Ruffed Grouse Hunting in the Northeast and New England
Good Spots for Ruffed Grouse Hunting
Upland hunting has a strong history in the Northeast, from running beagles on rabbits and hares, to treeing squirrels, to bird hunting. And there’s a very special kind of bird hunting that really gets into your blood: ruffed grouse hunting. There’s something captivating about the way they flush from cover with a thunderous noise, and disappear just as fast as you lay eyes on them. If you’re looking for a fun road trip or you’ve never tried hunting grouse before, here’s a quick guide and some good spots to check out.
Basic Ruffed Grouse Hunting
Ruffed grouse (also called partridge) are upland game birds that resemble the size of a small chicken, and their feathers will blend them in almost flawlessly when they hold tight. They primarily thrive in young forests, shrubby thickets, and edge habitats, but will use mature aspen/birch forests, swamps, and overgrown orchards too. Ruffed grouse habitat consists of two seasonal changes: young forests provide a lot of food and cover over the summer months, while mature conifers provide winter cover from the cold New England winters and persistent berries or tree buds provide daytime foraging.
As far as how to hunt grouse, you need minimal equipment – bring a shotgun, some blaze orange clothing, and some good boots, and you’re pretty well set. Walk along habitat edges slowly, and stop often to see if a grouse will flush from cover. As soon as one flushes, mount your shotgun to your shoulder and swing to intercept the bird’s flight path. Earlier in the season, it can be hard to see through the beautiful New England leaf cover, but it gets easier as the season progresses. Still, you need to be pretty quick to get a shot off on these birds
Where to Find Ruffed Grouse in the Northeast
Historically, the northeast was comprised of lots of small farms, broken up into numerous crop fields, woodlots, and pastures. This provided lots of “edge habitat” where many upland critters could thrive. Over time, the farms were abandoned and many grew up into shrubby orchards and early successional forests. At the same time, the logging industry was producing lots of clear-cut openings, which grew into young forests as well. This is when ruffed grouse hunting was at its peak in the region. Over the last couple decades, however, many small farms have been consolidated into larger fields, been developed into housing complexes, or have been lost to urbanization. Combined with diseases and weather changes, this loss of habitat has set the ruffed grouse population back a bit from its glory days. But you can still find “partridge” in the Northeast. Here are some good spots to try.
Vermont – this beautifully scenic state presents a great opportunity for ruffed grouse hunting. Regenerating clear-cuts (i.e., young forest), abandoned farms/orchards, and riparian stream areas all offer good grouse hunting. According to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the Northeast Kingdom (i.e., northeast section of the state) is your best bet for encountering ruffed grouse. There are 12 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in this area (District 5) that are open to public hunting.
Maine – grouse occur all throughout Maine, but their population density varies a lot. Per the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, grouse tend to be more common in the transitional area between mature forests/wilderness areas and developed areas, where there is a good matrix of habitat types and abandoned agricultural land. But if you’re looking for a bit of an adventure, try camping and hunting in the North Maine Woods (NMW). The NMW spans 3.5 million acres, and hundreds of thousands of acres have been managed for timber, so the grouse habitat is plentiful. Plus, for a small land use fee, you can camp and explore throughout this huge area.
New Hampshire – ruffed grouse hunting is still alive and strong in the Granite state. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department reported that in the 2018-2019 season, 66% of the hunting hours dedicated to small game were spent on ruffed grouse. The northern wildlife management units (WMUs) tend to have more grouse (in hunter observations, drumming counts, and harvests), but they are also more pressured from other hunters, so it’s a toss-up.
New York – while surprising to some people, much of New York State actually offers good grouse hunting opportunities. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), WMUs through the center of the state contain more early successional habitats due to timber harvests or agricultural land abandonment. Not surprisingly, these WMUs also have grouse flush rates similar to or above the statewide average, and they represent your best opportunity. The downside is that 85% of the state is privately owned, so public land hunting may be limited.
This fall, you owe it to yourself to consider one of these states for a ruffed grouse hunt. If you’re in the Northeast, you can cover several states pretty quickly, and non-resident small game licenses don’t usually break the bank.