Annual variation in harvested animals (hereafter bag size) is often used as an index of population abundance when investigating population dynamics. Few studies have evaluated how well bag size tracks population change despite its widespread use. Two recent studies on grouse harvest statistics have reached contrasting conclusions. Th ere is limited information about the functional response of hunters in relation to varying game densities, and effort is seldom recorded. We investigated how much of the variation in bag size (total number of harvested grouse km−2) is explained by variation in willow grouse Lagopus lagopus density (adult and young grouse km−2) and hunting eff ort (total number of hunting days km−2). We also evaluated catch per unit effort (CPUE) as an index of grouse abundance, and estimated the response in harvest rate (total bag size in relation to total grouse density) to varying hunting effort. We used data from the 88 management areas on state land in Jämtland county, Sweden (1996–2007), where hunting days and bag size are recorded in detail. Willow grouse density was estimated in four of these management areas in August using line transects and distance sampling. The hunting effort and total grouse density explained most of the variation in bag size (R2= 0.89). Bag size was twice as sensitive to changes in hunting effort compared to changes in grouse density. More than a ten times change in the grouse population density was required to one unit change in bag size. The use of CPUE did not provide a better alternative index of grouse density, and variation in density only explained 23% of the variation in CPUE. Harvest rate showed a strong relationship with hunting effort, and we suggest that an upper limit in hunting effort can be used to reduce the risk of high harvest rates. Hunters became more efficient at low densities and controlling hunting effort is most important when there are indications of population lows and/or poor breeding. CPUE may be less sensitive to changes in game abundance than previously assumed, and bag size as a proxy for population density would then depend on the ability of hunters to adjust their effort according to population change. We speculate that this ability will depend on whether or not hunters have long-term experience of a hunting area where they can return to hunt throughout the hunting season. We propose that recording hunting eff ort should be encouraged and possible correlations with game abundance and other factors such as weather should be investigated for game species.