michigan is one of the nation’s top ruffed grouse producers and continues to be the top state in the country in terms of the number of woodcock being harvested.