The upland tradition is alive, taking place in various forms all across the country. In the west hunters carry themselves across hostile rocky terrain in search of Chukars, while down south hunters in wagons drawn by mules, follow muscular Pointers across plantations brimming with quail. The Dakotas see military like formations of walkers and blockers push hundreds of pheasant across the sky, and in the woodlands of New England picturesque Setters, and side by side shotguns chase Ruffed Grouse through the autumn colors. For many in New England, however, the uplands consists of wildlife management areas, generously stocked with pheasants. American favorite game bird, once wild to these parts, but now a rarity, has found it's demand much greater than it's supply. The Ruffed Grouse, and the Woodcock, by contrast, are still wild, and in many places abundant. And finding them may not be as hard as you'd imagine.
Surprisingly, I've found that many uplanders don't pursue the ruffed grouse. Not many uplanders don't know what a grouse is, but haven't made the effort to give them a go. The reasons vary, and many may not have an interest, but for those that do, and would like to try, there is only one thing you need to know to make a go of it; What is grouse habitat.
Like all animals in the forest, grouse inhabit a particular habitat. I learned a long time ago, that to be a successful grouse hunter, one doesn't hunt grouse, one hunts grouse habitat (cover). That is; if you try to find grouse buy looking for grouse, you won't find many, but if you try to find grouse by finding where they want to be, they'll be there. But what is grouse habitat? How can I find it? Let's take a look.
The first thing to know is that grouse like early growth successional habitat, often called second growth cover. What is that? Well, it's quite simply young woodland under 25 years old. This type of young forest allows sun light to reach the forest floor, resulting in a carpet of thick vegetation in which the grouse can feed, and move undetected by avian predators. Now, it's not quite as simple as finding this type of cover, but if this was all you were to remember, you'd be well on your way, and would find some grouse. Grouse, however, do have a few other requirements. They will seldom be found in cover less than 10 years old, unless it's full of food, and adjacent to slightly older cover. The type of tree is important too; you'll want to find hardwoods. Hardwoods are species such as Oak, Maple, Dogwood, Poplar, Apple, Thornapple, Alder, and most importantly, Aspen. In short, hardwoods are anything that doesn't resemble a christmas tree. While its not important you remember the species of trees I've listed, you would be wise to remember two of them; Aspen, and Alder. Aspen, identified by it's smooth, almost white bark, and yellow leaves is very important for grouse because of it's ability to re-generate multiple trees from it's root system after being cut, and for the forage its buds provide. Finding Aspen stands often results in good things. Alder can provide good shooting for the uplanders, too. Alder runs are often found in wetter areas which hold woodcock, another wild bird which offers exciting shooting and excellent table fare. Grouse and Woodcock go hand in hand, and should not be over looked. Softwoods, such as Pine, Conifer, Hemlock, and Spruce play a role in a Grouse's life too. These softwoods provide escape and shelter cover from predators and weather. For this reason they are important to grouse, and should register on your radar. Second growth cover interspersed with softwoods, or nearby softwoods is ideally what you'll want to find.
To put it all in a nut shell, ruffed grouse prefer young hardwood lots with a vegetive understory, greater than 20 acres in size, interspersed with stands of softwoods, and usually within 300 feet of open land. This type of cover is really not hard to find. But how does one find it? The first thing you you should know is that another grouse hunter will not tell you where to go. Grouse hunters will discuss habitat type, and hunting tactics, but most, and by most I mean all grouse hunters, pride themselves on having worn out boot leather finding good habitat. That doesn't mean you shouldn't look for advice from them. Many will point you to areas of a state or county with good grouse cover, but it'll be up to you to find the good cover amongst all the other offerings in the area. How do you do that? First, start by familiarizing yourself with whatever grouse cover you are familiar with. Many WMAs have sections of habitat suitable for grouse, which may have been stumbled upon. Many uplanders split their time, sitting in tree stands during the archery season, where a grouse might be happened upon, too. If this has happened to you, remember what that cover looks like, and find other cover that looks the same. After all, this is exactly what all those grouse hunters are doing, but they've just seen more cover. Another easy trick when finding young hardwood cover is to imagine how difficult it'll be to swing a shotgun in it. If I think a cover will be really hard to shoot in, I hunt it. Chances are grouse will be there, and chances are you'll find a way to swing your gun.
Maps can help you find grouse cover too, but many won't show you the habitat, just the land features. State WMA maps may not show you the habitat, but often have a summary of the type of game found on those lands. This is a clue, but you'll need to spend time on the ground looking. Topo maps can help, as they show fields and orchards. Fields and orchards may not be the grouse cover you're looking for, but sometime these features aren't updated on the topo. The fields may have regenerated, and the orchards gone wild, becoming grouse habitat. In many parts of northern New England the land is owned by lumber, and paper companies that routinely clear cut. Clear cuts regenerate into grouse cover, and often it is superb cover at that. What's more, these lumber and paper companies usually allow public access to their lands. Many will provide you with a map of their holdings. These maps, like others won't show you the habitat, but sometimes they'll show you recent cuttings. Either way, used to navigate their road system, you will find grouse cover. Google Earth can help you narrow down possible cover if you know what you're looking for. When going to a new area, I like to look at areas I'm familiar with on Google Earth, then look for area with similar features in the area I'm going. This will allow me to have a list of possible cover, which I'll assess once I'm there. When using google earth, remember that each image you look at was taken at a different time of the year. If you look at an image from Massachusetts it might have been captured in the spring. If you then look at an image of Maine, that image might have been captured in the fall. Similar forest features might look different. I like to use the time line feature to look at either fall, or winter images of both my areas and the areas I'm interested in. Whether you use maps and the Internet or not, the only sure way to know if the cover holds grouse is to walk it. Of course, as you look at more cover, and become successful at finding grouse cover, spotting good cover will become easier. As will happen occasionally, too, as you drive through the countryside, peering into the woods, a grouse will run across the road or flush from the side. You'd be wise to investigate such places more closely.
The nature of the Ruffed Grouse being what it is; a truly wild game bird, the king of the uplands, it shouldn't come as a surprise if you find them in habitat that doesn't hold all the features I've listed. Grouse are survivors, and have the ability to make small adjustments. They can be found in 5 acre woodlots, or cover with few softwoods, but if you adhere to the basic principles outlined, you'll find prime grouse cover. How to shoot them as they zig and zag through the tangle of branches is something you'll have to figure out on your own.