They call him King Ruff
Ruffed grouse hunters go strange when they talk about ruffed grouse. They get gooey, and words like "majestic" and "regal" pepper the conversation.
Grouse have a strange fascination. They're tough to hunt, hard to hit and superlative on the table. They're native to Missouri (at the southern edge of their range) but once almost were "extirpated," a euphemism for wiped out.
Now, all or part of 19 counties are open to hunting, with more in the offing -- not an extensive resource, but perhaps one day grouse will match the unexpected and dramatic comeback of the wild turkey.
Missouri grouse populations probably will never rival the Great Lake states and New England, the heart of King Ruff's realm.
Few Missourians hunt grouse. In fact, there's little doubt ruffed grouse are the state's most under-hunted game species. Old New England grouse hunters invariably call ruffed grouse "partridge." But grouse aren't partridges. The only true partridges in this country are introduced gray or Hungarian partridge, which exist in limited numbers in northeast Missouri, and the chukar partridge that shooting preserves often stock.
Ruffed grouse are close cousins to prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse and other grouses of the West.
Missouri opened modern grouse seasons in 1983. Hunters had to buy a special grouse permit (and still do), and the Conservation Department limited the number of permits to 3,000. Almost all were sold (2,917). Hunters took 151 grouse that first year.
The number of hunters has declined to a few over 400 now, and these take just about as many birds as the original 3,000 hunters did.
Why? Well, probably because grouse hunting is tough, frustrating and mostly nonproductive.
It happens in dense cover and, in Missouri, often involves travel up and down steep hills. The birds are spooky and don't hold well for bird dogs accustomed to more mannerly quail. Grouse are infamous for offering fleeting shots or no shot at all, just the diminishing drumroll of active wings.
It doesn't take much of that behavior to send frustrated hunters back to more open areas and quail, which come in bunches and behave the way Show-Me hunters think they should.
Still, Missouri continues a bumpy love affair with King Ruff. Missouri may be the only state that had active Ruffed Grouse Society chapters before there was a hunting season. And Missouri is the site of the most ambitious grouse project ever funded by the national Ruffed Grouse Society, a $300,000 timber management study that ran for a dozen years.
Ruffed grouse hunting confuses most Missouri bird hunters. Grouse are solitary birds, except early in the fall when they still are in family groups (young birds also tend to sit better for a bird dog).
Missouri's grouse season runs Oct. 15 to Jan. 15, with a daily limit of two and possession limit of four. Hunters need a $3 grouse permit, in addition to a small-game hunting permit.
Ted Cooper of Chesterfield may be Missouri's preeminent grouse hunter. He's taken more than 100 birds in a dozen seasons, with a high water mark of 22.
That's low compared to what a dedicated hunter can do in a traditional grouse state -- one Minnesota hunter once logged more than 100 birds in a season -- but it's outstanding in Missouri.
"I hunted grouse in Ohio where I grew up," Cooper says. "It was oak and hickory woods like Missouri." Cooper thinks clearcut areas on state land offer the best chance. "It's also the hardest," he says. "The thicker the better." He also hunts brushy bottom fields and explores each little side draw.
Even though grouse are woodland birds, they aren't deep forest birds. They need openings and young growth. Old trees are no help to grouse, except when they fall over and create drumming logs for males.
Ideal grouse habitat is an old farmstead, abandoned and growing up in briars, with ample insects for young birds that feed almost exclusively on them. Small clearcuts that open a dense forest encourage shrubby growth that will be ideal for grouse in a half-dozen years.
Grouse are what they eat, so it makes sense to hunt where the birds are feeding. That isn't always the same place. Grouse prefer various buds and the flowers (or catkins) of some trees, but they also eat fruit, seeds, acorns and just about anything that doesn't eat them first, including frogs and lizards. "Grouse eat wild grapes, greens and dogwood berries," Cooper says.
Early in the season, grouse will key on fruits. Wild rose hips are a favored food and grouse will feed on acorns. Hunters should work strips of woods extending into fields, from the base of the strip to the point to force birds to flush into the open.
