To experience the best “pa’tridge” country left, just drive northeast.
Good ruffed grouse covers are getting harder and harder to find, which is why my brother and I make a point of annually heading up to northern Maine. Thanks to large-scale forest management, there is so much productive habitat here that the biggest challenge is simply deciding where to jump in.
Days Required: Three (Sunday hunting is prohibited). Necessary Paperwork: Three-day small-game license ($49 for nonresidents; maine.gov/ifw); daily access fee plus nightly camping fee ($12 each; northmainewoods.org). Must-Have Gear: A GPS unit with a companion tracking collar for your dog. Before You Go: Buy The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (delorme.com). It shows NMW checkpoints and many campsites and logging roads and is essential for planning a trip. Last-Resort Guide: Libby Camps.
Photos by Tom Fowlks
Northern Maine encompasses more than 10 million acres of mostly working timberland–almost all of which is potential grouse cover. Much of the best is found in the 3.5-million-acre North Maine Woods (NMW), managed by a consortium of private landowners, which is open to the public for a modest fee. Because it is commercially logged, the NMW has hundreds of thousands of acres of young, regenerating forest that provides great habitat for grouse as well as woodcock. Its 5,000 or so miles of gravel and dirt logging roads weave through more cover than you can hunt in a lifetime. If that wasn’t enough, scattered throughout the NMW are more than 300 campsites and a dozen sporting camps. It’s an ideal destination for both D.I.Y. hunters and those looking for more luxurious accommodations and perhaps a guide.
|| |—| | Map by RADIO| Access to the NMW is via 15 checkpoints on primary entry roads. Although it’s possible to hunt there on a day-trip basis from gateway towns like Greenville and Millinocket, the farther in you go, the less pressure you’ll find–and the more birds you’ll encounter. Getting 30 or more miles back in and camping is the best way to get the most out of a trip and save wear and tear on your vehicle.
The next step is to cruise secondary logging roads and look for skidder trails, winter roads, and any other dead-end roads that are not passable by truck either because they’re too rough or overgrown, or because a culvert or bridge has washed out. Road hunting for “pa’tridge” that are picking grit or loafing on roadside berms is very popular with the locals (you can legally shoot from a gravel road, though not from a vehicle). But if you walk back into 8- to 20-year-old cutovers, you can find grouse that receive so little pressure they often hold like woodcock for pointing dogs.
That’s what my brother and I do, and we like to camp so we have the freedom to relocate if needed. Over the years we have experienced hunting that has ranged from good to so good that if we didn’t start eating grouse by the end of the second day, we risked exceeding our possession limit, which is twice the daily limit of four.
Prime time is the last two weeks of October. The leaves are mostly down; the weather is pleasant; and it falls between the moose and firearm deer seasons. That means less traffic and competition for choice campsites, which are first come, first served.
Visiting bird hunters should be aware of two things: First, the NMW is also home to protected spruce grouse. The females and juvenile males resemble ruffs, although they can be so tame they’re often called fool’s hens. If unsure, don’t shoot. Second, the paper companies do in fact own the roads. Be alert for approaching log trucks and give them as wide a berth as possible. Otherwise you’ll end up with a cracked windshield or worse.
The last two years have seen banner seasons for grouse, and brood reports for 2013 forecast another good year. This country isn’t for everyone. But if you’re up for the challenge and hit it right, it’s a ruffed grouse hunter’s nirvana.