Grouse Hunting in America

What types of grouse are there, where can you go grouse hunting, and what are the best gear and tactics to use?

The dictionary definition of grouse goes like this: "any of various chiefly ground-dwelling birds (family Tetraonidae) that are usually of reddish-brown or other protective color and have feathered legs and that include many important game birds."

Really? That definition is like eating unsalted crackers, it just seems incomplete. For the record (and it doesn't always sound much better) grouse are a group of birds, particularly game birds, that are of the order Galliforms which may sound a little scientific and snooty, but the fact is that some of the birds that we rely on the most for subsistence are Galliforms like chickens and turkeys.

We're going to explore, in a little more detail, what species there are, where they can be located, and how to chase them down and eat them.

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There are many varieties of grouse, and even though some don't have "grouse" in their name, there's a lot to love about all of them. Grouse are some of the best eating game birds there are, but they're not going to just jump in the frying pan for you. You're going to have to work for them.

There are many species around the world that fall under the flag of grouse, but we'll just deal with the ones found in North America.

Sage Grouse

According to the North American Grouse Partnership, the sage grouse is the largest of the grouse species in North America and their "long pointed tail, and distinctive mottled grey-and-white plumage distinguish the greater sage-grouse from all other North American grouse."

As with all grouse, they are ground nesting birds that average 6-10 eggs after breeding, laid in a nest made primarily under, you guessed it, sagebrush plants.

The current range of the greater sage grouse population includes a small bit of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada,   southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota, most of Montana and Wyoming, and western Colorado. The sage grouse also inhabits parts of southern and eastern Idaho, portions of Utah, northern Nevada, northeast parts of California, southeast Oregon, and north-central Washington state.

Prairie Grouse

This includes both the greater prairie chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse. The prairie chicken is well known for its amazing breeding courtship displays, but are basically a medium-sized grouse with both sexes having a similar plumage. Adults are uniformly barred with alternating brown and buffy white bands. Their upper half is a bit darker and more richly colored than their underparts.

At one time the greater prairie chicken ranged over much of the contiguous U.S., but time and human expansion have diminished their home range tremendously. They still have viable populations throughout Kansas, Nebraska, and in to South Dakota.

The sharp tailed grouse somewhat resembles the ruffed grouse being that adults have a relatively short tail with the two central (deck) feathers being square-tipped and somewhat longer than their lighter, outer tail feathers. It's this distinctive feature that gives this grouse its name.

The sharp-tailed grouse inhabits a more northern climate, but exists from Nebraska through the Dakotas and most of Montana. This wily game bird also inhabits most of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada all the way into the Northern Territory and much of Alaska.

Forest Grouse

The forest grouse family includes the dusky grouse, sooty grouse, spruce grouse, and the inimitable ruffed grouse. Probably the most famous of these is the venerable ruffed grouse, which claims one of the greatest wildlife organizations, The Ruffed Grouse Society, firmly behind its well being on the continent.

The spruce grouse has a distinctive scarlet eye patch and is relatively small compared to other North American grouse. Both sexes are difficult to distinguish in the field, but males are heavily black and dark gray with enlarged scarlet eyebrows.

The spruce grouse is mainly a Canadian bird with populations in the east stretching into the state of Maine. The spruce grouse also dwells in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the northern part of Idaho, and western Montana. Alaska also has these birds in most of the state.

The ruffed grouse may be the most popular of the grouse species with hunters everywhere. There have been many books written about the lifetime of joy chasing the Bonasa umbellus, and rightly so. The ruffed grouse are widely distributed across North America, including in 38 of the 50 states, and is found in all Canadian Provinces.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have particularly dense populations, great ruffed grouse habitat, and some of the greatest ruffed grouse hunting in the country.

Ruffed grouse are one of the smaller species of North American grouse, but their wing-speed velocity and wily nature make them sometimes appear much larger. Males are often larger than the females, but the males have shiny black to dark brown neck feathers that are especially larger in the males.

