Where to Go: Early Birds

Start the fall with one of these classic early-season upland hunts.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Ruffed Grouse and Woodcock
** Wisconsin**
A town of barely 3,OOO people, Park Falls claims a big distinction: It bills itself as the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World. They're not just talking the talk, either; hunters walk the walk across 1.2 million acres of prime grouse real estate, all of it open to the public. Even last year, as Wisconsin's grouse cycle hit bottom, guide Terry Ides recorded an average of 26.3 flushes a day in coverts within a 40-mile radius of Park Falls. A bad year in Price County is better than a good year almost anywhere else.

The Place Although the 800,000-acre Chequamegon National Forest comprises the bulk of open land around Park Falls, locals in the know deem the best hunting to be found on the area's 90,000 acres of county land, or on the 135,000 acres of nearby state forest. While logging on national forests has become a highly volatile, politicized off-and-on-again practice, Wisconsin's county and state forest managers have a free hand to create small, wildlife-friendly regenerative clear-cuts, much to the benefit of grouse and woodcock populations. In addition to public lands, hunters can also try the Plum Creek Paper Co.'s 150,000 acres of actively logged woods.

The Hunt When the season opens on September 13, visitors will find leaves on the trees and grouse bunched in early-season flocks. Early October is the prime time to visit, as visibility improves and grouse disperse into their fall range. Grouse and woodcock inhabit young forest. Although their preferred habitats differ, they overlap in much of the area. "I have a rule of thumb," says Ides. "If I can put my hands around a tree and the fingers touch, it's woodcock cover. If they don't touch, it's grouse cover. Even 25-year-old stands of aspen and alder are okay, so long as they've got good growths of thorn apple or chokecherries around them for the grouse to eat."

Come ready to walk. Ides' clients regularly tramp 10 to 12 miles a day. Fortunately, the ground is flat and has few briers to slow you down. On the other hand, it all looks alike. It's easy to get turned around if you're not paying attention. "You can't just mark your truck on your GPS and find your way back. This is swamp country, and you can't always walk out in a straight line," says Ides. He suggests that first-timers stick to the edges of logging roads and clear-cuts, where they'll find more birds anyway.

Bring plenty of ammunition. Last year Ides' hunters averaged 1.3 birds with a typical expenditure of 44 shells in the thick cover. Run into woodcock and you can pop even more caps. On a good day, you may find 20 or 30 timberdoodles in a morning's hunt.

Although Park Falls actively promotes its hunting, Ides says there's so much open land available that he and his guides rarely encounter other hunters in the field.

Resources Ides Guides, 715-762-3315. Park Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, 715-762-2703; www.parkfalls.com. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 608-266-2621; www.dnr.state.wi.us.

Ruffed Grouse
Maine
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 ste 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. Chukars
Idaho

Natives of the harsh spine of mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, introduced chukar partridge thrive in coveys of seven to nine birds in the rocky highlands of Idaho, eastern Washington, and Oregon. Hunting them on their own ground is not like hunting them on shooting preserves-and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of leg. Coveys run fast up steep hills and either drop over the other side of the ridge or flush back over your head and fly back down below you. Hunters in the know climb hard to get above the birds, then spread out along the top and hunt across the hillsides.

Why put yourself and your dog through such early-season misery? Because chukar hunting in Idaho has never been better than right now.

The Place Chukars need water, rimrock, and cheatgrass. They find all three in abundance along Idaho's rivers and impoundments. Currently, Brownlee Reservoir, an impoundment of the Snake, rules as Idaho's premier chukar spot. Helicopter surveys of Brownlee show numbers well above long-term averages. To hunters, that might translate into 10 to 12 coveys a day. Lake Owyhee, Hell's Canyon, the Snake, Lower Snake, and Lower Salmon Rivers all support good surrounding populations as well.

The Hunt You can go by land or by water. Hunters with access to a boat cruise the shorelines early in the season, looking and listening. Once they spot birds down by the water, they land the boat, climb above them, and start hunting. If you can break up a covey, the singles and pairs will sit well for a dog. For hunters without a boat, the simple drill is to park, climb, and hunt, concentrating your efforts wherever you find rocks and cheatgrass together.

Before you go, find a StairMaster for yourself and one for your dog. Dog boots are essential in rocky terrain. Choose leather ones, as a Cordura pair can wear out in half a day. Carry drinking water for you and your dog.

