Early Birds

Ruffed Grouse
Grouse hunters have every bit as much upland elbow room in Maine as in the Great Lakes states, with the bonus of a fresh lobster dinner at the end of the day. "North of U.S. 2, the whole state is one big grouse covert," says Bill Pierce of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. That highway marks the boundary between the endless northern forests and the population centers, urban refugees, and sprawl of southern Maine.

Local ruffed grouse populations bounce up and down but remain largely uninfluenced by the boom-and-bust cycles of the Great Lakes. Grouse hunting here ranges from fair to phenomenal, but it never bottoms out as it can in the Upper Midwest.

The Place Immediately adjacent to U.S. 2, you'll find classic New England-style grouse hunting in farm country replete with picturesque stone walls and abandoned apple orchards. Although it's technically legal to hunt any unposted land in Maine, common courtesy suggests that you find the farmer and ask permission before putting your dogs down. Once you pass north through the narrow band of farm country, you're in the big woods, where millions upon millions of acres of paper-company land stand open to public access. These lands are, in general, well marked, both with signage and obviously used logging roads. You needn't ask permission to hunt them, although a group of smaller paper companies, known as the Northern Maine Woods, charges modest gate fees for access to their land, which is often prime grouse cover. As always, the best habitat will be found in the young growth around clear-cuts.

The Hunt "You can be absolutely clueless and still find great grouse hunting in Maine," says Pierce. "Drive down the road until you see bird cover or even a grouse alongside the road." He isn't suggesting that you road-hunt. "I look at that bird as the one that sold his whole clan out, because that's where I'll put the dog down and start hunting. That one bird might lead you to another, or to an alder patch that will turn into an all-day cover."

Although you'll have to hike up and down as you hunt, the hills and mountains provide plenty of landmarks, making it somewhat more difficult to get lost among the trees than it is in the flat, featureless grouse woods of the Great Lakes.

Where to go? Here are three suggestions: Aroostock County is as north as the North Woods get and has great grouse covers. The tiny town of Jackman in western Maine opens its arms to visiting upland hunters. The entire Kennebec River corridor provides excellent mixed-bag grouse and woodcock hunting.

Maine's grouse season opens October 1 and runs through the end of the year. October is prime time, usually coinciding with the best woodcock hunting in the bottomland alder runs.

Resources In northern Maine, try Libby Camps Sporting Lodges, 207-435-8274; www.libbycamps.com. In western Maine, try the King & Bartlett Fish and Game Club, 207-243-2956; www.kingandbartlett.com. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 207-287-8000; www.state.me.us/ifw.