Upland Game Bird Hunting in California: Sooty and Ruffed Grouse
Sooty or Blue Grouse and Ruffed Grouse
The first upland bird season to come upon us is Archery Season for Sooty or Blue Grouse and Ruffed Grouse season. I know many people who have hunted California for years and never even seen a ruffed grouse. They are hard to find but once you find them they are consistent about staying in the same areas and habitat year after year, so if you find them there one year you can usually find them there again the next year and so on.
During the 2018 season in California, Sooty or Blue Grouse and Ruffed Grouse (Not Sage Grouse) Archery Season opens on August 18, 2018 to September 7, 2018. And shotgun season opens September 8, 2018 to October 8, 2018. You can only shoot two a day (read the regulations before you go out).
These grouse are very seclusive any other time of the year, but they are very active during the early archery season, primarily the first week of the season. These birds are mostly in the forested areas of Northern California near the “wet spots”. The mountains around Trinity, Humboldt, Shasta, Siskiyou, Modoc, and Lassen counties all hold plenty of birds.
They can be a lazy mans bird. They prefer mountainous areas with running water and green vegetation. Most often you will find them where a small trickle of water crosses a dirt road. Look for berries like choke cherries, black berries and any low hanging scrub berries even manzanita berries. They also eat pine nuts and insects you find in the forests.
They hang out in the low thick vegetation early in the mornings and tend to stand on the edges of the road until they see or hear a vehicle approaching. They seem to have very good hearing and like most birds they have very good eye sight and nerves of steel. If they see you coming they will usually just step off the road maybe 15 or 20 feet and laydown. If you walk over to where they are they will just lay down and hope you don’t see them. I have stood within a few inches of a grouse and not had them fly until I touched them with my foot. To humans this doesn’t make sense, but they have avoided predators this way for years. If you see one and it walks off the road and you can't find it, look down, if it didn’t fly off or you didn’t see it run off, it’s probably by your feet. Hunting these birds with a dog can be very productive. A dog, any dog even the family pet with no formal bird dog training can “pop-up” one of these birds. This is also a way to keep an older retired dog in the game a few years longer. Keep them on a long lead and just walk them slow near where the bird went into the brush and if you drop the bird you can decide if you want to let the old dog fetch it up or if you are going to play bird dog.
Most of the time grouse hunting is done in conjunction with deer hunting. Driving the roads early in the morning and you see a funny looking bird that looks like a giant quail crossed with a chicken. These are Ruffed grouse, they look very similar to Blue Grouse or sooty grouse and unless you are holding the two species together at the same time its hard to tell which variety you have until you get the hang of it.
Note in the photos below that these Ruffed Grouse have a funny looking tuft of feather on the top of their heads, look like a cross between a quail and a chicken and have a black band on their tail. This is how you will see most your Ruffed Grouse, standing on a dirt road or darting into the brush along the edge of the road.
A Ruffed Grouse looks kind of like a chicken with the feathers on the back of its head ruffed up earning it the name of Ruffed Grouse.
Blue Grouse and Sooty grouse are the same thing. Just two different names. A Blue, looks like a large giant quail the size of a small chicken. They are blueish gray or a “slate” color and have a smooth head.
Both Blue and Ruffed grouse live in the same areas and I have seen Blue Grouse and Ruffed grouse standing together on the side of a dirt road but the truth of the matter is, most of the grouse you will see in Northern California are Ruffed Grouse.
You see them all the time during archery season in Northern California as you are driving in and out of your hunting areas. They cross the road as you approach in the vehicle or as you are walking in or out. You walk up to where they were and watch for them to start walking or flush. Usually they walk away silently or hold tight. They are somewhat dumb birds and almost too easy to hunt and that is one reason why DFW only allows you to shoot two a day. In the old days hunters would hunt them with .22s and they would flush up into the trees and the hunter would just pick them off one at a time until they killed several birds.
Shotgun season for Sooty and Ruffed Grouse opens on September 8th, 2018 and goes to October 8th, 2018. The limit is only two birds. Band Tailed Pidgeon season opens September 15th, 2018 and goes to September 23rd, 2018 (in the Northern Zone) The good news is that these seasons overlap and for a short time you can hunt pigeons and grouse at the same time and because they inhabit the same areas, you usually see grouse in the ground cover around a creek as it meanders through the mountains and pigeons in the air or up in the trees in the same spot.
If you are hunting during shotgun season and using a dog, you will have to be fast on the draw. These bird flush fast and low and weave in and out of the trees. Use anything from #8 steel shot to #6 or even #4. I usually load my shotgun with #6 for the first two shots and #4 for the second. #7 and #8 just tear them up too bad to eat and leave shot all over inside the bird. If you are hunting Grouse and Pigeon at the same time just use #6 steel.
As you are driving along through the mountains along a dirt road and you see a grouse. Let it go into the brush before you let your dog out. Then quickly get your dog up to where the bird went into the brush and let the dog do the work. The other way is to spot one of these lush patches of vegetation and just let the dog out and let it work through the brush patch. Once it finds one grouse it will easily remember the smell and know what you are after. These birds are very easy for a dog to find because they stink! If you don’t believe me wait until you shoot one. They smell strong when alive and stronger once they are broke open. But don’t let that fool you they are very tasty birds and they make a good backpacking meal when you can cook them over an open flame. If you are not going to cook them up and eat them immediately put them on ice as soon as possible because they will go bad fast. Open them up, gut them, toss the guts to the side and place them in an ice chest. Most grouse hunting in California is done in hot weather and it would be a real shame to lose a bird to spoilage.
Hunting grouse with dogs during deer season is a risk in and of itself. Unfortunately, some hunters shoot first and then try to identify the animal. I big black lab can look just like a black bear moving through the brush. I have a large orange dog vest that I put on my lab to avoid confusion it also helps protect the dog from thorns and other scratches.
If you are archery hunting use whatever you want that is legal, some folks use broadheads and some use field tips or bludgeoning tips. Whatever you use, if you are bow hunting and your hunting with a dog don’t use broadheads! Dogs get excited when they see birds get hit and they tend to run in full speed. Arrows don’t always pass through a bird. Grouse are usually shot on the ground when using a bow. Usually the arrow will pass through them and hit the ground, the bird will start flipping around but the arrow will remain inside the grouse. As the bird flips around dying the dog rushes in and it stabs itself in the face or neck. I have heard and personally seen dogs do this and its usually a very expensive vet bill. I will not archery hunt grouse with my dog it’s just too dangerous. But I do really enjoy archery hunting these guys.
The road work throughout the foothills of the Trinity Alps above Hwy 3 has always produced grouse for me. West of Mt Shasta, in mountains above Lake Siskiyou is another good place to start. South of Mt Shasta on the south side of Hwy 89 in the foothills above the McCloud River you will find a good population if you stay in the foothills. If you go too high the terrain tends to dry out and grouse stay near water in the summer and fall.
Lassen and Modoc counties have plenty of grouse. I have found that most of the grouse in Modoc county are in the west side of the South Warner Mountains. There are plenty of small streams and trickles that these birds hold in during the morning.
If you are having trouble finding the grouse, they have probably either been hunted too much or too much vehicle traffic in the area and the have moved out and/or moved up. If they moved out they will be around food and water usually berries and water. They love to hide in blackberry thickets and feed on other low hanging berries. If they have moved up into the trees they can be almost impossible to hunt. If they have been over hunted or they get nervous they will fly up into the pine trees and just roost all day. They will make a soft call and you may be able to spot one but sometimes I think they are ventriloquists.