The Panhandle grouse season that starts today and runs until the end of January is a welcome sideshow in northern Idaho where forest grouse hunting gives people a reason to prepare for big game seasons by trekking mountain roads with a gun.
Archery elk and deer hunters — some with a controlled hunt tag — are already afield scouting or chasing game, and grouse hunters may be coursing similar trails.
“It doesn’t take specialized or expensive gear to hunt (grouse),” Brian Pearson of Idaho Fish and Game said. “The bare-bones essentials are a .22 long rifle (or) any shotgun, and clothes and boots suitable for hiking.”
Hiking is often the operable word.
“It can be done with or without a dog, and with a little bit of luck, good timing, and know-how, you can be successful,” Pearson said.
Grouse numbers in the Panhandle usually fluctuate depending on spring weather conditions. This year’s early season squalls and drenching rains as well as May and June’s cold temperatures were not conducive to chick rearing and survival.
Conservation officer Mark Rhodes, who spends a lot of time traveling northern Idaho backroads, has seen few grouse this summer, but that could change.
“We have so little control over grouse populations,” Rhodes said. “It’s all dependent on how conditions are in the spring.”
Grouse are often found on logging roads, especially near water such as seeps and streams, and roads edged with clover near cover, such as alders or aspen, where grouse can escape predators.
So far this summer Rhodes, along with fellow conservation officers, have not witnessed a bunch of birds out there.
“Anecdotally, there’s not an abundance of grouse this year,” Rhodes said. “I haven’t really come across them.”
For hunters who want to defy the odds, remember that hot weather in August and September will push grouse into green areas where they can get water from seeps and vegetation, so early season hunters should distance themselves from dried out vegetation — the brown — and concentrate on the green.
Lowland areas with lots of grass, clover and brush are a good bet for ruffed grouse — one of the Panhandle’s three grouse species and likely the species most hunters encounter. Ruffed grouse like aspens and berry bushes when things dry up, while relying on tree buds as a latter-season go-to food source.
Hunters should stick to the edges of vegetation types, such as where a forest joins a pasture, or where woods and forest roads meet. The morning and afternoons are the best times to find the birds.
Spruce grouse are found in dense, high-elevation conifer forests, often along water sources such as stream beds and near stands of berries, such as dwarf huckleberry, Pearson said.
Dusky, or blue grouse, — the Panhandle’s largest grouse — are usually found at high-elevation mountain shrub areas during the beginning of the hunting season before moving to thick Douglas fir stands for fall and winter food and cover.
“Early in the season, hunters should focus their efforts on the edge habitat between mature forest stands and grasslands,” Pearson said.
Snowberry shrubs, serviceberry, and rose hip are common grouse foods.
Hunters need only a small game, or annual hunting license to chase grouse and are allowed to harvest four birds per day.
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