Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the DWR, says reports from state field biologists indicate the number of forest grouse is average—or, in the case of dusky grouse, slightly above average—going into this fall’s hunt.
Robinson says mild temperatures and a lack of snow allowed plenty of adult birds to survive the winter and enter the spring breeding season in good condition. Once hatched, though, their chicks faced tough conditions. “Dry conditions meant less water,” Robinson says, “and less water meant fewer forbs and insects for the chicks to eat. Chick survival was likely down this year.”
Despite fewer young birds, plenty of adult grouse are available to hunt. “I think this fall’s hunt will be a good one,” says Robinson, an avid forest grouse hunter. “Finding areas that are greener than surrounding areas, and then focusing your efforts in those areas, will be the key to taking birds this year.”
Utah’s forest grouse hunt began Sept. 1. Ruffed grouse are found on mountain ranges extending from the Idaho border south to Fish Lake and the north and south slopes of the Uinta Mountains extending east to the Colorado border. Dusky grouse are more widespread: any pine, fir or spruce forest above 7,000 feet in elevation likely has dusky grouse in it.
Maps that show where dusky and ruffed grouse live in Utah—and more information about the birds themselves—is available on pages 33 and 44 of the 2018 – 2019 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. You can get the free guidebook at www.wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.
Once you’ve put yourself in the right areas in the state, Robinson provides tips to help hunters find birds:
Tip 1 – Look for aspen trees and thick cover. To find ruffed grouse, scan the forest, looking for stands of white-trunked aspen trees. Once you’ve spotted a stand, head for it. If ruffed grouse are in the area, you’ll find them in the aspen tree stand or in pine, maple or oak tree forest that’s close to the aspen trees, Robinson says.
All aspen stands aren’t created equal, though. The thicker the cover in the stand, the more likely it harbors ruffed grouse. “Ruffed grouse live in cover that’s thicker than many hunters expect or want to hunt in,” he says. “They love thick cover.”
Tip 1 – Move higher as the season progresses. Dusky grouse do something most wildlife species don’t: as conditions get harsher, dusky grouse move higher in elevation. In early September, hunters will usually find duskies in aspen, pine, fir or spruce tree stands that have a thick understory. An understory that includes snowberries, serviceberries and other types of berries is especially attractive.
By October the birds have climbed to ridgelines dotted with pine, fir or spruce trees. Then, starting about Nov. 1—and continuing through the end of the season—dusky grouse will be 9,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation. “During the last part of the season,” Robinson says, “dusky grouse feed entirely on the needles of pine, fir or spruce trees. And they zero in on areas that have certain types of trees. Douglas fir trees are, by far, their favorite tree at the end of the hunting season.”
Once you’ve put yourself in the right habitat, it’s time to hunt. The tips Robinson provides apply to both ruffed and dusky grouse hunting:
Hunting with a dog
Tip 1 – Put your dog in the right habitat. Dogs can’t find birds if there aren’t birds to be found. Identify the right habitat before putting your dog to work. Also, the greener the vegetation this year, the better. “Once you’ve identified a good spot,” Robinson says, “trust your dog. Let it do its thing.”
Tip 2 – Hunt early in the day. Hunt when the temperature is cooler and the humidity is higher. These conditions will make it easier for dogs to pick up the birds’ scent.
Tip 3 – Give your dog plenty of water. Keeping your dog hydrated will also help it pick up scent easier.
Hunting without a dog
Tip 1 –Get in the right habitat. As mentioned above, get in an area that likely has birds in it. The greener the vegetation this year, the better.
Tip 2 – Walk slower. Walking slowly, stopping, walking and then stopping again is often the key to putting grouse in the air. “Walking slowly, and stopping often, causes grouse to think you’ve spotted them,” he says. “That’s often what it takes to get them to flush.”
Tip 3 – Walk trails during the early morning. During the morning, grouse often head to trails and other open spots to pick up the grit they need to grind their food. Walking trails in the early morning can often put hunters on top of grouse.
Tip 4 – Be alert. While hunting grouse, hunters should always be ready to shoulder their gun and shoot. Grouse flush quickly and fly away fast.