Michigan’s great outdoors are home to many outstanding hunting opportunities. The state’s ruffed grouse get scores of resident and nonresident hunters afield each fall, and with good reason.
Hunting Great Lakes grouse can be one of the best ways to spend a fall day. You don’t need a ton of gear—yourself, a trusty shotgun, a pocketful of shells, some hunter’s orange, and perhaps a good dog will do. A grouse hunt is never a waste of time, even when you don’t bag any of the tasty birds.
Grouse can elusive, but if you simply open your ears, it’s often quite easy to find them.
Listen for the drum line
A few years ago I was out hunting turkeys during the spring season. I was on my family farm in the same area I always hunted for turkey and deer. It is usually a good spot, although that spring, the turkeys were especially difficult. I finally had a good tom pinned down. He was working up a fence line toward a thick mix of pines and scrub hardwoods. I was working up the treeline through the thick stuff. We should have met in a stand of tall red pines, but it didn’t work out that way.
The tom was intercepted by a couple of hens. No matter what I threw at him call-wise, he wanted nothing to do with me. In my fevered activity, I made a few weird noises with the old slate call. I soon found myself face-to-beak with a male ruffed grouse in full display. That little guy strutted and pranced and drummed at me from a fallen pine—it was quite a show. He even displayed some aggression toward me, which was almost humorous.
I remember when I first heard that sound, the unmistakable drumming of a male grouse. I was very young, and my parents had taken me into the woods in search of delicious morel mushrooms. As we silently walked along (in an effort to not scare the mushrooms, apparently), I heard a deep thump that steadily repeated and sped up. My uncle explained that it was a grouse. To this day, I associate that sound with morels. Have you ever had grilled grouse breast with morels? Amazingly delicious, but I digress.
Grouse drum year-round to signal to potential mates during the spring and to mark territory and communicate in the fall. Drumming is a good way to determine whether you should scout a particular area for grouse. This chunk of land is usually “shared” with a couple of hens, but they won’t be together. Grouse are loners, so you’re going to spend some time walking around looking for them. I’ve very rarely seen grouse together. In fact, I have only seen grouse together once, and that was during a pretty rough winter. Those two birds were in the same crab apple tree eating leftover fruit.
The brood that hatches from the pairing usually results in anywhere from four to eight birds that reach fall as mature adults. Hatchling mortality is fairly high, but if conditions are right, that one male you heard drum can produce two sets of offspring that could result in an additional 15 to 16 birds. The young grouse don’t travel that far, usually establishing their own territories within a mile of where they were hatched.
Where to find them
As with many other game birds, grouse like cover. My favorite tactic is to find overgrown areas that were clear-cut several year earlier. Young birch trees in particular seem to attract good numbers of grouse.
Grouse can be found throughout the state, but for many of us, the Upper Peninsula holds a special place in our hearts. Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever’s online editor from St. Paul, Minnesota, knows exactly where he’s headed come fall.
“Felch in the Upper Peninsula is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it burgs—a church, a bar, and a softball field,” Hauck said. “Actually, I’m not sure about the church or the softball field. But I’m sure about the bar, sure about the never-tasted-better cheeseburgers, and sure about the grouse and woodcock. I’d risk personal injury from my hunting partners if I told you exactly which direction we went from there, but the good news is you can’t go wrong whichever way [you go]. Then, pick a road or a trail and follow the best compass of all: your birdy dog.”
Having lived in nearby Gwinn while in college, I can attest to the area’s amazing grouse hunting. That area tops my list, too. For Lower Peninsula hunters, I have never had a bad hunt in the Manistee National Forest anywhere near the Manistee River, or around Baldwin.
Tools of the trade
A good dog is a great tool for hunting. Hauck prefers his trusty English Cocker, Sprig. Their smaller size, great nose, and endless enthusiasm for hunting make them an outstanding choice for a grouse dog.
Shotgun-wise, a 20 or 28 gauge is a great choice. Just add some shells and proper attire, and you’re good to go.
The season first runs from September 15 to November 14. It then opens back up on December 1 and runs until January 1. Michigan’s new-for-2014 base hunting license is all that you’ll need. With brightly-colored leaves, the sweet smell of fall in the air, and a challenging game bird as quarry, could there be a better way to spend an autumn day in Michigan?
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Note added 7-30-2014: This article’s text has been corrected to indicate that the ruffed grouse season opens on September 15, not September 1.