Harry and I would team up to hunt grouse and other small game back in the 1960s. We loved prowling thick heavy cover in Lake County near Peacock and small sections of grouse cover in northern Kent County . We were hunting ruffed grouse when I made one of my most memorable shots.
Harry is Harry Halicki, my best buddy in high school. Together we hunted small game and fished for bass on local lakes around Grand Rapids . For some strange reason he never really got into deer hunting and stream trout fishing, but despite that failing, he was a great guy and we shared many adventures and several misadventures.
On the particular day in question, Harry and I, along with a couple of other friends, were covering likely grouse cover along Peacock Rd. in northern Lake County .
The autumn air was coolly refreshing and the seasonal colors of the oaks, scattered red maples, aspen, and low-dwelling alders were beginning to reach their peak. The terrain was fairly flat and we were working the edge of a low land area. A dense mass of browned ferns, yet unbent by snows that would follow in November, effectively masked the ground. It was as if we were wading through a sea of ferns. Pines randomly punctuated the deciduous trees. Here and there a tree, toppled by some long forgotten wind, would block our path as the group moved in a line through the brush, hoping to flush a ruffed grouse.
I paused for a few seconds, always a great tactic to flush a tensely sitting partridge, keeping my feet loose and ready for the sudden explosion of a bird taking wing. Suddenly to my rear a bird sped off the ground bursting low over the ferns attempting to escape. There is nothing like the sudden burst of wing furiously beating the air and creating that rapid thundering thhdddddddd that marks the flush of a grouse
Turning to my right, I picked up the bird as it flashed from to right to left through the intervening trees. My JC Higgins/High Standard 12 gauge pump found the grouse and swung in a well practiced rhythm along the bird’s flight path. Continuing to swing the gun, I squeezed the trigger, the gun barked and the grouse tumbled to the ground, hidden by the all encompassing cover of ferns. I quickly hot-footed the thirty yards to where I saw the bird fall and there he lay in restful pose, not a feather out of place. I am as proud of that shot as I am of any, that has, over the years, dropped a whitetail deer.
It is the whitetail that gets, by far, most of the press and video coverage these days. Hunters go into frothy discussion when the topic of deer habitat comes up, endlessly arguing over the best and most effective deer management program. Friendships have been severely altered, if not ended all together, over disagreements concerning deer management.
However, the noble, stately, and yes, manageable, to an extent, ruffed grouse can also benefit from sound management practices implemented by state fish and game agencies and private land owners. The ruffed grouse is the most widespread of any non-migratory game bird on the continent. Their most favored habitat includes mixed-age woodlands consisting of aspen, alder, and birch, dogwood, hazelnut and beech trees. Evergreens, in dense thickets and scattered about are also vital.
Aspen woodlands are best associated with ruffed grouse and, fortunately, this tree species lends itself well to grouse management projects.
Grouse prefer woodlands containing trees and shrubs of varying heights, but thick cover is needed for security, as well as food. Forested areas, interspersed with pockets, less than five acres, of extremely dense young, woody growth, offer prime grouse cover.
Aspen can be clear cut in large sections, but blocks less than five acres in size are ideal. The clear cutting will allow new aspen shoots to spring up from the roots of the timbered trees, offering a thick mass of aspen stems within a year. It is best to cut the trees in blocks or strips, leaving mature aspen trees in adjoining areas. These mature aspens will offer the birds plenty of one of their favored foods, aspen buds for winter feeding. Nearby evergreens such as pines, spruce, and cedar will provide both security cover and warmth in the frigid air of winter.
By the phrase clear cut, refers to removing the vast majority of trees in an aspen stand including other deciduous types and evergreens. Cutting only the aspen and leaving the other trees standing will decrease the number of new aspen shoots that emerge due to the vegetative propagation process. Young aspen regenerates best in full sunlight.
If the woodland has scattered aspen rather than a solid block, the amount of aspen can be increased by first locating all the aspens trees in the area selected for improvement. During the spring and summer, remove all the trees around the standing aspen within a radius of about 75 feet. You will also need to remove all the trees to the south of this circle for about 20 yards. This will open the soil to the sun so the aspen roots underneath can send up new shoots the following year. The following winter cut the all the aspen from within the circle. The spring warm-up will generate thousands of aspen suckers from the root systems of the old aspens.
In any clear cutting of aspen it is best to use a ten year cycle. Cut the aspen in a strip or block, leaving maturing trees in adjoining blocks or strips. Cut these trees ten years after the first cut and so on through the entire stand of aspen.
In aspen-less woodlots the only alternative to draw grouse is to create dense thickets of young trees and shrubs. Make small, less than 3 acres in size, in the interior sections of the woods. Woody plants such as apples, crabapples, hawthorn, viburnum, dogwood, sumac, grape, raspberry and blackberry, Juneberry, beech, hazelnut, and ironwood are all prime subjects for thinning in order to thicken up the existing cover.
One plant that has excellent grouse attracting qualities is autumn olive. These shrubs, planted in areas of plentiful sunlight, produce edible berries that grouse love. The berries make a tasty jam by the way. However, a major drawback with this shrub is they are not native to Michigan and they can, through the spreading of their seeds by birds, become invasive when the seeds are deposited in sunny locations.
Other Grouse Managing Tips
It is beneficial to plant nutritious grasses and legumes in open areas, being aware of the sun requirements of each species. Perennial ryegrass, creeping red fescue, brome grass, red and white clover are all excellent plants as we relate to grouse management. Buckwheat, a valuable cover plant that offers an abundance of seed for food, is a superb choice for an annual plant.
It would be wise, just as it is with planting food plots for deer, to have the soil tested (Michigan State University Extension offices offer this service for a fee) for its mineral content as well as pH (soil acidity/alkalinity, a vital factor in plant growth). Fertilizing areas and taking appropriate steps to alter the pH of the soil (if needed), that already have food source vegetation such as apple trees, berries, etc. is always an effective way to get more food per acre. An application of 200-300 lbs. per acre of complete fertilizer (fertilizer containing all three major plant nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) is very helpful.
If readily available from wild sources many fruits and berries, grapes and raspberries especially, can be dug up and transplanted in potential grouse cover. Keep in mind these are sun loving plants that tolerate only a bit of shade.
Besides grouse the management program described above will also benefit whitetail deer, black bear, bobcat, fox, woodcock, rabbits and hares, and various songbirds, as well as smaller mammals. Rather than focusing on grouse, a sound management plans needs to emphasize the diverse communities of which grouse are a part.
Although whitetail deer, because of their size, beauty, noble bearing, trophy potential, excellent table fare, and other attributes, draw, by far, most of the attention when it comes to habitat improvement, let’s not forget that regal dweller of the dense woodland thickets, the ruffed grouse. They can also benefit from sound habitat management practices.