Opening day of grouse season isn’t like any other hunting opener, not at all. It isn’t duck season, when we sync our watches to the nuclear clock—so at the instant the season opens, we go guns hot. It isn’t deer season, when we must squeeze the truck door closed and ghost into the field under cover of darkness, silent and scentless. It’s not the pheasant opener either—when trucks burst with orange-clad hunters, and dogs of all shapes and sizes push rows of corn.
Grouse opener is serious, but casual. It’s a little secretive, and often solitary. In the grouse woods you can feel as if you may be alone on the planet, just a man in an endless wood. And that is a feeling that is harder and harder to come by on our busy planet. All grouse hunting ideally requires are a dog that checks in with you, land you can walk, a gun you can carry for a while … and a while. There is no reason to check your watch, no reason to hurry. You may want to wait until the dew is off the ground, and it’s smart to wait until the birds have woken up a bit and spread some scent around. The briars will still tug at you later in the morning, but they won’t be so wet.
There are so many things to love about grouse hunting; yellow, spade-shaped poplar leaves, the musty peat smell of the woods in autumn, the view down a seemingly endless logging road, hunting the edges or sharing a sandwich with the dog on the tailgate. Later in the season, but not too late, the leaves are down, and there is just enough snow so that you’ll see grouse tracks. You can study the pattern made by bird feet, and you may see where the bird hopped up on a deadfall, or into a high bush cranberry, and you’ll think about how the grouse spends his day. You hope that how he spends his day will intersect with how you are spending yours, and you trust the dog to arrange the meeting. It’s all good stuff, and every time I think about my best grouse hunts, I find that I just stare off into space and sigh. Good bird hunting should elicit that response. Grouse hunting isn’t a high-fiving kind of pursuit; it’s meant to make you sigh with content. So much has to go right to make a good ruffed grouse hunting memory that it seems an appropriate reaction.
If your goal was to kill birds, you could do it from a treestand with a pellet gun. But done just right, you’d follow a flashy little dog with a good bit of white on him. He’d work scent until he was just close enough, then he’d start to tiptoe like he was on a freshly mopped floor, and his head would be high as his nose searched for clues. When he was sure—very sure—he would slide into a point from a good distance away. His body might be angled away from the bird, but his tail would be higher now too, and his head and nose would help point you to the direction of the bird. You’d watch your step and make sure of your footing as you nimbly shoulder your way through aspens the size of front yard flagpoles, and about the time the bird was away, you’d mount the gun and swing it through something akin to a closet full of hockey sticks and rake handles. Luckily, after the shot there’s just a feather or two in the air, and the woods would go quiet as you ask your dog to “hunt dead.” Shortly, there’s a russet, or perhaps a gray bird, plump in your gloved hand, and you celebrate with a wry smile … and a sigh.
Find the Hotspots
by Mike Hanback
The start of the rut can vary by days or a week depending on region. Determine whether the "chase stage" is on by checking muddy fields or creek bottoms for big (buck) and small (doe) tracks that indicate running, then set up in an area like one described below.
Don't hunt over rubs.
Hunt funnels along buck travel routes between feeding and bedding areas laced with lots of rubs that indicate lots of deer traffic to up your odds of seeing bucks.
Transition zones are good bets.
Bucks prowl "break lines" between pines and hardwoods, rubbing and scraping as they move. Same goes for transitions between crops and woods: If you determine bucks are prowling the edge between those two zones, set a stand and sit tight.
The weather is your friend.
My research suggests bucks rut hardest when the temperature hovers between 25-30 degrees. Be sure to check scrapes one to two days after it rains or snows. If they've been pawed, hunt them.
Find fence lines.
Those that link crops with a point of woods 100-200 yards away can't be ignored. No good trees for a stand? Set up a blind on a downwind edge where the fence dumps into the woods. "Small" is the operative word—don't build a Taj Mahal.
Establish a "pressure plan."
Since everybody and his brother hunts the rut, a thick-cover draw a half-mile or more off a crop field might produce results, even in the absence of rut sign. Once guns boom, bucks will find the sanctuary and pile into it.
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