Ruffed grouse tails are relatively long and rounded with the male's usually being unbroken at the band. The male has a unique system of finding a "grouse drumming log" on which to pump his wings and announce his territory to other grouse in the area.

Grouse Hunting Tactics

For any of the grouse species, stealth, guile, and patience are your best bets. After that, bird hunters with an upland bird dog working as their best friend in the grouse woods and prairies are the most successful.

Many prefer the pointing breeds to identify grouse holding in the cover, but some use the flushing breeds and have good success as well. A good bird dog can find and track a wounded bird better than you or I could ever do.

Beyond a good hunting dog, these are the other things to keep in mind while trying to pursue grouse. 

Stop and Go Grouse Hunting

Hunting for any of the grouse (which some call partridge) species is a lifelong love affair for many, and for most of us, it started without the help of a dog. In those days it was not only paramount to find an area that held birds, but then to find a way to get them up and shoot them down.

After a lot of years and a lot of trial and error, we found that slowing down and spreading out was the best way to put grouse in the possibles bag.

Walk with a hunter on your left and one on your right side, moving in a line. Grouse often prefer a running escape, and a line of this type helps with that factor. Every so often a bird will wait out a hunter that keeps moving, let them walk by, and flush behind them in the opposite direction. The wider the line, the less likely it is that something like this happens.

Walking with a stop-and-go approach (while remaining quiet) makes these birds nervous as to your intentions, and they will hopefully flush in front of you most of the time.

Even for those with a good pointer, a dog can only hold a grouse for what seems like moments before they bust and disappear into oblivion. For those using a flushing breed, sometimes you will only hear the flush ahead of you without getting your eyes on the target.

Slow down, pay close attention to your surroundings (and your dog!), and you'll find the patience will pay off.

Early Season Hunting

It's a fact of hunting seasons: the earlier you can get in the field, the better.

One of the reasons why we see success in the early season is due to the fact that the younger birds haven't yet had a season of survival under their wings. These young-of-the-year birds just aren't sure what's happening yet, and fall victim to the simple fact that they don't really know what sort of threat a hunter or a dog poses.

I've also noticed a distinct difference in locating grouse depending on the time of season. In hilly areas such as New York's Southern Tier, we have found that in the earlier parts of the season the birds tend to reside lower on the hills. In the later part of the year we would find more birds higher, hugging tight to the pines as winter approached, presumably because of food sources.

Early season grouse hunting means that you are going to have to try to see and shoot birds that are flushing through cover that is still green and lush. The best advice here is simple: shoot! It's not always easy, especially for a first time grouse hunter, but the lesson learned is to visually locate  a bird, mount the gun to your shoulder, and follow it with a swing and a shot.

You'll miss all the shots you don't take, so being liberal with attempts is the name of the game.

Usually a thick mix of good food sources and grouse cover is ideal habitat for escape-prone birds, typically young aspen tree plots as thick as you can find.

Trying to locate the right cover, without tripping over areas that have already been hunted, is not always easy. Dig in and try to scour the area for thick coverts where the birds are that other folks just don't want to walk through. Just make sure to scout ahead of time, have a compass with you, and stay aware of all property area boundaries no matter where you're hunting.

Grouse Hunting Dogs

Some feel strongly that anything other than a pointer, and a very good one at that, is more of a liability than an asset in grouse hunting. There are even those who'd argue that you may be better off without even using one.

A good pointer for grouse is usually one that can be trained to hunt close and stay steady to a flush and the shot. Sometimes, a longer ranging dog will work, but your canine has got to be one that works delicately and points at a longer range.

Short of this, birds will not hold, and long-range flushes through the cover just don't work.

This is why the flushing breeds aren't so good for grouse hunting. I've hunted grouse over them and it wasn't horrible; I've found that it all depends on the dog. Some flushers are just naturals at working slowly and methodically, letting the hunter keep close enough to be in range when the flush happens.

This is similar to hunting without a four-legged hunting partner, but having a dog's nose available and using it to understand when your dog is "hot" on a bird can certainly be an advantage.

Grouse Hunting Guns

There are plenty of variables to consider when discussing the ideal grouse gun, but semi-auto or pump shotguns are typically the most common these days. An over/under shotgun can work well too.

