Karrie Saltalamachia with her German shorthaired pointer, Cricket, and the grouse she shot in December, 2017, at a local hunting spot where she hunts near her Unity home. Saltalamachia has started bird hunting more in recent years, largely because she enjoys the teamwork with her bird dogs that she trained. Photo courtesy of Karrie Saltalamachia

Grouse hunting in far northern Maine has been growing in popularity in recent years and this could be a banner autumn, in part because the grouse population appears to have boomed because of favorable weather conditions.

A general hunting license allows anyone to hunt upland birds, so the state doesn’t have numbers for bird hunters as it does for those pursing game species that require a special permit, such as bear or moose. But the North Maine Woods, an organization that oversees 3.5 million acres of working forestland at the top of Maine, has surveyed visitors and found that the number of hunters in search of grouse has been on the rise for several years.

Twenty years ago there were around 10,000 bird hunters going into the big woods annually, according to the North Maine Woods. But in 2007 that number started to increase, and continued rising through the recession years. In 2015, an all-time high of 25,616 bird hunters came through the North Maine Woods gates.

Al Cowperthwaite, the executive director of the North Maine Woods, thinks the bird hunters heading to the northern forestland this year will crush the record.

“I took my grandson bird hunting. We saw a vehicle every mile. Up here, that’s bumper to bumper,” said Cowperthwaite. “It is the most I’ve ever seen in 44 years.”

A surge in recreational traffic occurred this year in the North Maine Woods because of the pandemic, Cowperthwaite said, as more people looked to travel to open spaces in the vast forestland.

Traffic coming through the North Maine Woods gates in June was up 30 percent, and it stayed that high through the summer months, Cowperthwaite said. He thinks October numbers will eclipse that during the height of the upland bird season. 

Ruffed grouse are the most widely dispersed game bird in North America. Maine’s hunting season for grouse runs from Sept. 26 to Dec. 31. Bill Marchel/(Minneapolis) Star Tribune

The season for ruffed grouse, pheasant and quail runs from Sept. 26 to Dec. 31 – but the best of it for grouse, by far the most popular upland species, is in October. The daily bag limit for grouse is four birds. 

Ruffed grouse the smallest of the 10 grouse species found in North America are the most widely dispersed game bird on the continent. Because ruffed grouse favor the boreal forest, they are found throughout most of Maine and Canada. Ruffed grouse is the predominant type of grouse in northern Maine, far more so than the rare spruced grouse – which is not legal to hunt in the state, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife.

More than 27,700 square miles of Maine’s 35,300 square miles is made up of ideal grouse habitat, according to IFW. The brown-and-tan birds weigh about 17 to 25 ounces, have a home range of about 30 acres, and feed on green leaves and insects.

Biologists believe the bird’s population is cyclical and has a boom year roughly ever 10 years, though some think in Maine it’s more like every 12 years, said Brad Allen, IFW’s Bird Group Leader. 

While the state does not conduct population estimates of grouse, Allen said the biggest year he recalls for grouse was 1995. This year, Allen said, reports on Facebook, from moose hunters, and bird hunters and game wardens, all indicate it’s another good one.

“The state is 90 percent forested. And people in Maine aren’t afraid to use a chainsaw to cut trees down – and grouse love young regenerating forests with cutting,” Allen said. “So the population is doing fine in Maine. The rumor last summer was the woods were crawling with birds. That tends to get more people to become grouse hunters.”

This year’s weather patterns provided a perfect storm of favorable conditions for grouse, Allen said, as winter offered ample snow cover for the birds to burrow in “snow caves.” Then a dry spring and summer allowed for high chick survival.

“It doesn’t happen every year,” Allen said. “And survival is also influenced by predators. So having a lot of grouse out there is exciting. It is phenomenal only occasionally.”

Judy Sirois has owned Northern Hideaway Camps deep in the North Maine Woods for 44 years. Where Sirois’ cabins are buried in the boreal forest, the nearest town is two miles down a logging road across the Quebec border – so she lives smack in prime grouse habitat.

Sirois said she had reservations from bird hunters in early June, before it was evident the bird’s population had exploded.

Others say the rising number of bird-dog boxes on the back of pickup trucks in the North Maine Woods is further proof bird hunting has been gaining in popularity in recent years.

“When I started up here (20 years ago), you never saw a bird box. Now that’s pretty common. That takes a level of seriousness to commit to a bird dog for several years,” said Registered Maine Guide Don Kleiner. “I’ve encouraged young guides to get into it. There’s opportunity there.”

Karrie and Joe Saltalamachia of Unity are going on their first bird-hunting trip to the North Maine Woods in Allagash this weekend.

Karrie Saltalamachia started bird hunting 20 years ago, when she and her husband got their first bird dog. She had wanted to train bird dogs since high school after seeing a seminar on it. Since 2000, she’s trained four bird dogs that she and her husband use hunting.

Yet it’s only in the past few years, Saltalamachia said, that she started bird-hunting more on her own with her dogs.

“I’ve gotten more excited about it. I’m having a good time. I would say Cricket got me back into bird hunting,” Saltalamachia said of her German shorthaired pointer. “This year, both (Joe and my) work schedules allowed for us to go on a hunting trip up north for a few days. This year everyone is talking about the bird population. This is my first bird-hunting trip. That will be fun.”

While Saltalamachia enjoys the game meat and seeing her dogs have success “doing what they were bred to do,” she said her growing love of bird hunting is more about the time spent with her dogs.

“I could spend a whole day watching dogs work,” she said. “It really means something to the dogs. If I could do anything in life, I would train dogs. Maybe when I retire.”

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