Ruffed grouse have been described as many things—but gentlemanly is not one of them.
By Tim Brandt
The good thing is, I grew up hunting “blue collar.” Untrained dogs, semi-autos, swamps, hard woods, rain and snow—we had it all.
I can still recall my first day. I was so thrilled to have my grandpa’s Model 12 (fixed full choke) at my side that my feet hardly hit the ground. Unfortunately, no birds would hit the ground either. But I’ve been hooked ever since. Much about how I hunt has changed, but two and a half decades later, I’m still that 12-year-old on my first hunt. And my dad is still right beside me.
The one consistent behavioral characteristic of the ruffed grouse is that they aren’t consistent. They’re not a quail or a pheasant. They certainly aren’t a turkey. But, I’ve seen them mimic each one of these. Yet the key to being successful is patterning them—and learning what they’re doing at the present time.
Grouse aren’t consistent year-to-year, but with each hunt you can pattern them. Key factors such as temperature, the presence (or lack) of moisture, leaf cover and hunting pressure are gauges we use when we first hit the woods. These will help us home in nuances indicating which habitat types are holding higher concentrations of birds. The beauty of hunting tens of thousands of public acres for 15 years is you learn a lot of different land. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
It’s quite possible to hunt with trained dogs, fine guns and hunters who are good shots in areas that have birds and still have few grouse to clean at the end of the day.
Believe it or not, scouting grouse is a lot like scouting deer and other big-game animals. That’s because grouse are territorial and habitual. It is amazing how many times over the years we’ve been able to retarget birds in the same area even after missing opportunities multiple times.
Several years ago, our usual group hunted for three days and then I had time to kill before a new group joined me. Well, the hunt with my childhood hunting partners was one for the record books. We saw and shot more birds than ever before. This was great. But I had industry friends and family coming for the next trip. I was terrified that we’d done so well, the second group would struggle. So, I did nothing but scout for two days.
While doing this, I learned new areas and found spots that we now incorporate into our regular excursions. I was also able to find and see the same birds each day at the same time in about the same area. Remember this the next time you’re hitting the big woods and planning your day. When you find birds but don’t get them in the bag, and if you can remember where you are and what time of day it is, chances are you can come back and get another crack.
Also, don’t be afraid to tap into local resources—guides, lodge owners, bait shop attendants, etc. Every bit of information helps when chasing such a challenging bird. At the end of the day, getting out and being observant and open to changing your approach can be as valuable as anything you read, wear or carry.
For strategy and tactics in the field, I focus on alignment, terrain and pace. I’ve been fortunate enough to hunt with a lot of the same people over the years, and I’ve noticed that our familiarity with each other — knowing how to read each other without having to stop every two minutes to discuss things — is essential. Regardless of how many times you’ve hunted with your party, boil it down to alignment, terrain and pace and you’ll be more successful.
Alignment isn’t just for safety (but that’s a big factor). We hunt thick woods with a lot of cover, so communication is key. There are times you think you’re walking in alignment, but if you’re a few degrees off, you lose containment and are spread way too thin. Minimizing gaps in coverage through alignment is paramount no matter the size of your party — even if you are hunting by yourself.
Terrain is also key. Technology today allows unprecedent access to maps. Use them to your advantage. Even simple Google map searches can uncover valuable natural features that can markedly increase the likelihood of your success.
Ask yourself questions to prepare for the hunt. Where does the trail lead? What’s around it? Are there elevation changes, clear cuts, ponds/streams or other natural barriers? Where are there natural openings and/or shooting lanes? Have a plan and stick with it. Oh, and always keep someone on the trail. In addition to keeping the hunting party in line, trails often offer the best window for a well-placed shot when the grouse explode from cover.
Pace is one area where I have a lot of anguish as a hunter. But it’s also directly correlated to success. Walking too fast and blowing by birds is maddening. But walking at a snail’s pace, especially through unproductive areas, is equally frustrating.
Use pace to increase success. Pay attention to what the birds are doing and where they are located. Vary your gait and push your partners to follow your lead. Work areas where birds are present a little slower. Take advantage of open areas or cover that’s not as dense to move quickly and cover more ground. Above all, make sure your hunting party is on board with your pace and can physically and personally adapt to the cadence needed to put more birds in the bag.
Remember, grouse don’t always follow rules, but that doesn’t mean you can’t predict what they’ll do. By learning their patterns, scouting well and using sound hunting techniques, you can put more birds in your bag this fall.
