Advanced Tactics for Early-Season Grouse

It's uphill all the way when it's one-on-one for early-season grouse, but there are ways to win at this challenging game. Try these proven tips to up your score this fall.

By Vic Attardo

Some sportsmen think of solo grouse hunting as a fruitless effort equivalent to a walk in the woods with a gun.

While hunting solo for these band-tailed birds is certainly not a sure thing, there are tactics you can use to improve the odds.

FIND FOOD, FIND GROUSE

Of course, the best technique for a solo hunter is to locate the foods grouse eat in fall. When summer insects become scarce, plants become the major component of the birds' diet. Wild grapes, apples, dogwood berries, cherries, small acorns and beechnuts become important to the grouse. Locate these foods and you've taken a major step in finding birds.

It's believed that individual grouse stay in a temporary, or short-term, home range and don't move more than a few hundred yards a day. In the fall, these ranges are defined by ample food plots and nearby roosting sites. This is the major reason why hunters often flush grouse from the same covert every day for a number of days in succession.

To improve my own odds as a solo hunter, I try to use the bird's limited home range to my advantage.

The very first grouse I took while hunting solo taught me two valuable lessons. I'd been walking along a high ridge, occasionally taking trails down the side of the slope into birdy- looking laurel and brush. At one trailhead, I flushed a grouse. The bird took off down the slope and then glided left into some bottomland.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

On this foray the bird flushed too far ahead of me. It also had the advantage of a downhill flight. The next day I went back and angled down the same trail. Again, the bird flushed from the same spot and flew in the same direction. This time I fired and missed.

After about two hours more hunting, I went back to the same hillside trail, but instead of approaching from the downhill direction along the ridge, I came at the brush from the bottomland and worked my way up.

This time, as I neared the brush where the grouse had burst out both times, I had my 12 gauge at my shoulder. Sure enough, and though it was only a few hours since my last visit, the grouse had returned to its preferred hiding spot.

As I approached, the bird was forced to flush and fly in the opposite direction, up the hill. Before it had crested the tangle of vines and branches, I brought it down with a single shot.

IMPORTANT LESSONS LEARNED

The lessons I learned from this experience I still employ today. The first is that a grouse will often return to a covert where it's been flushed.

True, it's possible to worry grouse into abandoning a location, but one or two flushes after weeks of security are generally not enough for a bird to leave home, particularly if it has an ample supply of food.

Understanding this, I don't feel disappointed when I flush and miss, or don't even fire a shot at a bird the first time I see it. In fact, if it's a difficult shot (and each hunter has to know his abilities and limitations), I'll hold my fire for a better opportunity.

The second lesson I learned from my early success was the art of misdirection. Many team sports use misdirection as a way of focusing an opponent's defense to another place in the field while completing a play elsewhere.

I use misdirection in grouse hunting as a way of confusing the bird as to the direction of approach of danger and try to disrupt its defensive tendencies. After coming down the sloped trail twice and having the grouse flush downhill, my return up the ridge forced the bird to fly in another direction. This produced a slower initial flight and one more advantage for me.

Grouse hunters know they often encounter birds on terrain that does not offer a chance to pin a bird against the side of a hill. Still, I have learned to increase my odds by learning that it is important to anticipate, as much as is possible, the grouse's preferred escape route.

Walking through bottomland cover, I may encounter a grouse that flushes ahead of me as it flies toward another copse of heavy cover. Some hours later, or on a subsequent day, I'll approach the same location, but this time from the direction used for escape the first time. This time as I come in, I plan to be blocking the grouse's preferred line of flight. Also, I now hope to push the bird into heavier cover where it does not like to take off. Whatever the case, I hope to upset its defense enough for me to get a good shot.

Of course, it's best to understand that a grouse may feel comfortable escaping from several routes - after all, it's how they stay alive. When that happens, I make the same mental note I did the first time, and then attempt to make subsequent approaches that take advantage of the bird's preferred escape routes.

A pair of grouse I eventually took came from beside some flat land next to a large river. I encountered these birds three or four times over a two- week period, each time only to have them flush away in a different direction. Finally, I looked at the location from a distance and decided to come upon it from a different bearing because, if the birds were true to form and flew off the opposite way, their escape route would take them along a pair of large, fallen trees.

The trick worked.

The birds flushed, first one and then the other, and their initial low flight took them right over the trees. The dark birds silhouetted against the light-colored backdrop made much clearer targets.

A sly trick I've learned when there is a strong contingent of predators in an area, usually foxes and coyotes, is to avoid the easy paths these animals take through the woods. I hunt one piece of state forest where, every so often, the coyotes run like trains along a particular game trail. From their droppings and leavings, I've seen how well they've done in this area on deer, turkey and small rodents. But unless they swallow grouse whole and deposit them elsewhere, I've never found feathers on the ground. At the same time, the birds maintain a successful population in this new-growth area.

As far as I can determine, the grouse are aware of the coyotes' habits and manage to escape long before the canines get anywhere near them. While it makes for a difficult hike for me over wet ground, I enter a portion of t

his forest in a way that the coyotes do not. I keep off the game trail and, rather than wandering through the woods, I maintain a straight line of attack, unlike the stealthy approach of hungry predators.

The result is that I have been able to move in on this brushy, wet area with more stealth and concealment than the grouse are accustomed to seeing, and just often enough I come out the winner.

With this tactic I have downed a number of birds in this forest zone. It's not the be-all and end-all of solo hunting tactics, but it is another trick that can work.

USE THE RIGHT GUN

Of course, the choice of shotgun and gauge for solo grouse hunting is as much personal as scientific. However, the choice of choke tubes is important and worth noting. For early-season grouse, when there are plenty of leaves on the trees, shots are generally confined to inside 20 yards.

I don't even use choke in these situations, but if it fits your style, a skeet tube is a good choice. An improved cylinder choke will work if that is the most open tube available.

Later in the season, when the leaves are down, many shots will be over 30 yards. Improved cylinder and Skeet II are the preferred chokes at this time. Some double-barrel shotgunners use Skeet I and Skeet II in combination.

You'll have to decide what makes for a successful grouse hunt, but these days I think more in terms of whole seasons than individual outings.

If I take the time to learn an area, study the escape patterns of the birds and use this knowledge to my advantage, solo hunting can be very rewarding.



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