Finding, identifying and hunting forest grouse in Washington state
A four-month season with at least one of the four forest grouse species found in nearly every county means you won’t want to skip this opportunity.
A fun and fruitful hunting opportunity enjoyed by both new and experienced hunters is forest grouse season. Washington’s season was delayed from its traditional Sept. 1 start this year in order to reduce breeding hen harvest and increase abundance, so it runs from Sept. 15 through Jan. 15.
WDFW has gathered information on grouse species identification, where to find them, and hunting methods to help new hunters prepare and maybe even offer a tip or two for more seasoned hunters.
All four grouse species are native to Washington, and at least one of the four is found in nearly every county in the state. With an ample four-month season, don’t miss out on this opportunity the whole family can enjoy while bringing a delicious addition to the dinner table.
Ruffed grouse are common throughout the foothills and lowlands of Western Washington and some areas east of the Cascades. There are regional color morphs in Washington, with both gray-phase and red-phase birds present.
Ruffed grouse measure 16 to 18 inches in length and weigh about a pound. They have horizontally-lined tailfeathers with a distinct dark brown tail band near the outside edge.
Ruffed grouse are most abundant in coniferous and deciduous forests under 2,000 feet in elevation, especially those that are a patchwork of clear-cuts and standing timber of various ages, intertwined with brushy creek and river bottoms. These areas provide both cover and the berries, seeds, buds, clover, and other food sources that grouse need. West-side alder bottoms and east-side aspen draws are both good places to look for ruffed grouse, as are timber lands interlaced with walkable roads of various ages, where grouse can dust and pick gravel. Farmlands that abut forests, especially those with old fruit orchards, also may hold ample populations of ruffed grouse.
Dusky and sooty grouse (blue grouse)
The sooty grouse and dusky grouse, formerly known as blue grouse, are found in forested areas throughout the state. The dusky grouse is found in the Blue Mountains of Southeastern Washington, Northeastern Washington, and areas on the east slopes of the Cascades in Northern Washington. The sooty grouse is found from sea level to the alpine conifer forests of the Olympics, the west slopes of the Cascades, and east slopes of the Cascades in Yakima County and south.
There is some population overlap between sooties and duskies, and they look similar. From a hunter’s perspective, the two species can be considered blue grouse.
Blue grouse are the largest of the state’s forest grouse, often measuring over 20 inches long and weighing more than two pounds. The body of a male bird ranges in color from a light blue-gray to dark gray with a yellow-orange comb over each eye. The tailfeathers are long and mostly black, and a distinct band may be present near the end of the tail. This will be distinct and gray in sooty grouse. The slightly smaller hen is much more mottled in appearance, overall and on the tail.
Blue grouse are the largest of the state’s forest grouse, often measuring over 20 inches long and weighing more than two pounds.
The sooty grouse is found from sea level to alpine elevations. Look for them in conifer forests (especially Douglas fir) or where conifer forests are adjacent to open grasslands or shrublands. These can include clear-cuts, natural openings, and avalanche chutes. The dusky grouse is found in similar habitats but can also include sagebrush and antelope bitterbrush areas in close proximity to conifer forests.
The spruce, or Franklin’s, grouse is found in the lodgepole pine, subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce stands of the Cascades and mountains of Northeastern Washington. Spruce grouse have sometimes been referred to as the fool hen because of their habit of not flushing when approached. However, this behavior can also make them difficult to find.
Spruce grouse are less abundant and slightly smaller than ruffed grouse. They generally are found at elevations above 5,000 feet and are somewhat more colorful. Male spruce grouse have a scarlet eye comb over each eye and a black patch that covers the throat and upper breast. The upper portion of the black patch is trimmed in white. Females have alternating horizontal bars of white and brown and are generally more mottled in appearance.
Hunting dates: Sept. 15 to Jan. 15
License requirements: Small game or big game license
Daily limit: Four of any species, to include not more than three of any one species
Possession limit: 12 of any species, to include not more than nine of any one species
The options are many when it comes to ways to harvest grouse in Washington, from hunting with shotguns and dogs to selective shots with a .22 rifle or revolver, or even a .223.
Whatever your preferred method or firearm, there are ways to boost your odds of bagging a limit of grouse.
Early season hunters can do well concentrating their efforts at higher elevations than they would later in the season. Ruffed grouse often spend summers feeding and rearing young farther up hillsides then make their way into the lowlands where food can be more plentiful as the weather worsens in late fall.
Food availability can be a determining factor in whether there are any grouse in a particular area, so knowing where and what they’re eating can be very helpful. The first thing many veteran grouse hunters do after bagging a bird is open up the crop to see what it’s been eating. That information can lead the way to where you’ll find more birds.
Whether hunting open territory or thick cover, a stop-and-go approach often works well, especially on ruffed grouse.
Walking logging roads, cat trails, abandoned roads, and fire trails are good ways to look for forest grouse. Besides providing a ready source of grit and places for birds to dust, walkable roads and trails allow hunters to cover more ground in less time. Just make sure to keep your shot legal and safe if near public roads. Remember that it’s against the law to shoot from, across, or along the maintained portion of any public road.
Whether hunting open territory or thick cover, a stop-and-go approach often works well, especially on ruffed grouse. As you walk, stop briefly every 50 feet or so, or whenever you come to a spot that looks like especially good grouse cover. Be ready to shoot when you stop and stay ready until you’ve taken another few steps; jittery birds will fly when you stop near them or begin to move again. Changing directions by moving in a zig-zag fashion can also work well.
Whether flushed by human or canine, blue grouse, spruce grouse, and to a slightly lesser degree, ruffed grouse might fly up and perch in a tree instead of flying away. Additionally, once a grouse finds a comfortable spot in the trees, there’s a good chance it’s going to stay there. For that reason, some carry two guns into the grouse woods: a shotgun for wing shots and a small-caliber handgun for birds that decide to sit it out.
Guns and ammunition
The window of opportunity for a shot at the fast-flying bird in heavy cover can be very small, so many hunters prefer a small, lightweight shotgun for the kind of quick shots they get at grouse. Although often hard to hit, grouse are usually easy to knock down if you do hit them, so 20-gauges are about as common as the ever-popular 12-gauge.
You don’t get a lot of second shots at a rising ruffed grouse, nor are doubles very common with these rather solitary birds, so a single-shot 20-gauge with a modified choke barrel might work just fine in most situations. That 20-gauge you use for ruffed grouse will also work well for spruce and blue grouse in most situations, although some hunters like a bigger gun for the bigger birds.
Typical grouse loads range from an ounce to an ounce and a quarter.
As for ammunition, more, not bigger, is the answer when it comes to shot size for grouse hunting. Some hunters like size 6 shot, but you get a lot more pellets in the same size load of size 7 ½, and they’ll knock down a grouse just as well. Some hunters even go as small as size 8 shot, at least for ruffed and spruce grouse. Typical grouse loads range from an ounce to an ounce and a quarter.
If your weapon of choice for grouse hunting is a rifle, handgun or bow, of course, you’re not interested in a moving target as much as a still one. For a rifle, find a rest of some kind or it’s a tough shot if the bird is any distance away. The good news is that a near miss may be enough to stun the bird and bring it to the ground. Many hunters who shoot their grouse with a .22 also prefer head shots to preserve the quality and quantity of the table fare. As with any responsible shot, always be sure of your backstop. This is especially true when firing a rifle, and doubly so if the target is in a tree, because of how far even small-caliber rifle bullets can travel.
For more information on this fulfilling and fun hunting opportunity, visit https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/requirements/upland-birds/forest-grouse.
For more information on areas to hunt upland game birds including grouse, visit https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/locations.