By Don Mallicoat- Grouse season is here! I missed out on our annual Grouse Safari up north this year. It’s a great way to start the season with a high flush rate and addition opportunities to bag a few woodcock. Here in the mountains, it’s a great day when you flush six to eight birds a day. According to the NC WRC Grouse Hunter survey, the average flush rate per trip is between three and four birds. If you’ve never grouse hunted and want to give it a try, there are two primary considerations: habitat and hunting methods.
Southern quail hunters find their birds on field edges. Grouse are birds of thick forest, early-successional, and forest edges. Unlike quail, grouse are loners and find their 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.
Grouse have three basic needs: cover, food, and water. Cover is most important during the early season to escape predators to include hawks and owls. Fall is one of the peaks of mortality for grouse due to predators. That usually means young forest or a timber cut six to twenty years old with high stem density. That’s probably why they say 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, and particularly near those regenerating forests. During the early hunting season the birds feed mainly on late season berries such as wild grapes and also on hard mast such as acorns.
As the season progresses, their diet turns more toward leftover acorns, green briar berries, and 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 laurel or rhododendron thickets. On sunny days during the winter you may find them on a sunny hillside, but it will still be in thick cover. Don’t forget the grouse’s need for water. Wet areas near streams with a lot of vegetation near the stream bed are important to grouse.
So now that you know what habitat they like, where and how do you hunt? What you are looking for is trails off the main roads. Those trails are usually old logging roads or Forest Service gated maintenance roads. Get a good topographic map and visit the District Rangers office in the Pisgah National Forest. Ask to see the age classification map. Find those areas that have had timber management activity ten to 15 years ago. Mark those areas on your map as potential areas to hunt.
A popular technique among many grouse hunters is to walk these service roads letting the dogs work either side of the road. When they get to a likely spot like an old logging road, thick clearcut, or habitat like that mentioned earlier they swing off the road to hunt it and make a loop back to the service road. Experience has taught most dedicated grouse hunters which roads and trails are productive. Unfortunately, for the first time hunter this can be a hit or miss proposition.
So what do you need to get started? Think lightweight. Grouse cover is steep. For that reason, most hunters dress in briar pants, a shirt, and hunting vest or light coat. You will end up sweating at some point. Boots with a good sole for traction and ankle support are important, and may be the only heavy thing you need. If you sit around with a bunch of grouse hunters discussing the best gun for grouse, the typical arguments with ensue. There are only about two points of agreement: light and short. Light because you will be carrying it up and down steep hills, and short because in the thick cover of the grouse world there’s not much room to swing a long barreled gun. Most grouse hunters tote short-barreled over/under or side-by-side shotguns with open chokes. Gauge choice is a personal preference; most hunters prefer a 20 or 28 gauge. No matter your choice of gauge, shot size preference is usually 7 ½ or 8.
One more thing. This is much more pleasurable with a dog. I wouldn’t hunt without one.
Don Mallicoat owns Wings & Clays Guns ‘N Gear and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org