Lots of grouse hunters believe that if a shotgun has one barrel, it needs to choked wide open. If it's got two, it should be choked in skeet or improved cylinder.

I still swear by my trusty 12 gauge, but I have friends that love their 20 gauge for its ease of swing and lightweight carrying ability. It's a hunting gear argument as old as the shotgun itself, and by now we're used to that sort of thing.

The other aspect is shot loads. There's really not much argument either way, because most grouse are smaller birds that can get knocked down easily by today's high quality ammunition. I've really never heard of anyone wanting any more than 2-3/4" loads filled with 7-1/2 or 8 shot sizes.

Where the rubber hits the road sometimes is when style meets substance. Most would agree that any good shotgun can and will kill a grouse, but sometimes we want a little something more. This is where a grouse-specific hunter may sometimes find him or herself wanting a custom gun that is made to order for the hunter, but could be just as important to the gun collector.

Be sure to include some blaze orange outer wear and good, comfortable hunting boots in your grouse hunting gear arsenal.

Hunting Tips for the Other Grouse Species

Hunting tips can vary when you're seeking advice for grouse, and upland hunters across the United States use differing strategies on the birds they hunt. There's no end all, be all method; it involves finding good grouse habitat and applying the things you know about the game species to your approach.

Spruce grouse are known as the "Fool Hen," but it is not always a deserved nickname. They tend to sit and wait, they don't have a particularly strong flush, and sometimes they don't even go very far afterwards. Many hunters simply walk old logging roads and other pathways and shoot them from the trees.

They say that if you are hunting for sage grouse, then you'd better be prepared to walk. Sage grouse are more of an open country bird and need to be observed from a distance, when possible, to make hunting them more fruitful. This is where good glassing tenets come in handy, which is great considering that most hunters in grouse-rich regions also hunt game animals like pronghorn antelope and mule deer. Don't make the mistake of only glassing hunting spots for big game!

Most sage grouse move the most in the early morning and again in the evening, typically to and from feeding areas. This grouse subspecies is a great foe for a good upland bird dog, especially since they group together. This gives a dog plenty of opportunity to gather scent and find coveys of birds.

If you are interested in chasing some prairie chicken, then most would tell you to head straight for Kansas. It's said that the Flint Hills region of Kansas, more specifically spanning from the Oklahoma border all the way north to Nebraska, is the Mecca for hunting these stunning birds anywhere in the U.S. This is due to the fact that they group up in large coveys. Yes, more sets of bird eyes and ears means a covey can see you coming from a mile away, but there are things that you can do.

The good folks at Project Upland tell us that both the prairie chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse prefer the sunny side of hills in the morning and like to bath in the early morning sun. That means, "With the sun rising in the east, and the east side hills warming up first, it might be good to hunt from the west. Walking west to east allows the hunter to crest the back, shady side of the hills coming over the top of the morning roosted birds. By doing this, it allows the hunter to have the element of surprise as the birds have less time to spot the danger coming."

Concluding Factors

One of the best uses of public land for upland game bird hunting are the many Wildlife Management Areas (WMAS) found in many states across our nation. For those that are fortunate enough to have private land hunting opportunities, the fact remains that wild birds are just that. Your best chance at success comes in the form of good scouting, a good bird dog, and a little bit of luck.

For the serious grouse enthusiast, it is a lifetime of trying and failing that eventually makes a good grouse hunter. It is the missed opportunities that gain us the most experience; the grouse not taken and the teeth gritting failure are what make us keep going back, and spurn our continued improvement in upland hunting techniques.

Depending on the type of grouse that you are chasing the tactics can be different, but the outcome can still remain the same: lots of miles walked and a hope of something to show for it. It's true that wildlife biologists say to stop hunting for grouse in the winter, as their survival rates plummet during the colder months, but in most areas where they exist the season goes on until after the snow flies.

As long as you're within legal hunting season dates and practicing good hunting ethics, you should strive to do all the grouse hunting you can. Success will find you eventually.

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