Bush Walking for Grouse

Stepping off the Trail for a Better Hunt

Cruising bush roads and trails on ATVs is a pretty standard tactic for hunting ruffed grouse in northern Ontario. Those who like to get a bit of exercise dismount and walk these same trails. If we cover enough distance, there’s a pretty good chance of bagging a limit of birds. However, if we have ever wondered how many wise fowl step from the trail to watch as we walk or drive by, then we are halfway down the road to better bird hunting.

A bush road is a convenient way to access grouse country, but the road itself is more human habitat than grouse. They may visit the roads to sun their feathered hides, but grouse live in the bush. As autumn progresses, the canopy of green is shed from the trees and enlightened hunters leave the tire-beaten earth to follow the natural paths to grouse.

Know Where You’re Going

Not only will a portable GPS unit, topographic map, and compass—and the ability to use them—prevent us from getting lost, but these navigational tools also help to identify features of the land we can use to guide our hunt. Following the distinct features of the forest is the best way to give our hunt direction.

Walking the right type of bush is important. They may be classed as "upland game birds," but grouse shun highland areas of pure hardwood. Mixed forest is their preferred home. Clearings like a sunny hillside or grassy field will attract sun-loving bush chicken, but they never stray too far from coniferous cover.

The approach of winter means slim pickings for grouse. With leaves unavailable and berries scarce, grouse feed almost exclusively on aspen buds. In the stark autumn landscape, the evergreen cover becomes a crucial ingredient of grouse habitat, making conifer-rimmed aspen groves a prime late-season haunt.

Features for Foul

Lakes, creek bottoms, eskers, and mountains do not necessarily attract grouse. But when they occur in grouse country, they provide a point of reference with which hunters can orient themselves. Not only do bush hunters discover areas of beauty rarely travelled, but they also encounter fewer humans and more birds.

Walk the base of a hill or mountain, choosing the elevation with the best grouse habitat. On cool, sunny days, favour the highlands, where a high percentage of hardwood allows the sun to penetrate. Look for grouse dusting themselves or filling their crops on sandy hillsides. On overcast days, stick to the base of hills where coniferous dominate.

Winding through mixed forest, creek valleys are excellent guides to grouse. Walk along a ridge above for a bird's eye view of grouse activity. When flowing through fields or grassland, the alder-lined banks of meandering rivers provide cover for open country fowl.

A lake’s pebble or sand beaches, skirted with coniferous cover, are worth walking. Cedar-lined shorelines will often give way to hardwoods as the elevation increases moving away from the lakeshore. Walk the transition area, using the lake as a point of reference. 

A morning stroll around the perimeter of a field usually turns up a few ruffed ones trying to shake the night's chill. Work in and out of the woods around the field to pick up any late risers.

Often grouse are hunkered down in the dense cover of cedar swamps, especially in the early evening. The mixed forest on the edge of a swamp is an ideal habitat. Grouse can chortle under mountain ash and maple by day and lurk in the cedars of the perimeter as the day wanes.

Just about any feature of the wilderness occurring within grouse habitat serves as a guide to wildfowl. As the leaves fall, working the thick of the forest makes more and more sense; visibility improves, and, with the sun penetrating the forest, grouse have no reason to seek the roadsides to bask.

As long as most bird hunters insist on sticking to the roads, there will be plenty of room in the realm of the bushwalker, where the end of the road will never mean the end of the hunt.

About James Smedley

Professional photographer and writer James Smedley’s contributions—more than 400 pieces and close to 1,000 images—to U.S. and Canadian books, magazines, and newspapers have earned him over 40 national and international awards. In addition to teaching photography workshops, James is the travel editor at Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine. James has fly-fished for brook trout and arctic grayling in far northern rivers and continues to cast for trout, bass, and steelhead near his home in the northern Ontario town of Wawa where he lives with his wife Francine and daughters Islay and Lillian.


Visit James at www.jamessmedleyoutdoors.com

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