A methodical, careful bird dog is vital for grouse -- they are fidgety birds, apt to walk off or dither in indecision. If the dog sees the bird on the ground, it's an almost irresistible invitation to chase it down or flush it wild. A good grouse dog freezes at the first whiff and doesn't move until it is sure where the bird lies.
Cooper uses a Brittany and doesn't hunt her on anything but grouse. He hunts every weekend of the season, both on private and public land, and logs perhaps seven hours daily. He figures it takes about 10 hours of hunting per grouse bagged.
Burton Spiller, the patriarch of grouse writers, was a pointer man, but generally pointers range too widely for grouse. Many use English setters, but Brittanies, German shorthairs and other versatile breeds are becoming more popular. Some hunters use retrievers, especially Labradors, and keep the dog close, watching it for signs that a bird is near.
Usually the bird will flush within range, and the retriever will find the downed bird.
A dogless hunter is at the mercy of chance. He can find birds, but not as well as a dog, and he may walk past a bird that stays put or flushes behind the hunter, giving an almost impossible shot.
Grouse hunters don't measure a hunt's success by the heft of the game bag. Muskellunge anglers count follows instead of strikes, and grouse hunters count flushes, not connects. A 20-flush day is a good one (in peak years, hunters in prime habitat might move 60-100 birds a day). Cooper figures he'll flush about 16-17 grouse in a good day.
Like most grouse hunters, he keeps a meticulous log of his hunting, registering location, flushes, what the birds were feeding on, weather and other information that not only recalls the hunt, but also is a database for future hunts.
It all depends on circumstance, of course, but 20 flushes might result in two birds in the bag. Perhaps half the flushes will be sound only, the muffled thunder of an unseen bird. Half of the birds seen will be glimpses, a flash of feathers gone before you can mount the gun.
That leaves about five decent shots to bag two birds. Considering that the birds are twisting among trees or are rising in thick brush, two connects in five shots is good shooting.
Grouse are masters at flushing when a hunter is off-balance, looking the wrong way, thinking about taxes, God or baseball, scratching an itch, in mid-step, talking to a hunting buddy, reloading, or caught up in a briar patch so thick and stickery he can't move the gun.
A good grouse hunter disciplines himself to carry the gun ready at port arms every moment he's hunting. It's not easy. You must convince yourself that a grouse is going to flush one second from now! And do it for six or seven hours.
Grouse hunters need brush pants or chaps to turn stobs and briars, a good pair of thin gloves to protect hands and, above all, plenty of hunter orange and eye protection.
Hunter orange is vital. All hunters must know where everyone else is. Never shoot at birds on the ground or low flying birds when hunting with anyone else, even if you think you know where they are. A dead grouse isn't worth a dead or injured buddy.
Eye protection is vital in the sprouty growth where grouse flourish. Wear shooting glasses, not cheap sunglasses. Shooting glasses are tempered to resist the impact of stray pellets, as well as stobs and vegetative whips.
And yellow-tinted glasses sharpen vision in dim light conditions (they don't actually increase light, but that is the apparent effect).
Most hunters use lightweight shotguns, usually improved cylinder/modified for double barrels, improved cylinder for a single barrel. Cooper uses an over/under 12 gauge with light loads of No. 8 shot.
It doesn't take much to bring a grouse down, and the hunter's axiom is that if you can see a grouse you can kill it. Hunters often shoot as the bird vanishes into the brush and listen for the "thump" of a downed grouse. Wounded grouse don't tend to run like a pheasant or quail, but a dog is indispensable to find them.
Flushed grouse seldom fly more than 100 yards and almost always in a straight line, so a hunter should try to get a good line of flight on the bird and follow it.
Grouse hunters are notorious for keeping their coverts secret. Names like The Wagonwheel and Byron's Demise and the Tripwire Cover have no meaning except to the few who are in on the code.
But Ted Cooper doesn't mind sharing his secrets, since his only secret is to hunt good cover where there are grouse in open season and walk until it gets dark. As more than 2,000 would-be grouse hunters decided after Missouri's first season, that's just too darn much work.