During the overlap of the ruffed grouse and woodcock seasons, upland hunters get a unique opportunity to hunt both game birds at the same time. Here are some hunting tips for grouse and woodcock and how you can prepare yourself for a mixed-bag hunt.
RECOGNIZING COVERS THAT HOLD BOTH GROUSE AND WOODCOCK
Grouse and woodcock prefer young woods in regrowth — what is known as successional habitat — to woods that are middle age or approaching senior citizenship. Successional habitats are thick with aspens, birches, maples, hemlock, spruce and brushy scrub.
During the early season it’s the feeding areas that hunters need to key on. Opening a grouse crop reveals they aren’t picky, but during the fall they are likely feasting mainly on berries and fruit such as high bush cranberry, feral apples, and wild grapes.
Woodcock, on the other hand, feed almost exclusively on earthworms in the soft soil of young clearcuts, abandoned farmland and areas near or in wetlands.
The overlap of areas that appeal to both grouse and woodcock — or what I call combo cover — is so prevalent that the chances of encountering both species in one hunt is a forgone conclusion.
With that said, grouse and woodcock are “where you find them.” I have flushed grouse from the middle of open fields and woodcock on dry hillsides under towering white pines. You need to be ready for anything.
READ YOUR BIRD DOG FOR A SUCCESSFUL HUNT
It’s well known that a bird hunter can put a fair amount of ballast in his game pouch hunting ruffed grouse without a dog. But that hunter wont be spicing up many grouse dinners with woodcock appetizers. Like many grouse hunters I started out without a dog. I learned where they spent early mornings and mid days and where they went to roost in late afternoon –and, most important, the escape routes they used in a particular cover. On those dog-less grouse hunts I would occasionally kick up a woodcock by nearly stepping on them. One woodcock means there are likely more in the general area and you can wander around aimlessly, or even do a grid pattern and move birds.
But for mixed-bag grouse and woodcock hunting at its best, a close-working flushing dog or a staunch pointing dog is the ticket in the thicket.
I can tell when my flushing spaniel is tracking woodcock scent. Woodcock bop and weave around the forest floor like a wind up toy while feeding or moving about a cover. A flushing dog will twist and turn itself into a pretzel when on that ground scent. When I see this I get ready because a flush is imminent.
Not all dogs will share exactly the same body language, but you can become good at reading your dog. My current springer spaniel has a unique behavior that gives me an extra second or two to prepare for the flush. When approaching the feathered source of that scent trail he will suddenly stop and look up into the air to watch the bird flush — as it inevitably does. Although under most hunting situations a hard flush is expected of a spaniel, I have come to rather appreciate this unique “heads up” for woodcock.
Pointing dogs and woodcock go together like birds and flying. The woodcock often sits patiently under the pointing dog’s nose, allowing ample opportunity for the gunner to approach, look around for shooting lanes, and close in for the flush. That’s the perfect scenario and happens enough to be typical. But woodcock aren’t slouches and will sometimes walk out from a point and flush wild like a grouse. Be prepared to be surprised.
Individual pointing dogs are unique as spaniels, but one frequent indication that it’s woodcock that the dog is on is that, compared to a point over grouse, the dog may be crouched lower to the ground, be less intense and will sometimes flag its tail a bit. If you stumbled upon a flight of woodcock an experienced pointing dog will go from point to point providing gunning you normally only dream about.
Most dogs, regardless of type, are more intense and determined on grouse than on woodcock. There is none of that tight tracking when a flusher is in hot pursuit of a grouse. The grouse will typically keep moving until it reaches an obstacle such as a stone wall or a field edge that forces it to flush or that it recognizes as an escape path.
The hunter’s job is to control and direct the dog and position himself to intercept the grouse before it makes its escape. This doesn’t require a mad rush; it’s more like a choreographed dance between you and the flushing dog. I tend to hunt small privately owned bird covers and I know generally where the resident grouse are at any given time. I can heel my dog as we approach a likely area, then let him “huntemup!” and perform the ‘flusher shuffle’ to position myself for the shot.
