Are Fall Grouse Numbers Plentiful?The Best Way To Find Out Is To Go Hunting…
Like stock market analysts, wildlife forecasters are better at explaining the past than predicting the future. Ruffed grouse populations follow 10-year cycles, more or less, and 1999 was the last peak year. According to recent field reports, Michigan grouse hunting this fall should be as good as last year, a relatively good season. Drumming counts this past spring were up 37 percent over 2009 although wet, cold weather may have hampered nesting success.
We’ll know for sure when we take to the woods September 15. The season runs through November 14 and then opens again for the month of December. Grouse cycles in Michigan tend to follow those in Wisconsin by one year and Minnesota by two years. Last year Minnesota gunners bagged a nation-high 465,000 grouse, and Wisconsin hunters killed 324,000 grouse. Due to budget cuts, Michigan has no harvest data.
It’s The Habitat
However many grouse are in the woods doesn’t matter, anyway. Having not missed a season in 50 years, I’m going, and you should, too. When I began hunting, as a kid, the woods all looked alike. Now I know that just as certain portions of a lake will hold more fish, so, too, do niches of upland habitat host more game birds. I began to understand grouse habitat when I found good shooting in certain covers and then made mental notes of what those covers contained. Piecing together prime covers from the mind images of thousands seen, I have also learned how to smell good grouse woods. Fermented fruits and berries, for example, always keep me on the lookout for birds.
Grouse cover is usually thick. Young aspen (aka poplar, ”popple” or slashings) aged five to 15 years is a favorite, not only because of the large, nutritious male buds (which grouse eat, especially in winter) but also because the stem density of young aspen protects the birds from hawks and owls.
There are many good covers in which to find grouse. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most serve as understory to aspen. They include gray, silky and red osier dogwood; witch and beaked hazel; blackberry, raspberry and blueberry; grapevines, crab apples, old orchards; willow, cherry, alder, birch and sometimes pine. Many years ago Michigan DNR biologists found more than 100 food types in the crops of birds they inspected. These foods included all types of berries, nuts and seeds. Acorns, beechnuts, hawthorn, rose hips, autumn olive and wintergreen berries are other examples of choice grouse fare.
Pick up a shirt-pocket size paperback on tree and wildflower identification. Also, check the crops of birds you kill. Be versatile and learn to hunt in many places, eliminating the unproductive ones.
The Fall Shuffle
Grouse are highly sensitive to their home turf, and what passed as excellent cover last year may decline to mediocrity the next and may well be worthless a few short years later. A grouse will spend his entire life in some 40 acres of woods if those woods contain drumming logs (for males), heavy density of aspen saplings (for nesting hens), a secure canopy (from raptors), and food.
Family units begin to break up in fall and young birds, particularly the males, seek new territories they can claim as breeding grounds in spring. The phenomenon is called the fall shuffle. Although most birds travel only a mile or two, telemetry research shows they may move up to 25 miles. When hunters remove birds from prime territories, others typically move in to claim the vacancy.
The Three Seasons
Within the three-month Michigan hunting season are three separate mini-seasons. Each has its good and bad points. For example, on the September 15 opener, grouse can be anywhere because food is more abundant than at any other time of year. Further, the ground cover of green bracken fern, coupled with full foliage on trees and shrubs, provides lots of protection, making clean shots a special challenge. For years, the hunting season opened on October 1; to this day, some veteran grouse hunters won’t step in the woods until October 1.
When you do find September grouse, though, multiple flushes from intact families are possible. Sometimes, it is a simple matter to follow up scattered birds to get reflushes. But as a general rule, you will earn every bird you bag.
By mid-October, after the first freeze or two, dying bracken turns brown and wilts and trees become leaf-barren. The fall shuffle scatters juveniles as they look for the prime habitats described earlier. Most of the hunter harvest occurs from mid-October until mid-November. As mentioned earlier, the hunting season closes during the firearms deer hunting season (November 15 to 30) and then reopens in December.
The best place to find December grouse is in what I call ‘green stuff,’ pockets of evergreen cover (conifers) such as cedar, hemlock, spruce swamps, pine plantations and the like. Find green stuff that abuts to mature aspen or birch clumps and you will probably find grouse. Why? The conifers provide protection from weather and predators; the aspens provide food.
On only one occasion friends and I found December grouse in food cover-a combination of sumac and gray dogwood thickets that rode a half-mile-long slope-without such security cover nearby. It is likely these grouse had flown a half-mile from a pine shelterbelt at the back of the farm we were hunting.
On wet, rainy days grouse sit tightly in their tree roosts where they feel safe. On windy days, their sight and sound defenses are compromised; consequently, they become jittery and often flush wild.
When hunting in snow, look for tracks because grouse sometimes walk surprisingly long distances in their search for food. I have followed their triple-toed prints for up to a half-mile before wing prints in the snow said they took to the air. This behavior is especially true on warmer winter days. On bitter cold ones, the birds seem more inclined to fly to feeding areas.
Sometimes you will find several oval depressions in the show where grouse roosted. Usually the depressions contain green-yellow droppings. In deep fluff, grouse often burrow completely under the insulating snow, which keeps them both warm and safe. At other times you can find them roosting in conifers, a good place to hunt early or late in the day. Peak winter hunting periods, however, are mid-morning through mid-afternoon when birds are foraging.
Snow and cold weather, along with a shrinking dinner table, tend to concentrate grouse, sometimes in bunches of a dozen or so. Two key times to go hunting are just before and just after a snowfall because hungry birds will then be on the move. The season’s first snowfall gives grouse a sense of false security, and they will often sit tightly for a pointing dog or walking hunter.
Hunting with a dog adds immeasurable joy to this sport, but don’t let your lack of dog power keep you from trying it. Plenty of dogless hunters kill plenty of grouse in Michigan. Dogs just make it more fun, that’s all. Whether you use a setter or a Lab, a pointer or a springer, is a personal choice.
Guns and Loads
Much has been written about proper grouse guns and loads. My rule is simple: Use what works best under the conditions in which you hunt. I typically like light loads in small-size shot and skeet or improved cylinder barrels. I’ve found that No. 7 and one-half shot in a AA load patterns best in the 28 gauge side by side I prefer to carry. In December, though, I often stoke up with No. 6 shot in a field load and screw in modified or even full choke tubes. The reason? Nervous birds flush farther away and sometimes require the heavier round thrown from a tightly choked barrel to bring down.
I’m hopeful grouse numbers will be plentiful this fall. I’m certain about this: The best way to find out is to go hunting.