Incredible grouse numbers. Untold miles of prime habitat. Plenty of “bonus” birds. If you haven’t made the trip to northern Alberta, this might be your year.
One of North America’s favorite game birds is always a treat to see and hunt, and once you partake of a delectable ruffed grouse dinner you just might become as addicted to chasing Mr. Ruff as this reporter. There is more good news. Those looking for an exciting way to jump-start their fall hunting season can begin chasing grouse as early as September 1st. Your destination is Alberta, a virtual cornucopia for grouse hunters. Here’s the inside scoop on one of North America’s finest early fall adventures.
The Rush Of The Flush. Out of the corner of my eye I somehow caught the bobbing head of a grouse through the dense foliage—and quickly made my move forward. In seconds thundering wingbeats had my heart racing at the same speed, and I swung my smoothbore hard to catch the fleeing brown speedster as it ducked and wove its way through a nasty brush tangle. As Grouse Number One careened to the ground, two more birds lost their nerve and exploded skyward. As I emptied my gun another ruffy was added to the bag—yet the action wasn’t through. As quickly as I could reload the birds kept exploding from the cover at intervals, as if being called for off a trap machine. When all was said and done 10 separate grouse had flushed, and four were shot clean.
Multiple flushes of grouse are common when the season opens September 1st in northern Alberta, where family units regularly stay together for up to a month after the hunting season opens. The thick, green cover can make them a bit harder to find, but is well worth the effort when you can experience a few thrilling shows like the one described above.
A Time Of Plenty—And Change. Early season hunting in Alberta can be legendary, but change is looming. The full moon, in late September, is guaranteed to bring frost and a change in vegetation. Fall colors quickly grip the landscape with warming hues of yellow, orange and red, making vibrant vistas picture-perfect. By the third week of September, most of the grass has dried and hardened off, making it much easier to see the understory of the forest as well as unsuspecting ruffed grouse. By early October there is frost every night, and the bird hunting just keeps getting better.
Alberta Ruffed Grouse. Ruffed grouse are plentiful throughout the foothills and mountains of western Alberta. They are a primary resident of the boreal forest, which blankets the northern half of the province. The Parkland Region boasts impressively stable grouse populations, and with agriculture interspersed, the birds do very well. The only areas of the province with relatively sparse numbers of ruffed grouse are found in the prairie regions of the southwest.
Prime Habitat Is Where They’re At. Like any wildlife, when you find good habitat you find good numbers of birds. Ruffies like the edges of mature forest, and with oil and gas development throughout Alberta there is a myriad of seismic lines, access trails, and other backcountry roads. Most have been seeded to grasses and clover, which is a natural drawing card for the birds. In the forest, the grouse dine on a multitude of berries, forbs, seeds, and insects. They thrive along waterways and willow, and alder-choked creek bottoms can hold tremendous numbers of birds. As the season progresses, birds can often be seen sitting in willow and alder trees eating buds early in the morning and late evening. Wherever there is an abundance of food, there are ruffed grouse.
Maps, Logs, & The HuntStand App. The HuntStand app allows hunters to develop logs that can be used to take you back to historically productive areas where grouse often show up on a regular basis. Find a bird or two in a particular area one day, and it is likely there will be more there tomorrow, and again next year. Using the app to access accurate weather forecasts can also help you plan a trip, when birds might be out picking gravel and are more obvious to hunters. It isn’t uncommon to drive stretches of remote roads and see dozens of ruffed grouse in a single hour. The detailed aerial photos on the app are great for looking at blocks of habitat to speculate where the birds will be feeding, roosting, watering, or resting. There is a lot of information at your fingertips with HuntStand—learn how to use it and trust it and you’ll soon be finding more birds. There isn’t a specific “Upland Game Bird” log outlined in the app, but you can use the “Turkey” log and insert a grouse picture for quick reference.
Seasons, Limits, Licenses Info. Alberta has a long grouse season that runs from September 1st through January 15th. The daily limit is 5 birds with a possession limit of 15.
Hunters in Alberta need a 10-digit Wildlife Identification Number (WIN) to purchase wildlife certificates, licenses, and replacements. The WIN cost is $8 plus tax and is valid for five years. Hunters must possess a valid Wildlife Certificate and the applicable hunting license to hunt game birds. An Alberta non-resident alien Upland Birds license costs $85.50 Canadian dollars for the season, an incredible bargain for the quality of hunting you’ll find.
Tourism, Maps, Accommodations. Travel Alberta offers plenty of great info for planning your trip. Maps, accommodations, travel itineraries, along with other attractions and activities are available. Information on Recreational Access to Agricultural Public Land and a helpful mapping tool can be found here. Do some investigating, and you’ll find several interesting grouse options. Keep in mind that plenty of private landowners are also receptive to hunters. Note that it is illegal to pay for hunting access in Alberta, or for landowners to charge for access.
Northern Saskatchewan has the same incredible populations of grouse, but less access. Tourism Saskatchewan does an outstanding job of promoting and providing information on hunting throughout that province.
A Few Great Grousing Areas. There are a host of small Alberta towns ready to serve as your “base camp,” with excellent grouse hunting right in their backyards. In the west and northwest, check out Slave Lake, Edson, Whitecourt, and Peace River. If you are looking for an option within a couple of hours of the Edmonton International Airport, try Wandering River and Fox Creek. In the east or northeast look at Lac la Biche or Conklin. All have several options for accommodations and restaurants, and campgrounds are never far away.
Don’t Dismiss A Late-Season Adventure. If you like late-season grouse hunting, the stretch from mid-December to the middle of January offers yet another prime-time hunting experience in Alberta. There will likely be lots of snow on the ground, so bring your snowshoes. Birds will be in a “wintering pattern” typified by living in the dense forest, especially in areas with good thermal cover. And here again, when you find the birds, there will likely be good numbers, and some fast shooting. Count on the grouse to be using stands of aspen, alder, and willows for perching and eating buds. Rose hips are also a preferred winter food source.
Bonus Birds Abound. Don’t be surprised if while hunting in Alberta you come across sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse or even ptarmigan. There are also good populations of other game birds, and with separate limits to help fill your bag and your day afield. There are even some Franklin’s grouse in the southwest corner of the province, for hunters looking to add some spice, and maybe to their life list. For more info, check out the Alberta Environment and Parks for useful information on hunting all the many upland game bird species. In addition, My Wild Alberta provides complete information on where to find specific game birds, as well as their seasons, limits, and how to obtain licenses. If you’re ready for some world-class upland action that begins Sept. 1, you can’t do much better than northern Alberta.