Partridge Hunting: In Pursuit of the King of Gamebirds
The golden rays of the autumn sun cast a soft glow on the remaining crimson and orange maples or yellow birch along the hillsides and stream bottoms. The fallen leaves that line the old log road give a soft crunch under the step of the hunter. The hunter pauses to enjoy the sights and smells in the crisp mountain air of his favorite time of the year. As he stops near a briar patch, there is a sound like a muffled explosion followed by the rapid whir of wings as a partridge erupts in a twisting flight towards the safety of a nearby evergreen patch.
Welcome to Adirondack “partridge” hunting. The sights and sounds of autumn are inextricably bound up in the fun of hunting the king of gamebirds. Officially known as ruffed grouse, these birds are better known as “partridge” or even “pat’ridge” to people who have grown up in northern New York or the Adirondacks. Generations have grown up looking forward to the fun and excitement of hunting these majestic birds.
There is something special about grouse hunting that defies easy explanation. Certainly there is the challenge of hitting these unpredictable and elusive birds. There is the majesty of the bird itself. In addition to being interesting and exciting, there is a wildness about grouse. They cannot be tamed or raised in captivity and that seems to make them all the more special.
A lot of the charm of partridge hunting lies in the habitat they are found in. The old second growth woodlots, open areas in the forest cover, and the alder runs where brooks trickle down a wooded hillside are some of the most scenic and interesting spots. There are few spots that I would rather be than on some wooded ridge on a sunny autumn day amidst the colors, sights, and sounds of the Adirondacks or surrounding foothills.
Finding partridge basically involves hunting the edges or areas of second growth. It is the mix of food and cover that attracts grouse and allows them to survive. Second growth of old abandoned pastures, logged over woodlots, or areas where the sunlight penetrates the forest canopy and brings a variety of food sources are the areas where they thrive. In winter their main food is buds from aspen trees so these are usually in close proximity. Add some thick evergreens such as hemlock or spruce for shelter from predators like goshawks, and you have grouse habitat.
Unfortunately, much of our best habitat is being lost as the “edge” or second growth turns into mature forests which do not support large numbers of partridge. But fortunately there are still areas throughout the Adirondack region where nature or logging provides adequate habitat. Concentrate your hunt along logged over areas, old roads or trails, stream valleys, the edges of swamps or beaver ponds, or any place where sunlight penetrates to create an undergrowth. If there is a beechnut crop, that area will be a magnet for partridge.
In most of New York State the grouse season opens on October 1; however in northern New York the season opens on September 20. The daily limit of four birds is rarely ever reached. But dedicated partridge hunters know it is more about the experience and excitement than numbers in the bag.
Hunting “grouse” behind a close ranging, pointing dog like a Brittany Spaniel is one of the most pleasant ways you can spend an autumn afternoon. Of course, hunters without a dog can be successful at partridge hunting, too. It involves walking through likely cover with gun at ready position and being able to get off a quick shot when one of these feathered rockets bursts out ahead of you.
Most hunters believe in pausing frequently while going through likely cover. Experience tends to show that it is the pauses that make a partridge nervous. Thinking it has been spotted often causes it to flush. Take care and pause in areas where you have a reasonable chance at getting off a shot.
Some hunters prefer #6 shot because of the heavier pellets, while others insist on #7 1/2. It really doesn't take many, or very large pellets to bring down a partridge. The trick is getting your pellets to meet up with the elusive bird. For that reason, many hunters like #7 1/2 early in the season when the cover is thicker and shots are quicker on the theory that more pellets increases your chance of hitting a bird.
One veteran partridge hunter once advised: “If you can see the bird, start shooting and don’t stop until you are empty.” These are the king of game birds, wily and quick. We have to take what chance they give us. If you wait until you have a clear shot, it might be a year or two.
There is something special about being outdoors in autumn with falling leaves, geese overhead, and an autumn haze along the horizon. Autumn would not be complete without spending several days afield partridge hunting. The beauty of the bird, the challenge of hitting one, and the places they inhabit truly make them the “king of gamebirds.”
Leo Maloney is the editor of Adirondack Outdoors and Lake Ontario Outdoors. He is a member and past president of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and a long time staff member of the New York Sportsman magazine. He has hunted and fished all over New York State but hunting “partridge” (grouse) remains one of his favorite pastimes.