Ruffed grouse: the grandest of Carolina gamebirds

The ruffed grouse is limited to the mountains of extreme western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina. Find places with the kind of habitat it needs, and you’ll find these feathered bombs.

The truck barely rolled to a stop when the whimpering could be heard from the dog box in its bed. Preacher, my Boykin spaniel, was eager to get going on this cold, Carolina morning. 

We parked along the edge of a gravel road in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina, and we would spend the day scouring the hills and hollers for what is affectionately known as “the grandest of game birds” —
the ruffed grouse. 

The ruffed grouse is referred to as “the grandest of game birds” for many reasons. As Mike Neiduski, the director of regional development for the Ruffed Grouse Society, said, “Grouse is the greatest of game birds, because he is a native bird to the United States, the level of difficulty to hunt them and because they are indicative of what the landscape should be.” 

Neiduski said that where you find grouse, you find a healthy forest. 

Finding suitable habitat in the Carolinas is the biggest challenge in hunting grouse, which need a “heavy stem density” — otherwise known as thick cover — to protect them from avian predation. The thicker the cover, the better. 

“Grouse, more so than with prairie species, demand that you get intimate with them,” Neiduski said.

You must go where the birds are to find good hunting.

Both North Carolina and South Carolina incorporate the most-extreme southern range of the ruffed grouse. This alone makes it a challenge, but then you have to find where the few birds are living. The Nantahala and Pisgah national forests have more than a million acres of huntable habitat. In South Carolina, the Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area and Watson Cooper Heritage Preserve are your best bets for finding grouse. 

Again, the bird demands suitable habitat. 

The lordly ruffed grouse is one of North America’s most-beautiful gamebirds, especially its unmistakable fan. (The Ruffed Grouse Society)

Timber management needs

A healthy forest needs to have about 14% of the land cut on a regular basis to provide suitable habitat for grouse, when, in fact, only 1% of these forests are cut. 

“The issue is that many people do not understand that to have a healthy forest, regular rotation of trees, undergrowth and vegetation is necessary to keep not only the forest healthy but also the wildlife that call it home,” Neiduski said.” 

Most of the timber in the Nantahala and Pisgah is 80 to 120 years old. So the diversity just isn’t there. The same is true of Jocassee Gorges and Watson Cooper. Although this is changing slowly, it still is a difficult sell to people who love old-growth forests. 

Having painted a bleak picture, let’s spruce it up a bit. 

Neiduski said that suitable habitat is available and a huntable population of grouse does exist in all of these areas. 

“We just have to get out there and find it,” he says. 

Today’s technology of satellite photos and mapping software enables hunters to locate areas that have been cut most recently, and to key in on those areas. You may have to walk a bit to get to it, but the land is available. 

“A 10-mile day is common when hunting grouse,” Neiduski said, true regardless of where you are hunting.  

Dogs used in grouse hunting need to be close-working, pointing dogs that can sniff out a grouse before getting too close and bumping the bird. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Close-hunting dogs

Most grouse hunters deploy dogs of some sort. Flushing dogs and pointing dogs dominate the landscape. Common breeds include the pointing breeds: German shorthair, German wirehair, English pointers, and English setters. The English pointers are less popular due to their desire to hunt one or two counties ahead of you; grouse hunters need a close-working dog, very close-working. If you cannot see your dog, he is ranging too far.

As one grouse hunter said, “I want to see my dog and feet at the same time.” 

While that may be a bit too close for many, you get the gist. 

Among the flushing breeds, spaniels dominate, with Brittanies and Springers being the most-popular. Recently the Boykin has gained popularity among grouse hunters. These smaller dogs can get into the cover the birds like and depend on. 

“Look for areas with thick multiflora roses, greenbrier, blackberries, and the like to find the grouse,” Neiduski said. “You want cover thick enough that if your hat gets knocked off your head, it won’t hit the ground.” 

Rabbit hunters are used to this kind of cover, but in the mountains of the Carolinas, it’s home to ruffed grouse.  

Grouse found in the mountains love the thickest cover available, especially areas that have been timbered and regenerated. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Light and fast guns

Choosing a shotgun for grouse is essential. The classic side-by-side is a favorite. All gauges are represented on a hunt. However, it does seem that the old 16-gauge and a personal favorite 28-gauge side-by-side dominate the landscape. The CVA Bobwhite is perhaps the perfect grouse and woodcock gun. Weighing barely 51/2 pounds with screw-in chokes, it handles fast and accurately. And with close shooting being the norm, improved cylinder is great in both barrels. Carrying it 7 to 10 miles a day, the light weight and fast handling are crucial to prevent extra fatigue and to connect on the shots that present themselves. 

Grouse hunting in the Carolinas is not for the faint at heart, but as a friend, Bill Miller, put it, “What better way to spend an autumn day than walking through the woods with friends and a good dog, while pursuing the grandest of game birds.” 

It’s hard not to agree.

Woodcock are commonly found in the same areas as grouse, as long as the ground is soft. (Photo by Pete Rogers)

Two birds for one

One of the advantages of grouse hunting is that the season — Oct. 18-Feb. 28 in North Carolina and Nov. 25-March 1 in South Carolina — coincides with the migration of the woodcock, a favorite of many small-game hunters.  

Woodcock migrate from the northern states to the southern states as the weather pushes them. These odd-looking gamebirds are usually found in the same thick cover as grouse — as long as the ground is damp. Woodcock feed exclusively on earthworms, and they need moist ground to find these slimy delicacies. 

Easy to identify, the woodcock is small, barely weighing 4 to 5 ounces with a bill that is 3 to 4 inches long. They are fast and agile but not good fliers for a migratory bird. Typically, woodcock will fly straight up to clear the understory and then take off. Shotgunners should wait until they reach their apex of height before pulling the trigger. Holding tight, it is not uncommon for woodcock to flush within inches of your feet.

About Pete Rogers 163 Articles
Pete Rogers of Taylors, S.C., is employed with the USDA Wildlife Services and has been a sporting writer and photographer for over a decade. He has a real passion for trapping and enjoys sharing his outdoors experiences with his wife and five children.

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