How to Fool Wet Weather Grouse
September 24, 2010
Don't let a little autumn rain ruin your upland outing. Our expert explains how to take advantage of the season's best grouse hunting in spite of the weather.
Photo by Stan Warren
by Bob Humphrey
The first sound I heard when I awoke in hunting camp was the rattle of water in the downspout. I uttered a low moan and then closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep. I suspect the others in camp did likewise because it was well after sunup before the first one up stirred from bed to turn on the coffee maker. None of us was particularly eager to venture into the cold rain that morning, but we had driven all that way to hunt grouse, and we only had two days to hunt, so we did what any avid hunter would do: We ventured forth anyway.
At the end of the day, we were all glad we did. Despite the rain, we experienced some of the best upland shooting any of us could remember. By late morning, we were barely aware that we were all soaked to the bone. And, when lunchtime came, rather than head into town, we decided to tailgate it so we could get right back into the woods. By day's end, we were wet, cold and tired, but we enjoyed a fine feast of grouse that evening.
The traditional image of grouse hunting so often captured in sporting art is an idyllic scene with a smartly dressed hunter and his fine setters leisurely strolling through a grove of golden aspens bathed in afternoon sunlight. Serious hunters know that such settings are the exception rather than the rule. Even when the weather cooperates, the habitat can often be a nasty tangle of briars that tear at your flesh and dense sapling stands that ruin your follow-through and absorb most of your shot pattern.
Rain, on the other hand, adds a whole new dimension to the hunt. The heavy, driving rains favored by waterfowlers usually puts an end to the day's hunt for the upland gunner. A light rain or drizzle, on the other hand, might keep the casual nimrod indoors, but serious upland hunters know grouse can still be killed in wet weather. You just have to modify your techniques and equipment a bit. In fact, hunting in the rain even offers some advantages.
WEATHER EDGES One way to take advantage of wet weather is to hunt "between the raindrops." By that, I mean bracketing your hunts before and after rain events. Like all wild creatures, grouse can sense the falling air pressure associated with an incoming front and will usually get out and feed in earnest ahead of it. I have a bad back that usually lets me know when wet weather is on the way and I should be afield. A more reliable source, however, is the local weather channel. If you know a front is coming in, get out and hunt until the rain or darkness drives you inside.
The same logic applies to the tail end of a front. Once the weather passes, the birds will be back out again, and you should be, too. The duration and intensity of the rain event will often dictate how active the birds will be. The longer the rainstorm, the hungrier the birds seem to be when it ends.
The timing of the rain is also important. For example, if a storm persists through the night and into the following morning, grouse are more likely to get off to a later start than normal.
There's a logical reason for this. Rain and cold sap their bodies of energy. They can survive harsh weather for a while but will eventually have to feed to restore calories. However, if it's too cold, they might expend more energy feeding than they can take in. Grouse seem to have an innate ability to measure this and will stall their feeding activity until they can put the cost-benefit ratio in their favor.
HUNTING IN THE RAIN Bracketing is best applied to heavy rains. During a light rain or drizzle, grouse will often feed right through the weather system. In fact, the higher energy demands and prolonged low light may prompt them to be active later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon. This creates a longer hunting day and better odds of success if you know how to take advantage of the conditions.
In dry weather, grouse may be more likely to roost in the more open cover of a hardwood canopy and closer to cutovers, field edges and other exposed feeding areas. During periods of rainy weather, however, they'll seek the protection of softwood cover. If this denser cover exists close to a feeding area, you're all set; just hunt your usual haunts. If not, you'll be better off hunting closer to the dense cover early and late in the day, as this is where you'll find the most birds.
Grouse are gallinaceous birds. They feed on seeds, nuts, insects, catkins and herbaceous vegetation. However, because their stomachs are not inefficient at digesting some of these foods, they also have a gizzard, which is used to grind up the food. This process is enhanced by the abrasive action of small pebbles and grit, which the birds eat. When the grit is worn away or passed, it must be replaced. That's why you'll often find birds on dirt or gravel roads picking gravel late in the morning. They'll still do this in the rain but may not show up until later than usual.
RAIN MAKES MORE SCENTS Another advantage of hunting in wet weather is that it provides better scenting conditions for hunting dogs. Scent dissipates quickly in dry air, while moisture tends to hold scent molecules down. The moisture also makes it easier for the dog to absorb scent. That's why they lick their noses so often.
BONUS BIRDS While some purists will stick strictly to grouse, I'd venture to guess that most wouldn't pass up a serendipitous woodcock when they came across it. Chances are always there, as the two species' preferred habitat often overlaps. But your odds may be even better when it rains. Woodcock spend most of their time in the wet bottoms where they can find their favorite food, earthworms. However, when the soil in more upland areas gets saturated, it drives worms to the surface, and woodcock will be more abundant in the usually drier grouse covers.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS Grouse hunting in wet weather will require some modifications or additions to your upland wardrobe. Even in periods of good weather, you'll often encounter dew-soaked grass and the occasional stream or low spot, so plan ahead and wear water-resistant boots. When hunting in the rain, try ankle-high rubber boots. Just make sure you select a pair with good ankle and arch support. Also, be sure the boots you choose have a rugged tread that offers good traction on wet ground. If necessary, slow your pace and pay closer attention to where you step, because slick rocks and downed timber can cause treacherous footing.
Outerwear, including pants, shirt and jacket, should also be made of a material that is w
aterproof yet breathable. Wool or fleece is an acceptable substitute if you don't mind getting wet, because these fabrics retain their insulating characteristics even when wet.
A warm, waterproof hat is also a must. Any part of the body will lose more heat when wet, but you can lose as much as 90 percent of your body heat through your head, even when it's dry.
Another item worth serious consideration is a pair of shooting gloves. A cold, wet rain can numb your fingers, rendering them nearly useless. I prefer fingerless wool gloves because they keep my hands and fingers warm while allowing greater dexterity and feel for the safety and trigger.
Humid conditions, especially rain, can make a mess of eyewear, but you should resist the temptation to leave your shooting glasses at home. Crashing through the brush exposes your eyes to all sorts of potential hazards, and a scratched cornea can bring a premature and very painful end to your afternoon afield.
OTHER GEAR Dogless hunters especially may want to consider modifying chokes and loads. If you hunt with a dog, you're probably used to tight shooting over a solid point. However, the dogless hunter often has longer shots. In the rain, birds tend to hold tighter. It may be that they are less prone to flying in the rain or that they just don't hear you coming. In either case, you may want your pattern to open up more quickly, so it makes sense to switch to a more open choke and lighter shot size.
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