Idaho's season opens September 20 and runs through January 15. Many prefer to go early, counting on summer drought to concentrate birds low along rivers, springs, or creeks. October rains usually scatter the coveys. "It doesn't matter when you go," says biologist Andy Ogden. "If you've got the legs and the dog, you can find birds from the beginning of the season right up until the end."

Resources The state discourages outfitters from offering upland bird hunts. Chasing chukars is a do-it-yourself deal. Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 208-334-3700; www.state.id.us/fishgame.

Sharptail Grouse and Prairie Chickens
South Dakota and Nebraska

Locals around Pierre, South Dakota, call it a popcorn flush. You step into a flock of prairie grouse, and a bird blasts out of the grass in front of you, two more flush off to the side, and five jump up somewhere else, in random, discombobulating order. You might fill your limit in a few seconds; you might just empty your gun.

Hunters who walk the grasslands for sharptails and chickens, the two species of prairie grouse, pay a high price for their birds in sweat and boot leather. Yet, they come here in increasing numbers every September, lured by the spellbinding vastness and the chance to follow their dogs across the wide open spaces.

The Place The Fort Pierre National Grasslands just south of Pierre cover 160,000 acres and have become perhaps the nation's premier destination for prairie grouse hunters. Recent management changes geared to multiple use instead of just grazing have improved the area's bird cover. State lands, Corps of Engineers ground, and private acres leased under South Dakota's walk-in program also offer open access to hunters. Unfortunately, dry weather in 2001 and 2002 hurt prairie grouse production. At press time, the prairies were cool and wet again, but South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks biologist Tony Leif says hunters should keep their fingers crossed. "Conditions looked better this spring, but a lot can happen between July and September 20."

While South Dakota has become the most popular prairie grouse destination, Nebraska rates a close second, especially if you're interested in a mixed bag of chickens and sharptails. In northwest Nebraska, there's no shortage of federally owned grasslands open to hunting. Try the 90,000-acre Nebraska National Forest near Halsey; the 115,000-acre McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine; parts of the 71,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the 40,000-acre Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Garden County.

Td cheatgrass together.

Before you go, find a StairMaster for yourself and one for your dog. Dog boots are essential in rocky terrain. Choose leather ones, as a Cordura pair can wear out in half a day. Carry drinking water for you and your dog.

Idaho's season opens September 20 and runs through January 15. Many prefer to go early, counting on summer drought to concentrate birds low along rivers, springs, or creeks. October rains usually scatter the coveys. "It doesn't matter when you go," says biologist Andy Ogden. "If you've got the legs and the dog, you can find birds from the beginning of the season right up until the end."

Resources The state discourages outfitters from offering upland bird hunts. Chasing chukars is a do-it-yourself deal. Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 208-334-3700; www.state.id.us/fishgame.

Sharptail Grouse and Prairie Chickens
South Dakota and Nebraska

Locals around Pierre, South Dakota, call it a popcorn flush. You step into a flock of prairie grouse, and a bird blasts out of the grass in front of you, two more flush off to the side, and five jump up somewhere else, in random, discombobulating order. You might fill your limit in a few seconds; you might just empty your gun.

Hunters who walk the grasslands for sharptails and chickens, the two species of prairie grouse, pay a high price for their birds in sweat and boot leather. Yet, they come here in increasing numbers every September, lured by the spellbinding vastness and the chance to follow their dogs across the wide open spaces.

The Place The Fort Pierre National Grasslands just south of Pierre cover 160,000 acres and have become perhaps the nation's premier destination for prairie grouse hunters. Recent management changes geared to multiple use instead of just grazing have improved the area's bird cover. State lands, Corps of Engineers ground, and private acres leased under South Dakota's walk-in program also offer open access to hunters. Unfortunately, dry weather in 2001 and 2002 hurt prairie grouse production. At press time, the prairies were cool and wet again, but South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks biologist Tony Leif says hunters should keep their fingers crossed. "Conditions looked better this spring, but a lot can happen between July and September 20."

While South Dakota has become the most popular prairie grouse destination, Nebraska rates a close second, especially if you're interested in a mixed bag of chickens and sharptails. In northwest Nebraska, there's no shortage of federally owned grasslands open to hunting. Try the 90,000-acre Nebraska National Forest near Halsey; the 115,000-acre McKelvie National Forest southwest of Valentine; parts of the 71,000-acre Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the 40,000-acre Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Garden County.

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