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King of the Northwoods: Hunting the Ruffed Grouse in Maine

The ruffed grouse reigns abundantly over the beautiful forests, but its castle of habitat is shrinking in much of the Northeast.

King of the Northwoods: Hunting the Ruffed Grouse in Maine

Ruffed grouse are an indication of the state of our woods, with their thunderous drum being the very heartbeat of a healthy forest. (Photo By: Jim McCann)

U.S. Highway 201 runs all the way from Brunswick, Maine to Quebec in a long, winding road that cuts north through remote country. After you hit the town of Bingham, everything north is just small towns with diners and general store necessities. Everyone knows everybody. The air is colder up here, and the people are warmer.

From the highway you can see fingers of narrow, unmarked dirt roads that shoot off the black top. They are actively logged, rugged, and remote. The 201 runs along the Kennebec River, which is icy cold and forks as you move your way north towards Jackman—which is where I am headed.

I was running my old Jeep that was on its last set of tires. I kept track of the few flickering porch lights of houses in the event my engine failed me and I had to take a walk with my Labrador, Sawyer. I hadn’t had cell phone service for some time. It was a dark night with November approaching like a cold wind. I spotted a cow moose and calf in my high beams on the road’s black shoulder. Moose are regal animals, but their spindly legs and hulkish bodies can be a deadly combination for a vehicle. Fortunately, they made their way off gently through the dark wall of spruce.

It was good to see a heartbeat in the night. I had lost track of the last vehicle I had seen some time ago, when suddenly a timber lorry, red as an apple, steamed by me. It was stacked full of thinly cut trees. It is hard not to think of timber when in Maine.

Logging goes back as far as 1634 in the state, when the first sawmill powered by water was built in South Berwick. By 1832, Bangor became the largest shipping port for lumber in the world. The state does not produce as much as it once did, and many larger western states now produce much more lumber every year, but timber operation remains a staple for the state’s economy.


A Parallel History  

While New England has a long history of cutting wood, it also has a long history of grouse hunting. Authors like Burton L. Spiller brought Maine’s covers to life for readers across the country, and the romance of partridge hunting is still threaded like a wool blanket across the region.

But the romance and memory of the glory days is all many have left to hold on to—ruffed grouse have seen a 50 percent national population decline in the past twenty years. Shockingly, six out of seven states in the northeast have them listed as a species of concern. The only state exempt from that list in the Northeast? Maine.

What makes Maine so successful for ruffed grouse is the pure density of unbroken habitat. Of the state’s approximate 17.5 million acres of forest, 10 million acres are productive and managed. They are working landscapes, actively logged, and re-grown.

king of the northwoods, hunting ruffed grouse in maine
The vast and remote expanses of the forests of northern Maine provide a perfect solitude for a bird hunter and their dog. (Photo By: Kevin Erdvig)

This system of widespread forest management creates a whole mosaic of age classes of trees where grouse thrive. It is why Maine remains a stronghold for the species, while loss of habitat is widespread across many other states in the northeast.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, logging practices have been greatly reduced in the past 100 years. As a result, habitat has shrunk and older, single-aged forests have become the commonplace. Just look at the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania from the roadway, or the Catskills in New York, and the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and you will see much of the same narrative. It may be beautiful for a photo, but it is not healthy and sustainable for wildlife like the ruffed grouse. It is a habitat issue and the grouse that once drummed throughout these states have fell silent.

Organizations like the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) have adapted its conservation model to meet this need for habitat. In fact, in the past year, RGS has restructured its focus on larger scale, proactive habitat development.

“The one thing I want to stress is for 60 years, we have had amazing members and staff working on this the best way we know how. During this time, we would raise money at local banquets and then use that money for habitat projects. The reason we are changing that is the dire state of the ruffed grouse and the evidence that it is a landscape issue,” said Todd Waldron, the Northeast Forest Conservation Director of RGS during a conversation he and I had about our shared passion for ruffed grouse. “We must operate on an entirely different level, and that means working with partners on a larger scale to create more impact and more habitat. It requires a lot of people who are engaged, in addition to all those on-the-ground projects we have always done. If we aren’t focused on how we make impact on a landscape level, we will continue to see the decline we have seen.”

Hunting the Northwoods of Maine for Ruffed Grouse

I arrived well after dinner to my destination: Cedar Ridge Outfitters. I was greeted by the camp’s hosts, Ron and Linda. Ron is tall and slender, with long grey hair that hides beneath a mesh hat, while Linda’s rose-colored cheeks are welcoming, and she wore an apron that you could tell wasn’t just for show. They invited me in out of the late October night into the dining hall where a hot dinner waited for me.

