By Drew YoungeDyke
This Michigan Outside column was originally published in the November 2019 issue of Woods'n'Water News.
The springer spaniel darted in front of us, flushing a ruffed grouse from the hunter walking trail but too far in front of us for a shot. It was our only flush of the day, but the heartbeat thump that echoed through the woods was exciting for two new ruffed grouse hunters in our party from out West. We had covered over five miles of tough hiking both on the trail and most often off of it in the dense young forest cover grouse prefer. Ruffed grouse hunting offers a perfect opportunity to log some cardiovascular exercise while enjoying Michigan’s outdoors.
I have only hunted ruffed grouse a handful of times, shooting none and missing one. Every hunt – tagging along with more experienced upland hunters – has covered between about three and five miles of hiking. Unlike still-hunting for white-tailed deer, upland hunting goes at a much faster pace, often trying to keep up with my friends’ bird dogs in a skirmish line, through whatever cover may arise.
Ruffed grouse prefer young forests which have a much thicker undergrowth than older canopied forests which block the sunlight, especially young aspen forests. The Mosinee Grouse Enhanced Management System (GEMS) in Gogebic County, about five miles south of Wakefield, holds multiple blocks of mixed age-class aspen stands and maple and oak forests interspersed by upland openings and hunter walking trails. Nine friends joined me there in late September as part of a cast and blast weekend of ruffed grouse hunting and northern pike fishing with non-lead ammunition and fishing tackle, based out of my family’s cottage on nearby Chaney Lake.
Our party split into two groups. Jordan Browne of Michigan Out-of-Doors TV was filming so we sent him with the more experienced ruffed grouse hunters consisting of Michigan United Conservation Clubs president George Lindquist, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation president Craig Challenor, Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers co-chair Ryan Cavanagh, and Huron Pines AmeriCorps coordinator Sarah Topp. I joined the other group of my National Wildlife Federation co-workers Aaron Kindle of Colorado and Marcia Brownlee of Montana, and Wisconsin Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers members Bill Koepke and Marissa English of Wisconsin and their springer spaniel, Jango.
While my western colleagues have hunted dusky grouse and sage grouse, they were surprised by how much ground we covered looking for Northwoods ruffed grouse. A 154-pound person burns an average of 370 calories per hour, according to the Center for Disease Control. Hiking on uneven ground, though, burns 28% more energy than walking on even terrain. Most grouse hunting occurs on uneven ground, even if the elevation is relatively flat as you step over fallen logs, duck under branches, and walk through a mix of ground cover types. While calories burned are a function of the hunter’s weight and will be different for every hunter on every hunt, it’s safe to say that it will be significantly more than the calories burned while sitting on the couch watching football game on television.
Neither of our parties got a shot on grouse that day; the other party had three flushes but no shots through the thick and colorful late September foliage. Ryan had picked up a roadkill grouse on the drive over, though, so we cooked that up as a lunch appetizer to go with pasties from Randall’s bakery. A 4-oz. serving of ruffed grouse contains 29g of protein and 1g of fat, according to the USDA, making it a healthy source of lean protein. And if you use steel shot or another non-lead alternative, you keep it clean of lead toxicity both for anyone eating it and any raptor scavenging it if you wound or fail to recover it.
The Mosinee GEMS site we hunted is part of the Michigan DNR’s network of 19 sites across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula which are managed specifically for high quality ruffed grouse habitat that is publicly accessible and easily recognizable. It is actually Gogebic County forest, known as the Mosinee Grade Tract. I learned from my mom’s cousin that my great-grandpa used to hunt that tract.
Ruffed grouse habitat requires active forest management to keep young forests in rotation: this means trees have to be cut. In the Pigeon River Country State Forest, where I’ve hunted grouse and where I do most of my deer hunting, the DNR is planning an ambitious conversion of 88-year-old red pine stand choked with invasive species understory into an upland habitat mecca. The 230-acre stand will be clear cut and the ground roller-chopped to allow early successional aspen to regenerate, interspersed with oak and hawthorn plantings to provide wildlife food sources.
This project will occur in a highly visible section of the forest, where many people may misunderstand the wildlife value of clear cuts like this. For a few years after treatment in 2021, it will look like a clear cut where pine trees now stand. But conservation is about the long term, and in a decade or so when my infant son is ready to start hunting with me – if he decides to – the area will be regenerating into aspen cover for ruffed grouse and I might finally be successful at hunting them!
Ruffed grouse hunting has been growing on me as upland hunting friends have invited me along over the last few years. I enjoy the camaraderie, the terrain, the habitat, the dogs, the heartbeat thump of the grouse beating their wings, and the taste of the grouse my friends have shot. And I hardly even noticed that the whole time I was also burning calories and getting a great cardiovascular workout. Ruffed grouse hunting in Michigan is a perfect way to find fitness in the outdoors.
Drew YoungeDyke is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer and a Director of Conservation Partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation, a board member for 2% for Conservation, a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association, and a state-appointed member of the Pigeon River Country State Forest Advisory Council.
All posts at Michigan Outside are independent and do not necessarily reflect the views of NWF, OWAA, AGLOW, MOWA, the PRCAC, or any other entity.