It’s that magical time of year for me. Grouse season started two weeks ago. A lot of people come in the store asking where to hunt grouse in our region. The mountains of the Tarheel state are near the southern end of the ruffed grouse’s range. Although grouse populations here are not as high as in northern regions, the numbers are huntable and we have a long season extending from mid-October to the end of February. According to the NC WRC Grouse Hunter survey, the average flush rate per trip is three to four birds.
Grouse are birds of the thick forest and forest edges. Grouse are loners and find security in thick cover. Occasionally you will flush several birds from one location, but that is primarily because of weather and habitat rather than a natural inclination to seek security. And that folks is what makes grouse hunting so challenging, thick cover.
And thick cover usually means early successional forest or a timber cut six to twenty years old. You know you’re in grouse cover if you drop your gun and it doesn’t hit the ground. Early in the season when birds are scattered you are likely to find them anywhere: along trail edges, under conifers, in particularly near those regenerating forests. During the early season birds feed mainly on late season berries such as wild grapes and also on hard mast such as acorns. Grouse in the Appalachians are dependent on acorns in the fall and into winter if they’re still available. If the food source is near the grouses protective cover, it also reduces mortality because they burn less energy looking for food and aren’t as exposed to predators.
As the season progresses, their diet turns more toward any left over acorns, green briar berries, birch buds, and some green leaves. Their protective cover also changes as the season goes along. As winter sets in their habitat tends to shrink with warmth being a primary concern, and that usually means rhododendron thickets. On sunny days during the winter you may find them on a south slope, but it will still be in thick cover. Wet areas near streams with a lot of vegetation near the stream bed are important to grouse.
So where do you go to hunt Tarheel Partridge? There are over a million acres of Game Lands in the mountains to include the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests and DuPont State Forest. That’s a lot of land so you have to focus. The Forest Service sells maps of both National Forests. What you are looking for is trails off the main roads. Those trails are usually old logging roads or Forest Service gated maintenance roads. A popular technique among many grouse hunters is to walk these service roads letting the dogs work either side. When they get to a likely spot like an old logging road, thick clear cut, or habitat like that mentioned earlier hunters swing off the road to hunt and loop back to the service road.
No matter the breed, dogs have to work close and respond to commands. That may be why the continental breeds like Brittany Spaniels and German Shorthairs are popular here. Even if the dog is close working, most hunters still use locator collars or bells. A dog can go on point in a rhododendron thicket fifty yards away and you may not see or hear him. Although you don’t see many of them, a good close working flushing breed like a Springer Spaniel or Lab will work.
Unlike grouse habitat in some northern states where it can be relatively flat or rolling hills, some of our grouse cover is steep. The service roads generally follow the contour of the terrain along hillsides and ridges and aren’t too bad. It’s when you get off the beaten path that you can work up a sweat. For that reason, most hunters dress in briar pants, a shirt, and hunting vest or light coat (if it’s really cold). Boots with good traction and ankle support are important.
If you sit around with a bunch of grouse hunters discussing the best gun for grouse, arguments with ensue. There are only about two points of agreement: light and short. The window you normally have for a shot at a departing grouse is measured in nanoseconds. Grouse aren’t hard to kill, they’re hard to hit. Gauge choice is a personal preference, although many people use 20’s and a few are deadly with a 28 gauge. No matter your choice of gauge, shot size preference is usually 7 ½ or 8. So grab the gun and hit the mountains. Grouse season is here!