One-On-One Tactics for Ruffed Grouse

No dog, no partner? No problem! Grouse are tough to fool on your own, but it's not impossible. Try these expert tips for putting more birds in the air this season.

By J. Michael Kelly

Let's face it: Anyone who tries to walk up grouse without the assistance of a dog or even a two-legged hunting buddy is a glutton for punishment (or truly loves to hunt grouse). Over the course of a season, going one-on-one with Ol' Ruff is bound to net you more scratches, frustration and muscle cramps than birds in the bag.

That's what makes it so darned much fun!

Bringing down a grouse that has been sniffed out and pointed by a stylish setter has its rewards, to be sure, but no hunter ever walks so tall as one who stoops to pick up a fast flyer that he flushed, shot and retrieved all by himself. Once you learn how tough grouse hunting can be, you know that it simply doesn't get any better than that.

NO EASY TASK
I gained my appreciation for solo grouse hunting the hard way. More autumns ago than I care to admit there were plenty of birds in nearby coverts, but I was between dogs. Blissfully unaware of the challenge involved, I decided to see how many birds I could scare up on my own. My first attempt was encouraging in that I flushed several grouse and even had a shot at one. Foolishly, I decided to keep track from that point on.

Would you believe I logged 58 flushes in a row that fall without bagging a single grouse? Talk about a humbling experience!

I've learned a few things since then, but I must tip my cap in admiration to any hunter-sans-canine who scores consistently on grouse. To my way of thinking, you're doing well to get a shot at one bird out of three or four flushes, and you qualify as a master of the sport if you can hit one-third of the grouse you shoot at.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

STEP BY STEP!
Step one to achieving such a degree of proficiency is doing lots of "stepping." Good grouse hunters must be great walkers. Without the use of a dog to sweep the ground before you, the only way sure way to tell if a grouse is in this patch of cover or that is to check each one personally, at close range. All other things being equal, the more miles you log, the more birds you'll encounter. And that means you have no choice but to get your legs in shape by hiking, jogging, bicycling or whatever means of regular exercise appeals to you.

You can save a little bit of legwork in the long run by studying your favorite coverts and spending most of your time in productive locations instead of wandering aimlessly. Did you ever stop to think how often you've flushed a bird from a certain orchard corner? Conversely, have you noticed how some patches of ground are inexplicably barren no matter how many times you visit them? Add to your bag this season by spending extra time in the former spot and conserve energy by shortcutting around the latter location.

KEEP A RECORD
To maximize your limited time afield, consider keeping a diary of your grouse trips. Record the approximate location of each flush, shot and bird downed. A topographic map is particularly helpful for pinpointing the birdiest spots within each covert. Indicate where a bird flushed by putting a red dot or star on the map. When you have mapped a dense cluster of dots, you'll be as close as any grouse hunter will ever get to a sure thing.

USE WHAT YOU KNOW
There's a right way and a wrong way to approach a red-dot location or, for that matter, any promising bit of cover. The wrong way is at random, without consideration of the direction in which a bird is likely to flush or where you might be standing when the eruption occurs. To consistently yank grouse from the sky, you must develop a hunter's "sixth sense," which tells you when a bird will fly and what flight path it will take. It's a guessing game at best because grouse have an uncanny knack for darting behind tree trunks and other shot-blockers, but if you play hard your ratio of shots to flushes will rise significantly.

As you draw within shotgun range of that certain apple tree, grapevine or other landmark that whispers "grouse" in your ear, look for an opening in the adjoining cover and try to walk in from a direction that might cause the grouse to fly across that "window." Similarly, instead of strolling down the middle of a logging road, it's better to walk to one side of the path, because there's an even chance any birds you flush will then soar across the trail.

Usually, a grouse will fly left, right or straight away rather than rocket in your direction. And given a choice between dodging thick trunks and branches or making its escape through more open vegetation, a grouse is naturally inclined to take the easy way out. Also, a flushed bird is almost certain to put the wind behind it on a gusty day.

Between hotspots, a wise grouse-bumper proceeds at an easy but unpredictable pace. Slowly swing your eyes from left to right as you walk to spot any bird that might be tiptoeing on the ground or shifting its weight on a low limb.

Remember that walking and stopping erratically is likely to make grouse nervous, and spur them into flight. A steady, slow pace through the leaves causes most birds to sit still and let you pass. Think about the number of grouse you've flushed over the years while deer hunting. In my experience, most such takeoffs occur when I resume walking after a one- or two-minute pause to scan the woods ahead of me.

When making one of those tactical halts, be certain that your shotgun is held at port arms. When you stop, place one foot slightly ahead of the other to facilitate a smooth pivot toward a rising bird.

SNAP-SHOOTING PRACTICE
Of course, your ability to anticipate the location and timing of a flush will be of no value if you can't hit your target.

Most great grouse gunners are point-and-shoot artists who don't put much store in the "swing through" or "sustained lead" methods of shot- gunning. There is seldom time, when a grouse leaves the launching pad, to leisurely mount stock to cheek, track the target and follow through. A typical shooting opportunity is brief (fewer than three seconds in most cases) and is a matter of poking the muzzle in front of the bird and touching the trigger.

During the early part of the season, when foliage is heavy, the majority of shots will be at close range, typically 25 yards or less. In this situation, open chokes and large pellet counts are called for. One of the most successful grouse gunners I know uses a skeet barrel and No. 9 shot during his Octob

er hunts, although a more conventional setup would pair an improved cylinder bore with a load of No. 7 1/2s or 8s. My friend figures the best way to hit birds through leafy cover at close range is to throw up a maximum number of pellets, regardless of size. This makes sense, considering that an ounce of No. 9s consists of around 585 pellets, while there are only 350 or so pellets in a comparable load of No. 7 1/2 shot.

Later in the season, after rain, wind and frost have ripped gaping holes in the forest's leafy canopy, grouse tend to flush at longer ranges, and shots of 35 or 40 yards are routine. Either a pump-action shotgun with a modified choke or a double barrel with one tube choked improved cylinder and the other modified would be a good choice in this situation. Not a few late-season grouse hunters put aside their No. 7 1/2s and load up with harder-hitting No 6 shot.

BE PREPARED
The hunter's mental state is every bit as important as his choice of guns and loads. Hunters can't win many bouts with grouse when their minds are elsewhere, because most such encounters are over in few seconds. While I would not discourage anyone from enjoying the colors of fall foliage or the sweet scent of ripe apples, such pleasures are best savored between birds, when your gun is empty and you are resting with your back against a sturdy tree.

SAFETY FIRST
In this era of crowded public lands and overlapping seasons, no discussion of grouse hunting tactics would be complete without a few words on safety. A lone grouse chaser can expect to share some of his spots with a variety of other fall hunters, archers and waterfowlers. For this reason, any lone, walking grouse hunter should wear an article of orange clothing. It won't bother grouse, but will keep most "mistaken for game" or "line of fire" accidents from happening.



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