Grouse On Your Own -- It Can Be Done!

Don't give up on grouse just because you have no dog and no buddies to help. There are ways to find and fool these challenging upland targets.

Photo by Ken Freel

When I came of age as a hunter, small-game season meant hunting rabbits. Shortly after I was old enough to hunt on my own, I made an excursion into the woods at the back of our farm looking for cottontails amid the brushpiles that were remnants of some logging my dad had commissioned seven or eight years before.

While few details of that day remain clear in my mind, I vividly remember what happened when one of my brushpile stomps produced a thunder of wings and a brown, hurtling mass of feathers that disappeared into the saplings in an instant.

I was still backpedaling in surprise when I realized that I had just seen my first ruffed grouse. By the time I put the shotgun back in the cabinet that afternoon, I knew I was done as a full-time rabbit hunter. From that day on, grouse would always be at the top of the marquee.

Although I usually hunted alone and could barely afford ammunition, let alone the price of a well-trained bird dog, I was sure bagging a grouse would be easy. After all, I reasoned, the birds were living no more than 200 steps from my back door.

Reality, not to mention humility, soon corrected my misjudgment. For over five years -- until I graduated from college and moved out of state -- I faithfully hunted that hollow for grouse without ever so much as ruffling a feather. I missed birds just about every way there is to miss. I shot above, below, in front of and behind birds. I had them scare me so badly that I couldn't shoot, disappear before I could get a shot, or sometimes appear to fly right through my pattern of shot with nary a scratch.

If I hadn't been a teenage male and therefore temperamentally and hormonally incapable of learning, I might have acquired some wisdom during those years that would have ended my streak of frustration.

I didn't.

But since then I've had a couple of decades to reflect on the mistakes of those earlier years, and I can now offer a few tips for how to succeed on grouse when it's only you, the gun, and the birds in the woods.

I also asked Ruffed Grouse Society biologist Mark Banker to chime in on the subject. Although he hunts almost exclusively over English setters today, he earned his stripes by hunting "the first 29 years of my life without a dog," and much of that by himself.

GET READY -- STAY READY

While it might seem to be the most obvious advice, the solo hunter usually forgets it. The classic image of grouse hunting is when the hunter meanders up behind a locked-up pointing dog with his classy double barrel poised and ready.

Unfortunately you, the lone hunter, won't have the luxury of having a dog tell you where and when to get ready. Nor do you have the advantage of a hunting buddy who will flush a bird your way and then yell, "Here he comes!"

When hunting grouse on your own, your only hope is in being primed and ready every time for the inevitable flush every step of the way -- no easy task!

Banker agrees.

"That's by far the most important rule," he said, "especially when you're hunting alone. You can't be just walking along looking around or get tired and carry your gun over your shoulder, because that's when a bird will go up, and you'll never be able to hit it."

Keep in mind that being ready to shoot grouse is more than just being alert to the flush. It also means making sure your gun is in a position where it can be easily and smoothly snapped to your shoulder. Carry your shotgun as though you intend to use it instantly, not like it's something you simply need to transport from one end of the woods to the other. A lightweight, short-barreled shotgun is the obvious choice for many grouse hunters.

It is also critical to make sure your feet are solidly planted as you take the shot. Minimize situations where you're balanced on one leg or tangled in the branches of a deadfall. Grouse seem to know that this is the time to go!

One way to avoid interference from obstacles is to choose your path more carefully when you're alone, circling the outside of a briar patch instead of plowing through the middle of it, or keeping to the edge of a deadfall or grapevine tangle instead of crawling through it.

TAKE YOUR BEST SHOT

If you're hunting by yourself, concentrate on the best cover.

"Don't waste time in marginal cover," Banker stated. "Stick to places where you're most likely to produce a flush."

This makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, a lack of action leads to distraction, which leads to missed shots. Second, by hunting good cover, you put mathematics to work for you -- the more flushes you get, the better your chances of putting a bird in the bag.

A group of hunters or one hunter with a dog can sometimes afford to spend time in marginal cover hoping that it might hold a bird. The lone hunter cannot, because there's a better than even chance that he'll end up passing by those birds or only get a fleeting glimpse of them.

Banker also recommended that solo hunters focus on the smallest good covers available. This way the birds will tend to have fewer escape routes and you can cover the area more thoroughly. Follow up every missed shot for a second opportunity. Don't worry -- you'd have to flush a grouse a dozen times to tire one out!

CHANGE IS GOOD

One of the mistakes hunters make is repeating a pattern of grouse hunting. In familiar cover, it's easy to walk down the same logging road, from the same direction toward the same apple tree or brushy corner, only to see the same bird disappear over the same ridge every time.

This grouse soon becomes what Banker calls "the unkillable bird." Admitting that he has also fallen prey to repetition, his observation is that the birds sometimes "knew me better than I knew them."

Grouse are masters of avoidance. When trouble comes from Direction A, their escape route will invariably be in Direction B; the more times this works for them, the better they understand it.

One simple way to counteract this is to simply change your pattern of approach. Move in on a cover from a different direction, or hunt it in a circular path instead of a zigzag pattern, and you can sometime

s buy precious seconds by forcing a bird to sit longer while considering its options. Or, if you're lucky, he'll make the wrong choice and flush in a direction that gives you a clear, open shot.

GET THE LEAD OUT

A duck-hunting acquaintance of mine has a motto in his blind: "The gun goes up full and comes down empty."

This applies just as well to solitary grouse hunting.

"Some guys seem to be afraid to pull the trigger when a grouse goes up, but in my opinion you might as well empty your gun every time," Banker said.

This was a frequent failing in my younger years, but I eventually realized that grouse hunting meant few clear shots and little time to prepare for a shot. I finally began to kill more birds when I learned to take more shots and trust my gun to spread a pattern of lead where the bird was going, not where he was.

Speaking of patterns, Banker points out that when hunting alone the shots will almost always be longer. Banker suggests a modified choke, at least in the second barrel, for that long back-up shot.

INDIVIDUAL ADVANTAGES

There is one big advantage to grouse hunting alone. When the inevitable embarrassments occur, there's no one around to witness your being outsmarted by a bird with a brain smaller than the tip of your thumb.

"You can cuss all you want to when you're hunting alone," Banker said, "and you don't have to worry about upsetting your dog or annoying your buddies."

Which begs the question, if a hunter cusses in the woods and there's nobody there to hear it, did he really cuss at all?

Hunt grouse alone this fall and you will find out!

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