Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Anyone who writes hunting and fishing articles for a living had better get used to criticism, for many readers know more about the outdoors than some authors. Experienced scribes learn to soak up good advice and ignore the rest. Every now and then, however, I get a complaint that leaves me furious.
One that stuck in my craw was about my friend, Joe (not his real name), and the pictures of him and his grouse that accompanied an article. A reader took umbrage because the still-life photo framed the dead bird with a 12-gauge pump.
“No true sportsman uses a 12 on grouse,” this fellow declared. “A 20- or 28-gauge is more appropriate.”
What really offended the complainant, however, was Joe’s attire. Being a large man, Joe has a pronounced bulge at his belt line, and in the photo his orange T-shirt stretched to reveal a sliver of skin.
Well, I suppose I should have asked Joe to tuck in his shirt. However, on a 75-degree day in October a hunter should dress for comfort rather than style; and the “right” gun for grouse is one that shoots straight, period. Joe’s pet pump-action is a featherweight model that is easier to carry than most small-bore doubles, and the fact that my friend hit what he aimed at on the day in question should resolve the gauge issue. Isn’t a bird in hand the object of the game?
All the fine points about chokes, gauges and patterns boil down to one basic question — what works for you?
Gearing up for early-season grouse is mostly a matter of common sense, but the practical tips that follow are based on my own years of experience and the opinions of many other hunters who share a love of autumn days afield.
Did you ever hear the old saw “travel light, travel right”? Those wise words definitely apply to grouse gunners, who, between shots walk many a crooked mile through dense brush and brambles. Every extra pound of clothing or gear makes the pursuit more difficult.
Sensible grouse gear begins with a pair of sturdy but comfortable boots. Ideal footgear for upland hunting is as light as a feather and impregnable as steel armor. Many boot designs come close to that standard, and the best will set you back close to a week’s pay. I like a non-insulated shoe that weighs no more than 4 pounds with a ground-gripping tread. Boots should be waterproof out of the box, with uppers made of nylon or breathable Gore-Tex trimmed with leather. The padding inside should provide as much cushion as possible.
Grouse-hunting boots should fit just loosely enough to accommodate one pair of socks. On warm days, choose socks made of stretch nylon or some other synthetic material with moisture-wicking properties. Cool weather calls for wool or socks made with a combination of wool and synthetics.
An army moves on its feet, and so do grouse hunters. Foot soldiers on the move will change their socks three or four times a day when it’s possible, and for good reason: Wet, sore feet will put an end to the fun, so I always keep spare socks in the car. That way, if the weather changes and my feet get cold or sweaty, I can make a quick change. And few things are more invigorating than a change of socks in mid-hunt.
Working upward, the next most important part of the grouse hunter’s wardrobe is his pants. If you doubt that youth is wasted on the young, picture me as a teenager, tromping through my local berry patches, gun in hand and going “ouch, ouch” as one thorn after another pierced my denim blue jeans. Now that I am (much) older, I can afford a decent pair of brush-busters. My favorite bird-hunting pants are made of 100 percent cotton but have waterproof polyester facings to deflect briars, burdocks and such.
To assure a comfortable fit in the field, the pants have an adjustable waistband. One more much-appreciated feature is the double-reinforced crotch and seat.
Grouse-hunting shirts, or jackets, depend on personal preference, the nature of the day’s coverts and weather conditions. If it’s a bluebird day and most of the nasty plants I am confronting are less than belt high, I wear a cotton, long-sleeved shirt and a field vest made primarily of ultra-light nylon. Colder weather or clutching vegetation that reaches higher above the ground may call for a zippered sweatshirt under my hunting vest or even a stiff canvas hunting coat.
A hat of one kind or another is essential for face protection. I like a simple blaze orange baseball cap. In many states, such brightly colored headgear is mandatory. Even in states that have not made blaze orange a requirement, I insist upon hot-hued hats for my hunting partners and myself. In leafy woods, orange headgear may well be the only way to keep track of fellow hunters who are just a few yards away.
I also wear aviator-style shooting glasses. Even if I did not need them to see beyond the muzzle of my shotgun, I’d wear the big lenses for eye protection in the field. Sunglasses with yellow-tinted lenses make excellent “shooting glasses.” The yellow tint brightens the scene and makes it easier to pick out fleeing grouse on rainy days or in the last half-hour before sunset.
When assembling your upland outfit, be mindful that fall weather is notoriously fickle, and someone keeps moving those unexpected wet holes around every year. Keep an extra set of clothing in your car trunk, just in case!
GUNS AND LOADS
The topic of guns and loads is guaranteed to stir a spirited debate wherever grouse hunters meet. All the fine points about chokes, gauges and patterns boil down to one basic question — what works for you?
My friend, Joe, can dump a feathered rocket with his 12, so he should stick with it, no matter what some bird-camp dilettante says. I’m a 12-gauge guy, too, although I also like to take my old 16 out now and then. My 12s have done just fine on mallards, which aren’t much bigger than grouse, and on teal, which are quite a bit smaller, so I needn’t worry about being over-gunned. Many hunters find that an open-choked 20- or 28-gauge does the job as well or better, and more power to them.
In most cases, you’ll have about 2.5 seconds to mount and shoot your gun between the time the bird
is up and gone.
More important than a grouse gun’s gauge is its fit and feel. In most cases, you’ll have about 2.5 seconds to mount and shoot your gun between the time the bird is up and gone. The stock should fly to the shoulder and cheek without a hitch. The muzzle must cover the target immediately. The best grouse guns feel light in the hand, have at most a modest kick and are easy to reload.
Did I mention that a very good grouse shot, in most circles, is one who can hit one bird in three? That’s with the right shot shells, of course. Most upland experts would grudgingly admit that low-base shells with No. 6, 7 1/2 or 8 pellets would do the job on grouse. However, one of the best grouse shooters I know stocks an assortment of shot shells, and fills his vest pockets with different loads according to the time of year and the thickness of the foliage. In October, he usually reaches for a box of No. 9 skeet loads.
“When the leaves are thick, you’re not going to get anything but close-up shots,” he reasoned. “So I figure the more pellets I can put into the air at close range, the better.”
GEAR YOU NEED
In pockets not stuffed with shells or dead birds, a thoughtful grouse hunter should find room for a small emergency kit. I pack a couple of high-energy snack bars, a compass, a cigarette lighter, a pocketknife, a few Band-Aids, and a whistle for signaling rescuers in case I break a leg or become lost. All this weighs only a few ounces. Tucked into a plastic Zip-Lock bag, it barely fills a vest pocket.
I always carry a 12-ounce bottle of water when I hunt far from my vehicle. Because I share the water, and the woods, with my springer spaniel, I also find room in my vest for a collapsible canvas water dish.
In addition, my canine’s hunting gear includes a leash, a collar bell and a snap-on blaze orange vest.
Last but not least, I am loath to point any pooch into heavy cover unless I have a tube of EMT Gel handy, a collagen protein that temporarily seals wounds until natural clotting occurs. One day a couple of seasons back it stopped my dog’s profuse bleeding after she pierced a front leg with a sharp stick.
None of this grouse gear will slow a hunter down a bit. All the non-clothing items I’ve mentioned (not counting gun and shot shells), weigh less than a limit of grouse, and no one ever complains about carrying them out of the woods!