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Thermometers in northern New England hit 80 degrees on Oct. 2, 2002–one day after ruffed grouse season opened in Maine, New Hampshire and parts of New York.

Summerlike heat waves are one of the challenges of upland bird hunting in the early part of the season. Thick vegetation, mosquitoes and ticks and a lack of migrating woodcock can make for frustrating hours afield.

A case can still be made for bird hunting in the early season, generally defined as late September until the first frosts of the autumn in mid-October. Hunters who get out before prime time can often put feathers in the game pouch. It just takes a bit of planning and good luck.

“There are more birds at the beginning of the season, and that’s a plus,” says O.J. Chartrand, Jr., a guide in eastern New York, “but there are a lot of hurdles out there.”

The biggest hurdle during the early season is leaves–particularly those that won’t let go of their host tree and fall to the forest floor. Heavily foliated trees render a good look at a fleeing grouse or woodcock rare.

“The chance of getting a nice, open shot early in the season is next to none,” says Carroll Ware, an upland bird guide in Maine.

Ware tells his clients not to wait for the perfect chance to shoot. If his clients see a bird and are sure the shot is safe, they should pull the trigger. Using shells with extra muscle also proves helpful.

“A few hunters will switch shells to a little bigger load in the early season,” Ware says. “If they shoot an eight normally, they’ll put in a seven or even a six to get extra punch through the leaves.”


Before the frosts come there are plenty of soft mast foods available, too. An abundance of grapes, assorted berries, pin cherries and apples allow grouse to scatter. With varied foods and heavy cover it’s tougher for hunters to stumble upon them.

When hunters come across birds they should stay ready. It’s common to find young-of-the-year grouse still in loosely associated flocks at the outset of the season.

When crowds of hunters focus on cornfields and designated state stocking areas, they leave overgrown farms with aging apple orchards and a few ruffed grouse to those hunters willing to distance themselves from others.

It matters most when you go on days the temperature sizzles. If it’s hot, bring lots of water. If you’re hunting with a dog, pick places rife with ponds and brooks nearby that will give the dog plenty of opportunities to cool off. Consider early-morning hunts, too. A heavy dew will keep a dog’s coat wet. You’ll also be able to get out of the woods by the time the day’s warmest temperatures arrive.

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Generally speaking, hunters do not need to invest in magnum shells for upland bird hunting. During the earlier part of the season, however, more power can penetrate heavier cover and still drop the bird. From left to right are Winchester’s 7 1/2 shot, Remington’s Light 8 shot and Federal’s Hi-Power 6 shot. To begin the season, when leaves are still distorting views hunters should use size 6 or 7 shot, but nothing bigger. If forest cover is especially dense consider Federal’s Hi-Power line or Winchester’s Super X shell, which contains more powder to deliver a higher velocity payload. Once the leaves have fallen you can reduce the shot size and powder load, which will reduce the wear on your shoulder. Sizes 7 1/2 and 8 have plenty of stopping power when you have an unobstructed shot.