When people find out that I am a hunter, the typical follow-up questions is, “What do you like to hunt?” I’m always a little stymied by this question because to answer, “Everything,” somehow seems like the wrong answer. Like it’s too much. But it’s the truth. Whatever hunting trip is up next, always fills me with excitement and anticipation. While I truly love it all, grouse hunting is the stuff of magic. It’s a crisp fall day walking a Northwoods trail resplendent in her finest colors, following a beloved dog, shotgun in hand. Grouse hunting is a poetry of the scent of the autumn woods, boot leather, the flurry of wings, the shot, and occasionally being successful. It’s holding the king of North American game birds in your hand, contemplating the grouse’s beauty for a moment, and then slipping it into your game vest. And it’s a meal of roast grouse in winter. I hope I never have to choose just one hunt, but if I had to, it might just be hunting the Ruffed Grouse. Here’s the HuntTested Ultimate Grouse Hunting Guide.
About the Ruffed Grouse
The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is a medium-sized forest-dwelling bird that ranges from the Appalachian Mountains across Canada to Alaska. Ruffed Grouse are the most widely distributed resident game bird in North America. They can be found in all of the Canadian Provinces and in 38 states. The Ruffed Grouse is non-migratory, and it is the only species in its genus. Sometimes the Ruffed Grouse is referred to as a “partridge”, especially where I hunt in Northern Minnesota, but this is incorrect. There’s no relation to the partridge., but, as culture guides language, the term has stuck.
Grouse populations tend to follow a 10-year boom and bust population cycle, but this cycle doesn’t seem to correlate strongly to my success in the woods. Regardless of the drumming counts, (how the wildlife agencies measure grouse population) I will be in the grouse woods each fall.
Ruffed Grouse for Adult-Onset Hunters
In recent years I’ve noticed an uptick in non-hunters asking me about hunting and how to get started. I think this is great! The challenge for many people who didn’t grow up with a hunting tradition is, it can be a very tough lifestyle to break into. Land access, specialized gear, and knowledge are all barriers that can make it daunting to try hunting.
As a result, I always recommend grouse hunting to adult-onset hunters because the barriers are so low. You need a cheap shotgun, a pair of boots and an orange cap and vest to get started and that’s it. You don’t have to get up at three in the morning to grouse hunt, there are millions of acres of public land so access is not a problem, and if you’re not successful, you’ve had a pleasant walk in the woods. What’s not to like?
If you’re interested in getting started, most state DNR and wildlife agencies have hunter education and firearm safety programs, and I highly recommend starting with these programs. Additionally, if you’ve never hunted grouse, the book Grouse Hunter’s Guide is an excellent overview.
Grouse Hunting Dogs
Unlike pheasant hunting, where hunting without a dog will radically lower your success rate, grouse hunting can be done quite successfully without a dog.
For me, grouse hunting with a dog is a joy and my preferred method. I’ve switched in recent years from Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, a flushing breed and certainly not a traditional grouse dog, to a Brittany. Hunting grouse with a pointing dog is pure pleasure and for me has proven to be a clear advantage over hunting with Chessies.
If you want to get a dedicated grouse hunting dog, I’ve always thought that the English Setter is the quintessential grouse dog and a particularly stylish hunter. However, regardless of the breed, most any sporting breed, flushers, and pointers can be great grouse dogs, and you’ll be happier for their company in the woods.
Safety considerations when hunting with a dog in the grouse woods
- Conibear Traps: In many areas where grouse are prevalent, you’ll also find that trappers are active. It’s a good idea to carry cordage in your game vest and know how to use it to free your dog from a conibear trap. Here’s a video showing how to free your dog from a conibear trap
- Dog Vest: I highly recommend a protective vest whenever your dog is hunting. For grouse hunting in particular there are sticks and briars that can injure or cut your dog. A protective vest has saved my dogs from more than one trip to the vet. I currently use this Sylmar dog vest.
- GPS Collar: Grouse hunting is typically done in very thick cover. You can lose sight of your dog in the blink of an eye. I’ve lost track of my dogs on more than one occasion. It’s a horrible feeling, but thankfully I’ve always eventually found them. You can spare yourself this risk with a GPS dog collar. If you lose sight of your dog and they are trapped or injured finding them quickly could make all the difference. Since I’ve started using a GPS dog collar, I won’t hunt my dog without one. I use the SportDOG Tek 2.0 GPS Collar.
Grouse Hunting Guns
The shotgun you presently own is likely just fine for hunting grouse. If you are an avid grouse hunter, you may want to invest in a gun more suited for that purpose. An ideal grouse gun has the following qualities:
- It’s light, fast handling, and fits you well.
- It’s the right gauge. 20 gauge is my preference. Avid grouse hunters will debate the virtues of the 28 gauge or even the .410, but for most the 20 gauge is perfect.
- Open choke. Grouse shots are generally close range. An improved cylinder or even a skeet choke is preferred.
My present go-to grouse guns are a 20 gauge Benelli Montefeltro with an improved cylinder choke, and a 20 gauge Browning Citori White Lightning with a skeet choke in the under barrel, and an improved cylinder choke in the upper barrel. I shoot 3″, 7-1/2 shot loads that duplicate the amount of shot in a 12 gauge.
Grouse Hunting Clothing
Here’s what commonly wear while grouse hunting:
- Brush Pants – the LL Bean Upland Pant is a favorite
- Shooting Shirts – Boyt Harness has a nice line of upland shirts
- Socks – Smartwool
- Belt – Filson
- Blaze Baseball Cap
- Fleece Headband – handy to keep in your pocket and slip over your ears if it gets cold
- Upland Jacket
- Boots – Irish Setter Wingshooter Model 894
- Game Vest – LL Bean makes a great upland vest
- Leather Shooting Gloves – Bob Allen
- Shooting Glasses – always a good idea, but also helps to avoid sticks in your eyes while grouse hunting.
- Suspenders – Boyt Harness
- Wicking non-cotton T-Shirt
Grouse Hunting Gear
Here’s a list of the basic gear that I carry while grouse hunting:
- Dog Whistle – SportDOG
- Flashlight – The small Streamlight Protac is perfect for pocket carry
- Leatherman Wave
- Hand sanitizer – For after cleaning a grouse
- OnX Hunt App on my iPhone- Ideal for grouse hunting to find public land and trails to hunt. Check out our comprehensive review of the OnX Hunt App.
- Ziplock bags for storing cleaned grouse
This was a basic overview of grouse hunting and the gear you need to be successful. We hope this inspires you to take to the grouse woods this Fall. Better yet, invite someone along who has never hunted.
Editors Note: Consider joining the Ruffed Grouse Society. The Ruffed Grouse Society is a conservation organization dedicated to preserving our sporting traditions by creating healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and other wildlife.
Related Content: The Ultimate Pheasant Hunting Gear List
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