Early Season Grouse – Beating the Bushes

By Rich Davenport, published November 13, 2021

Early season grouse from Allegany State Park

October marks the start of most hunting seasons in New York.  One of the most enjoyable autumn activities is early season grouse hunting.  When the woods are still off-limits to deer hunting, outdoors enthusiasts experience the changing autumn landscape; enjoy the bounties of the harvest and the exhilaration of flushing coveys of ruffed grouse, one of New York’s ultimate game birds.

Over the past several years, New York’s ruffed grouse populations have dwindled to near-record low numbers.  Despite the cyclical nature of grouse and increased existence of predators, chiefly coyotes, ruffed grouse nonetheless offer the hunter a special time in the woods.  Although finding placed to hunt ruffed grouse has become more challenging, many areas of New York still provide for days of fast action to the grouse hunter.

October 1 marks the opening of New York’s Southern Zone grouse hunting season, which runs through the end of February.  During the first days of the season, grouse are still well concealed by the deciduous leaves still hanging high on the trees, as the process of change transforms the green hillsides to shades of red, orange and yellow.  The beauty of a grouse hunt during October and into November is breathtaking, at times, and well worth the time spent in the woods, even if the day’s hunt does not result in harvesting a bird or two.  Early season presents perhaps the most challenging conditions to the grouse hunter, as each day delivers new conditions; changes that influence ruffed grouse behavior and leave the hunter in utter frustration.

Such is the grouse hunt.  Yet, with some practice and advance knowledge of the realities of change, success rates climb.

Many leaves favor footed flight

Ruffed grouse spend much of their time on the ground during October.  This behavior is relatively easy to understand.  First, grouse enjoy an abundance of concealment while vegetation is on the trees.  Leaves act as blinds for hiding grouse, and more often than not, a bird will hold tight under the thorn apple trees and amongst the briar patches, feeding on the bounty of foods still plentiful during this part of the season.  As danger approaches, the grouse will hold tight, waiting for the last minute before making a dash to safety.  The key word in this statement is “dash.”  Although grouse are certainly able fliers, one cannot discount their fleet-footed characteristics, and staying on terra firma often allows a grouse to “slip out the back door” undetected.  Certainly, use of a hunting dog, such as a well-trained pointer, goes a long way to evening up the odds, but hunters should not be timid about seeking early season grouse without man’s best friend.

Grouse hunters must work as a team during early season.  Understanding the grouse will typically inhabit places that offer abundant food and water should favor hunting brushy areas where apples, berries and wild grains are present.  Hunters should spread out in a staggered line, with all eyes scanning the ground in search of the profile that is unique to the game bird.  Approach likely holding spots slowly, and allow each hunter to encircle prime habitat.  Hunters should always approach thickets by walking into the wind, and note as many potential escape routes as possible.  Three or more hunters works best during early season, as one hunter can act as the “bird dog,” heading directly into likely cover, while the others get ready on the edges, staying sharp as a bird can bolt from their cover in either direction when opting to run instead of flush.

Holding Tight makes for close encounters

Heavy cover means grouse will tend to hold tight, waiting for the last possible instance to flee from danger.  This characteristic of grouse hunting makes for some exciting, close up action.  Since the leaves act as a shield, grouse will often not see your approach until you are right on top of their position.  Preparing for that flush just a few feet from your footfalls is never truly mastered.  Their thunderous takeoffs can startle even the most seasoned grouse hunter, adding even more thrills to the early season grouse hunting game.  The best strategy to employ is always working into the wind.  Grouse, like all other birds, take flight best when flying into the wind, as the air currents provide extra lift for faster flight.  A grouse will typically fly straight away from danger, but not for long distances.  Once in full flight, a grouse will usually make a turn through the woods, with this change in direction meant to evade attention to its likely landing zone.  Yet, at the onset of flight, the grouse will fly directly into the wind, gaining altitude with the help of that all-important headwind.  It is now that the grouse is at its most vulnerable, and, if you have not approached by heading into the wind, you will lose this advantage almost immediately.  Hopefully, your hunting partners on your flanks are in position to get a quality shot at the fleeing bird.  Be certain when you do flush a grouse to announce loudly to your hunting party that a bird has been encountered by yelling out loudly “bird!”  Like the salmon angler yelling “fish on” to alert other anglers fishing nearby that a fish is hooked and you may need to get your line out of the water as to not interfere with the fight, so to does yelling “bird” announce to your party that you better prepare for a shot.

Clean shots tough to come by

Early season grouse hunting means tracking a target through foliage, and even shots that may travel through some leaves before the pellets reach the target.  Hunters have two means of overcoming this unique challenge, use heavier shot or tighten up the choke.  Since a grouse can effectively be harvested with a minimal amount of pellets hitting the bird, the best approach to shooting through leaves is to step up the shot size from seven to six or even five.  Take caution not to use too heavy a shot or you can damage the breast meat, rendering your harvest useless.  If you opt for a tighter choke, say a modified barrel verses an improved choke, more pellets will successfully penetrate beyond the leafy obstructions, but accuracy demands increase.  Tight patterns also translate into more pellets on the bird, which could also damage these delicate game birds to the point they are again rendered useless.

Yet, this is the game of early season grouse hunting.  One should anticipate more misses than hits and gauge the success of the hunt not so much on the number of birds harvested, but by the number of grouse encountered.

Scout for big game while grouse hunting

The reward of any hunt is found in being surrounded by natural beauty and wildlife.  After all, how can one encounter and observe the natural beauty around us without setting foot in the woods?  Grouse hunting offers great exercise and the chance to make critical observations that can be used during future hunts during archery season and the regular big game season, provided one can remember to observe the surroundings for many different signs of game activity.  Grouse certainly share their habitat with whitetail deer, and hunters should expect to encounter rub lines, feeding sign and bedding areas while beating the bushes for thunderbirds.

Use Grouse hunting to introduce youth to the sport

Early season grouse hunting is the perfect time to introduce younger hunters to the sport.  Unlike the demands of big game hunting (sitting still for hours on end,) a morning or afternoon grouse hunt is well-suited for younger hunters, as the hunt involves covering some area, provides excellent exercise and offers some their first glimpse into nature in its natural state.  After all, hiking a well cut trail is still hiking a trail.  Getting off the beaten path exposes our youth to encounters rarely experienced by those who do not hunt, as well traveled trails are also well known to wildlife, and oftentimes game birds and big game animals will avoid these areas, or approach these trails with trepidation, concealing them so that they avoid detection.  The grouse hunter, however, receives physical benefits negotiating rough terrain, while simultaneously encountering game in their natural setting.  Some believe youth hunters become bored while in pursuit of big game.  Although boredom is one factor driving some youths away from hunting, the lack of real experience is even more damaging.  Grouse hunting delivers the most realistic hunting experience without the necessity of sitting still, just waiting for game to appear.  A good hike through the woods delivers physical activity while providing the seasoned hunter the chance to answer the questions young hunters pose on the spot, in the field, where the answers have more relevance.  After all, silence in the woods is far less important on a grouse hunt than when sitting in a blind or a stand during deer season.  Youth should be encouraged to ask questions while hunting grouse.  Show and tell answers accomplish far more with younger hunters than explanations back at camp.

Places to hunt

The western New York southern tier is perhaps the best area to find good numbers of grouse.  Some great options for the grouse hunter include the Allegany State Park, the New Harmony State Forest, the Pierce Run State forest, and the Harwood Lake multi-purpose state lands.  Remember to take a kid hunting, and give the gift that lasts a lifetime.