Another technique that works well is to circle wide around a flusher that you believe is on a grouse. The bird is worried about the hound from hell on its tail and not you. Often when that bird flushes you are in position and get an opportunity for the shot.
Ruffed grouse give many pointing dog’s fits. They consistently walk out from points and flush wild. It’s not uncommon for a pointing dog to relocate time and time again as the grouse moves. Some hunters allow the dog to do this on their own; other hunters silently tap the dog on the head to give it a signal to relocate. If this happens you can be reasonably sure it is a grouse in front of the dog.
Pointing dogs relish grouse scent and their staunch points and stiff tails illustrate that. If the tail starts to flag on point and you are sure it’s a grouse, then the bird is likely moving. Hunters are advised to hurry a bit more and swing wider upon approach to a grouse point. A dog that consistently and solidly points grouse is worth its weight in gold, maybe more. Its wise to glance up into trees ahead of a point or ahead of a flushing dog to see if the grouse is up there. If he is staring down at you with his topknot at attention get ready for blast off and one of the most difficult of wing shots.
MAKING THE SHOT OPPORTUNITY COUNT
Grouse require a hunter to be ready at all times, regardless of what type dog is being hunted over. I’m not talking about a white-knuckle march through a cover, but a relaxed readiness to mount the gun and click off the safety all in one motion at the flush — and get on that bird. Grouse get out of Dodge in a hurry using every tree available for cover.
In early season when the covers are leafed up I’m a ‘poke and hope’ grouse hunter and make no apologies for it. Later in the gray November woods I may have the time to actually swing on a grouse.
It’s that keenness for connecting on a grouse that causes the problems with woodcock. Woodcock hold tighter, the time to prepare for a flush is longer, and they fly slower. Hunters who are geared up for grouse shoot too fast on woodcock and a load of shot connecting at 10 yards isn’t a pretty picture.
That’s where experience in mixed bag hunting and reading your birddog comes into play. Once you recover from the thunderous flush, a grouse is relatively predictable in its speed and ability to use the surrounding cover as a shield, which is why getting on the bird fast is so important. A woodcock, once its feet leave terra firma with its signature twitter, is less predictable — so cool your jets. Despite what you may have read, all woodcock don’t rise up like a helium balloon, level off at canopy, and slowly depart like a ponderous blimp. Woodcock flushes have more accurately been compared to a major league baseball pitch. Sometimes they blast out straight away like a fastball, sometimes they dive like a curveball, and sometimes they corkscrew like a knuckleball. You can find yourself waving your shotgun barrels around like a baton, and never getting the shot off.
FINDING THE BIRD AFTER THE SHOT
You have successfully shot a grouse or a woodcock, and now you and your dog need to find it. Sounds simple, but both birds have evolved with a coloration that makes them nearly invisible in their surroundings. You can usually walk straight to a well-centered grouse and pick it up if your dog hasn’t beaten you to it. But the ground seems to swallow up a wing shot woodcock.
Much has been written about the difficulty dogs can have in finding an “air washed woodcock.” Whatever pungent aroma prompted the flush or point will sometimes mysteriously dissipate between the time the shot swarm arrives and the bird hits the ground. I have had reliable retrieving dogs literally step on a dead woodcock, unable to smell it.
So, as soon as you see or even think you hit a woodcock (or a grouse), stop and stare at the spot it went down and pick out a landmark, then hang your hat or break a branch where you are standing as a reference point. Only then go looking for the bird. If your dog isn’t already prancing in with it or pointing dead, break a branch or hang something where you think it went down, then start searching.
A winged grouse will hit the ground running. Be patient and trust your dog. I have been rewarded with my dog weaving its way back with a live grouse in its maw more than once. If all efforts fail to find the winged grouse leave the area and swing back through on the way out of the cover or return a couple hours later. That grouse that had hopped into a tree or crawled into a blowdown may have moved and left new scent for the dog. A winged Woodcock on the other hand lands and doesn’t try to escape and can be picked up by you or the dog without incident as long as you can find it.
If you learn to recognize combo cover, read and trust your bird dog, and make the shot count, you’ll be carrying home a mixed bag.