Experts from Park Falls, Wisconsin—the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World—share their secrets for the great North Woods game bird
With a population of fewer than 2,500 and a two-hour drive to the nearest city with more than 10,000 people, Park Falls, Wisconsin, tends to fly under the radar. Ask outdoor enthusiasts if the name rings a bell, though, and you might just get a nod of recognition. It’s the home of St. Croix Rods. But this little gem has another claim to fame. Known as the “Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World,” Park Falls is nestled in the heart of Wisconsin’s Northwoods and surrounded by more than a million acres of public land. An active logging industry creates quality grouse habitat and greater access to that wealth of land. Many of the area trails have been seeded with clover and gated off to prevent motorized vehicle use. It’s no wonder folks travel from all corners to chase birds here, and it’s no surprise that some have decided to hang around these parts a whole lot longer. As famed environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting, and ruffed grouse hunting.” Local enthusiasts tend to agree. An unexpected downturn in this year’s spring drumming counts has left some scratching their heads, but the world headquarters of “winged dynamite” is filled with experts who’ve navigated the inevitable bird boom and bust before. And we’re picking their brains at an opportune time—just as they dig a bit deeper in their toolbox of go-to strategies.
1) Follow the Food
At the start of the season, these birds have a smorgasbord of options—bugs, berries, mushrooms, you name it. But that all changes along with the weather. “Go to green,” suggests Terry Ides, who has operated Ides Guides since the ’70s, “and keep going green.”
Concentrate on lowland areas until frost arrives. Next, move on to young aspen stands. As the leaves shrivel up and turn brown, follow the grouse toward berry brush and eventually to trails and open sunlight as they search for clover. After snowfall covers the clover, they’ll be budding up in the trees.
2) Hit the Edges
“Grouse, like a lot of birds, love edges,” says Jake Nelson, who has been guiding hunts in the Park Falls area for 15 years. “If there’s a tag alder swamp or a creek bottom, you’re going to find birds along that edge.” And when you get your first of the day, it’s worth your while to see what they’re feeding on. Figure that out, and you have an even better sense of what to look for and where to go.
3) Hunt Their Habitat
Grouse habitat is so specific because they are at the bottom of the food chain and cover is critical. Although there are exceptions to the rule, you’ll want to gravitate toward aspen cuts that are about 9 to 16 years of age, says Ann Jandernoa, who has a background in forestry and 15 years of experience as a guide.
Most recently, her focus has turned to expanding her Scout-N-Hunt Mobile Grouse Habitat Maps, which help pinpoint prime locations within public land areas. When you have the correct stand density, she explains, you have the correct canopy cover to protect against owls, hawks, and other predators. And when you have the correct canopy cover, you also have the correct food source on the ground.
4) Watch Your Pants
When wet, grouse feathers get sticky, which makes it more difficult to fly. That’s why they have to stay dry. If it’s going to be a hot day, there’s a timeframe—especially early season—when the dew burns off and the birds become more active, Jandernoa says. If your pants are soaked from a morning walk through the woods, pay attention as the day goes on. Activity will typically pick up as the humidity falls.
5) Go Early, Go Late
Grouse tend to loaf at midday. The best time, according to Nelson, is often in the early morning or late afternoon. That’s when they move around, forage for food, and put a lot of scent on the ground.
Ruffed grouse populations in Wisconsin follow a fairly steady 10-year population cycle.
Through decades of surveys, the Wisconsin DNR has found the population usually peaks in years that end in 9, 0, or 1.
This spring’s drumming survey found a 6% decline in breeding males overall in the state. Drumming is the beating sound males’ wings make during mating season.
The northern half of the state saw a 7% decline. The central region saw no change. The driftless area saw a 33% increase.
Alaina Gerrits is the Assistant Upland Wildlife Ecologist with the DNR. She says that decline is nothing out of the usual.
“Now we’re just kind of going down that very characteristic downslide and it’s a typical normal thing. I think that 6% decrease isn’t anything we should be really concerned about. It’s something we were anticipating,” said Gerrits.
She said this means the population likely peaked last year or the year before.
The DNR doesn’t know for certain since it wasn’t able to the survey last spring due to the pandemic.
“It’s a little frustrating for sure because we’ve been doing these surveys for decades. To have one year missing is really atypical,” said Gerrits.
While the DNR doesn’t have the drumming surveys from last spring, it does have harvest data from last year’s hunt.
In 2020, there was an increase in harvested grouse.
“That’s kind of a piece of evidence that leads me to believe that we did peak last year,” said Gerrits. “Once we can have harvest information after this season is over in 2021, we’ll kind of be able to use that as a little bit of an index to see where the population is at as well.”
Gerrits said Wisconsin is home to a robust ruffed grouse population. For perspective, roughly 200,000 grouse were harvested last year.