“All the food here is from scratch,” Linda told me, as I grabbed a fresh glazed donut after dinner that was rich and sweet.

I was in Jackman hunting with my friends John and Sondra, two fellow dog nuts who had an itch for hunting grouse.

Ron gave us a hand drawn map of the maze of timber roads he had access to—both marked and unmarked. Around 94 percent of Maine is private, mostly owned by large timber companies, and requires landowner permission on posted property. If the property is not marked and ungated, citizens are allowed to access it.

This social contract between landowners and citizens interested in hunting, fishing, hiking, or birdwatching is very unique to Maine. It shows a wide range of people using the land and the value in healthy forest management—because what is good for grouse is good for a large range of wildlife and the forests that support them. Ron offered some advice, shook our hands, and then wished us good luck with a warm, wide smile—and meant it.

The first day was cold and slow but the sun shined brightly in the blue bird sky. We headed ten miles outside town to get familiar with the vast network of logging roads that crisscrossed like checker boards through the massive landscape. We went all day without moving any birds. We rotated dogs, tried familiar cover, said a prayer to the grouse gods, but still nothing. That was until I put Sawyer on the ground in the evening.

We worked our way up a gravel road until it split into a T of thinner, narrow trails that divided the young forest, not far from a powerline. Suddenly, Sawyer started vacuuming up ground scent. I stood back and advised my friends to get ready. He zig-zagged, moved forward, back, and then forward again when, suddenly, a grouse burst from underneath the limb of a young spruce tree. I quickly shouldered my gun and dropped the bird in a poof of feathers.

We moved a few more birds the rest of the evening but weren’t able to connect on any. Such is grouse hunting. The night set in like a dark embrace behind the thick tree line and it was time to make our way back to the cabin.

Back at camp, we went into the dining hall for dinner. Hunters were all seated at long wooden tables in several different parties. It was a good way to talk with new people, tell tall tales, and share the general excitement that was being here and now in these beautiful Northwoods.

king of the northwoods, hunting ruffed grouse in maine
A flushing dog can be very effective in the young, thick cover ruffed grouse thrive in. (Photos By: Nathan Ratchford)

A Day Without Grouse  

There is nothing like hot coffee in the morning. I woke up to the smell of a pot brewing from the kitchen and the sound of a few Kurzhaars moving about. Sawyer was sleeping on my arm. It was Halloween and the last day of our brief trip here in Jackman.

The morning air was cold and clean. We loaded up our vehicles and headed out of town on Highway 201 until I stopped to try one more hand at chasing royalty through these mountains.

I followed a stream that threaded downhill through a gravel bar and continued on to an alder flat with an abundance of ground cover. After a few minutes of poking around, Sawyer became very birdy. He started tracking and crashing through the dense stems when I could hear the thunderous flush of a grouse. I unloaded two shells and missed both. I was just beginning to feel sorry for myself when my eyes went back to Sawyer, who was still digging his nose through the shrubs. Suddenly, another grouse flushed, and then another, and then another. Grouse after grouse flushed into the air and I fumbled through my vest pocket to load two more shells. I somehow managed to drop one of the last birds as it sailed to a nearby pine.

Eight birds in all flushed from that covey. I have never seen anything like that in the grouse woods. It was much too late in the season for broods to still be bunched up, but I suspect it was a feeding frenzy after finding an abundance of catkins hanging nearby. My Lab flushed fifteen more birds that day and I managed to shoot a few more. It was a perfect day. In a world increasingly confusing and complex, this will always remain simple: A good dog, a shotgun, and wild birds.

king of the northwoods, hunting ruffed grouse in maine
It's a great feeling to hold a ruffed grouse in the hand after conquering the challenging terrain where they live and tricky wingshooting they present. (Photo By: Nathan Ratchford)

I hope I never see a day without grouse, but the King’s castle is shrinking across the northeast. Maine remains the capital for their reign, but aggressive habitat development is needed elsewhere. It is a landscape issue. With enough unblocked, targeted habitat, grouse populations can fight off other factors like West Nile, predation, and wet springs with more resilience and better odds.

Aldo Leopold penned the truth when he said, “Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the Northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

Grouse are like the canary in the coal mine. They are an indication of the state of our woods. Their thunderous drum is the very heartbeat of a healthy forest. We need to do our part to make sure it keeps beating for years to come. Long live the King of the North.


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