Tactics For Early-Season Grouse

If you're up to the challenge, grouse hunting can be the most rewarding of all upland pursuits. You'll earn every bird, but these tactics will make the job a little easier. (September 2007)

Photo courtesty of www.gnatoutdoors.com.

The ruffed grouse has long been the Holy Grail of upland bird hunters. To say they are a challenge to hunt is an understatement: Successful hunters must have the vigilance of the Templar knights on a crusade to find that coveted chalice.

Adding to the bird's mystique is its ability to elude hunters. Even when you can find a grouse, the bird's startling flush and erratic flight pattern can humble the most seasoned sharpshooter.

Despite the difficulties, the grouse remains one of the most prized and revered of all game birds. They're never easy to hunt and you'll earn every bird brought to bag, but grouse hunters know that!

Grouse hunting season in the Northeast usually begins in September or early October. Start counting your flushes as you try these proven grouse-hunting tactics.

HUNT HABITAT

Grouse hunters have two distinct challenges to face in the early season -- thick, leafy cover and wide-ranging birds. Generally, the leaves do not fall off the trees until mid- to late October. The leafy cover allows the birds to easily avoid hunters and their dogs. Leaves also deflect shotgun pellets, so open chokes and heavier shot (No. 6s) are recommended.

The forests of early autumn offer a cornucopia of grouse forage. Acorns and beechnuts litter the forest floor. Plant seeds and fruits are plentiful, and insects are still available. With such easy pickings, early-season grouse will be scattered.

Except when the occasional family flock is encountered (an event you won't easily forget), hunters rarely find more than one bird at a time during the early season. Thus, the fall hunter can expect to cover plenty of ground for each bird flushed.

You can limit your long-distance hiking by being more selective in the areas that you plan to hunt. Grouse are edge-cover birds. The ideal habitat has a good mix of deciduous and conifer trees in various stages of growth. Leafed trees provide the birds with nuts, seeds and edible buds. Oak, beech, aspen and birch trees play important roles in the grouse's life cycle. Evergreen trees offer cover from rain and snow while protecting the birds from predatory hawks and owls.

Hunters will find ideal grouse habitat in the high mountains, or in areas where active lumbering operations occur.

Mountains have distinct forest transition zones, and that is where you should look for grouse. View any high mountain from the roadway. The top of the mountain is either bare or covered with low-growing evergreen trees, often referred to as "elfin wood" because of the diminutive tree size. Deciduous trees dominate the base of the mountain because of warmer temperatures and the increased water supply from mountain runoff. Between the bottom and top of the mountain the two forest types merge. This mid-mountain zone is the best place to start your early-season grouse search.

What the mountains do naturally, the lumber companies do through "resource management." Most lumber companies re-seed forests that have been clear cut. The companies plant a variety of trees for future harvests depending on the area, climate and expected resource demands. These plantings can create unique grouse forest habitat, especially when the newly planted areas abut mature, un-cut forests.

While grouse are forest dwellers, they will seek out small clearings and transition edges between forests and fields. Examples of edges are clear-cut strip forests from lumber operations, abandoned farm or orchard fields, forest wetlands and bogs and logging roads. These habitat edges are rich with seeds, nuts and green growth.

EARLY-SEASON TACTICS

Early-season hunters will encounter young-of-the-year and older, mature birds. In fall, the adolescent, young-of-the-year birds are often forced to seek food and cover without parental protection. They often disperse into unfamiliar areas and tend to sit rather than fly when startled. Older grouse are more hunter-wise. They have learned that quick flight is paramount to survival. These mature birds will flush quickly and without warning, sometimes well out of range.

HUNTING WITH DOGS

Many hunters prefer to use a dog when seeking grouse. A dog, especially a pointing breed, is very helpful during the early season when hunting young-of-the-year birds.

Before discussing dog-hunting tactics for grouse, we should first evaluate the dog. Any hunting dog breed can be taught to pursue grouse. Pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers will find your quarry. But (and there is always a "but") grouse hunting is very demanding on a dog. Grouse hunters can cover miles and hunt for several hours without a flush. Grouse dogs must be physically fit -- as the hunter should be.

Young-of-the-year grouse are most susceptible to the pointing breeds because they have a delayed flush response. Keep your dog roaming in close, no more than 25 yards out. The young grouse won't sit forever in front of a pointing dog, so get into position quickly before the bird disappears into the foliage. The best areas to hunt with a pointer are along forest edges near lumber operations or along overgrown forest clearings and logging roads.

Flushing dogs may not be the best choice for young-of-the-year birds. Experienced dogs often pounce on the birds before they can take flight. If you own a flushing dog, hunt in denser forest areas like the mountain transition zones where older birds may be found. Again, keep your dog nearby. It is very rare to get (or make) a 30-yard shot on grouse. The thick cover won't allow it.

HUNTING WITHOUT A DOG

Dogs can be both an asset or a liability when grouse hunting. Obviously, the dog can sniff out birds you cannot see. Thus, they might increase the number of flushes you get during the hunting day. Conversely, the dog can hinder your hunt because you may focus more on handling the dog than concentrating on shooting a flying grouse.

Hunters opting to pursue their birds without a dog can jump-shoot grouse with some success. A good tactic is to walk along old logging roads during the early afternoon and evening. Grouse come to the roads late in the day seeking food and road grit. As you walk, watch for birds crossing the road. When you spot one, stealthily sneak up on the area, and be ready for the impending flush.

One

thing to remember is that human-flushed birds tend to fly for short distances. Watch where a missed bird lands and begin your stalk once again. This second-chance stalk may lead to a bird in your vest pocket.

Grouse will also sometimes drum their wings in the fall. As you walk quietly down old logging roads, listen for the drumming, which is a response to the upcoming cold weather and shorter days. Follow the sound to its source and get ready! Autumn drummers are usually older male birds, wise in the ways of predators. Tread lightly, however, as the wary grouse will scoot at the first snap of a twig.

GUNS FOR THE GAME

No discussion on upland bird shooting can begin without a safety message. Visibility in the early fall woods is often limited to a few yards because of the thick, leafy foliage. It's the hunter's responsibility to know the area he is hunting and what other outdoor activities are occurring in that area. Other outdoor enthusiasts often travel the same logging roads that hunters use. Thus, it's necessary to be very careful when shooting at flying grouse. Hunters should also wear orange clothing even if state laws do not require the safety garments.

Shotgun selection is a matter of personal preference. Grouse can be taken with pump shotguns, over-under shotguns, autoloaders and side-by-sides in any gauge. The best advice is to use whatever shotgun fits most comfortably. And remember, grouse hunting requires plenty of walking. Select a lightweight shotgun that can be carried all day and is easy to handle when the shooting starts.

Choke selection depends on your style of hunting. If you are going to work over a pointing dog with close-range shots, Skeet or Improved Cylinder chokes are best. Jump-shooters along logging roads and forest clearings may want to tighten up to a Modified choke.

No. 8 shot is a good all-around choice. Also, since most early-season grouse shots are within close range, No. 8 shot still packs a wallop.

If you will be taking longer shots, such as across ravines or along logging roads, No. 7 1/2 shot may be a better option. High-brass shells have the power to slice through the autumn foliage.

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