Northeastern Vermont is hard country. The terrain is rocky and uneven, sparsely populated, and uncommonly beautiful in the fall.
And once the leaves have settled to the ground, it becomes one of the best places in the world to hunt ruffed grouse. Grouse thrive in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom as few other creatures do. Plunging into snowdrifts to escape extreme cold, living on aspen buds, grouse do well where deer often perish and wild turkeys cannot survive.
The Northeast Kingdom is the last bastion of real Vermont, the antithesis of the yuppie condo communities of downhill skiers to the south and the west. People still trap here even though fur prices do not justify the effort. Most land is not posted, and hunting has not become commercialized. Dairy farming and logging are major industries, and grouse prosper around both.
Hunting for grouse and woodcock is wide open. Among local hunters, deer are the focal point, with ducks and snowshoe hare, and probably even woodcock, hunted harder than grouse. None of this is apt to change anytime soon. Road hunting for grouse — drive by shootings from the windows of motor vehicles — is a popular local strategy, despite being illegal and unsporting. Fortunately, it has virtually no impact on bird populations, and does not interfere with the very few avid grouse hunters who hunt birds in the more conventional way.
The Northeast Kingdom
Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom has no formal boundaries, but it can be roughly defined on a map by the Green Mountain and Rt. 100 to the west, the Canadian border to the north, the Connecticut River to the east, and Rt. 2 to the south. It is a very large area with thousands of bird coverts. I’ve hunted a comparatively tiny number of them, despite being a bird hunting bum who works seasonal jobs and having been single on and off for years. It would take a lifetime to hunt it all!
Grouse hunting here is hard work. The ground covered in the course of an afternoon can vary from steep ledge to mucky swamp. Walking seems to be endlessly up hill, but the cool air of October makes it exhilarating, and the surroundings are often nothing less than breathtaking. You can hunt alder, aspen, cedar, and beechnuts and find birds in all of them in a good year — birds so plentiful that all but the very best trained, closest hunting dogs are an encumbrance.
Next to a fast handling shotgun, the most important piece of gear to bring along is a good pair of briar pants. The vegetation here is well armed, and grouse use it to their advantage. I have been in several covers so well defended by thorn apples and prickly brush that they are simply not worth hunting, despite a thriving resident population of grouse and woodcock.
Your boots need to be waterproof if you want dry feet, which is why I highly recommend rubber bottom boots for bird hunting in Vermont. You will find plenty of wet ground in and around the best bird coverts.
There are a lot of easy to hunt coverts here if you know what to look for. Grouse like edges. Powerline areas often provide good shooting as can hedgerows. However, hedgerows should have thicker cover nearby, and there have to be apple trees or berries in the hedgerow to draw the birds in. My partner and I hunt the hedgerows at the end of the day, by which time our legs aren’t much good for anything else anyway.
If the hunting is hard, it is also euphoric. The countryside is the stuff calendars are made of — rock walls, bubbling brooks, ancient split-rail fences, and an autumn sky so blue it hardly seems real.
If you strike out on your own, a road atlas is essential, supplemented by topographical maps. A four-wheel drive might be handy, but it is not a necessity. Front wheel drive compact cars have gotten us where we had to go for nearly 20 years.
An eye for cover will help, but grouse coverts are not that hard to spot if you know what grouse eat. Apples of any kind are the ruffed grouse’s junk food of choice: red berries are a close second. If you can find apples trees (and there are many) you will find birds.
The best thing about hunting grouse in the Northeast Kingdom for me is the beauty of the terrain. A hundred years ago, much of what is now forest was farmland and field. Deep in the woods you will find endless rock walls and cellar holes, remnants of long forgotten farms with abandoned apple orchards, strands of rusty barbed wire that stick out of the trunks of trees that must have once bordered fields.
Peak Hunting In October
If there is a single best week to hunt grouse in the Northeast Kingdom, it’s probably the third week in October. The leaves are off the trees, the birds are dispersed, and the weather is usually cool and dry. This is not to say that it can’t rain or snow, only that the weather is often good, and when it is, the bird hunting can be superb.
The best flight of woodcock usually come through by the light of the full moon in October. If you can’t make it that week, hunting is good from opening day on the last Saturday in September through opening day of deer season in mid-November. Grouse season does not end until December 31, but late season hunting conditions are totally unpredictable. After Thanksgiving, weather in any part of Vermont is apt to be extremely fickle.
The other big variable besides weather is the grouse’s seasonal population fluctuation. Every seven years or so the population inexplicably peaks and then crashes. The mid- to late 90s provided excellent shooting for grouse, but woodcock populations were down.
Newcomers to the Northeast Kingdom should be in good physical condition to hunt grouse. After eight straight days of hunting last year, we had to take a day off, went fishing on Lake Memphremagog and caught a limit of the healthiest rainbow trout I have ever seen.
Woodcock hunters have it easier gunning the river basins in Orleans and Essex Counties. For information on season updates and license fees, contact the Vermont fish and Wildlife Department, 103 South Main Street, 10 South, Waterbury, VT 05671-0501; (812) 241-3701.