ESSENTIAL GROUSE GEAR
Federal Premium Hi-Bird
Ruffed grouse aren’t notoriously strong flyers, but you still need to put quality pellets on target. The dense cover and foliage can also soak up patterns. Purists will argue even using a 12-gauge, let alone a 1-1/4 oz load on these small birds, but this option from Federal Premium is great and not overpowered, at 1330 fps. ($7.99/federalpremium.com)
Federal Premium Gold Medal Grand and Grand Paper
Federal Premium positions these for the world’s top trap shooters, and there’s no arguing the consistency and performance when the pressure is on. However, this reliability, combined with ideal payloads and optimal speed, make Gold Medal Grand and Gold Medal Paper a top choice for me. Plus, I’ve been shooting papers in the grouse woods for a decade. Keep them dry and they never let you down. Plus, the aroma from some finely cured wax paper as you put a bird in the bag can’t be beat. ($10.99/federalpremium.com)
Although it’s not new, the Montefeltro is still a top upland gun from Benelli. It’s slim, sleek, lightweight and ultra-fast on the swing. I know semi-auto is sacrilege in some circles, but this has been my go-to for years. Available in 12- and 20-gauge with multiple finish and upgraded engraving options. (starting at $999/benelliusa.com)
Franchi Instinct SL
The Instinct SL Over/Under shotgun from Franchi is a fine gun to bring into the grouse woods. This sporting model gives people multiple length options in 12- and 20-gauge models (26-inches and 28-inches) and a new 16-gauge 28-inch version as well. Comes standard with auto ejectors, barrel selector, auto safety and a set of choke tubes. ($1,399/franchiusa.com)
Savage Model 355
The Stevens Model 555 12-gauge gives hunters a chance at an over/under at an unbeatable price. It has chrome-lined barrels, interchangeable chokes and a tang-mounted safety for great functionality on fast-flying birds. ($599/savagearms.com)
Mossberg SA-20 Youth Bantam
New for 2018, Mossberg introduced the SA-20 Youth Bantam All-Purpose Field gun. This is great for younger hunters and new upland enthusiasts. It combines value, function and durability that will keep shooters on target and happy. ($449/mossberg.com)
Irish Setter Boots
Irish setter boots have been a staple in my upland gear set for more than a decade. The Wingshooter series keeps your feet dry and comfortable—and they’re also designed to give you great traction. I need footwear that takes a beating, fits well and allows for some nimbleness in the woods—Irish setter delivers. ($169/irishsetterboots.com)
Irish Setter has added the well-known Wingshooter line for women. Ladies can get uninsulated waterproof comfort all day in these boots in two lengths (7” and 9”). There is also an insulated option for later-season hunts. ($180)
Browning Featherweight Men’s Upland Boot
These provide durable support for the dedicated upland hunter. Rugged metal lacing eyelets and pull on loops ensure an easy, secure fit very time. These boots also provide good protection for the feet—important in the rocky, slippery and uneven ground commonly found in northern Minnesota. ($150/browning.com)
PACKS & VESTS
Alps Outdoorz The Prospector
I am not a huge fan of wearing a pack while grouse hunting, but I always have too many loose items. That’s where The Prospector comes in. It’s designed for deer hunters to bring to the stand, but it’s great for putting in the truck and taking it in the upland field. Snacks, gloves, dog treats, water bottles, ammo and more fit great in this lightweight bag. ($30/alpsoutdoorz.com)
PF Wingworks Strap Vest
For the hunter that must have the best—this vest is for you. This vest has a ton of onboard water capacity, is interchangeable with multiple components and can be customized for many different environments and climates. It is extra durable and features a blood-proof game bag. ($235/pheasantsforever.org)
Browning Bird’n Lite Vest
This is a classic upland vest with a twist. Simple, lightweight and will last forever. Convenient game pouches, zippered pockets and durable material. The added features come with the weight distribution. This vest is specially designed for all day comfort. ($110/browning.com)
Cabelas Men’s Upland Tradition Vest
Rugged, 100 percent cotton canvas sheds briars and branches, remaining quiet and breathable. Tri-loading game bag with blood-proof lining, detachable cargo straps and built-in recoil pad. Two lined hand-warmer pockets, two zippered chest pockets and shell loops. ($70/Cabelas.com)
Cabela’s Ripstop Dog Vest
Constructed of abrasion-resistant 600-denier poly-material, the chest and belly protector shield on Cabela’s Ripstop Dog Vest is made of heavy-duty 900-denier poly ripstop. Three adjustable straps and elastic gussets on the waist ensure a comfortable fit, and the reflective strips maximize visibility. ($25/cabelas.com)
Sylmar Body Guard Dog Vest
This vest offers chest and body protection with increased visibility at a distance and in cover. A neoprene lining adds core body warmth for extra protection in winter months. Constructed of tough 500-denier Cordura ripstop nylon, with an additional layer of 1,000-denier Cordura material for the chest and body plate. Made in USA. ($42/sylmardogwear.com)
Browning Dog Safety Vest
The Browning Technical Dog Safety Vest provides plenty of orange. The lightweight, rustle-free fabric is water-resistant. Hook-and-loop flap on top with adjustable straps provide proper fit. ($25/browning.com)
Garmin Sport PRO Remote Trainer
The base unit incorporates four raised buttons and thumb wheel dial for quick, accurate use. The PT 10 Dog Device is rugged and waterproof. ($250/garmin.com)
This collar features low- to medium-power stimulation with a 1/2-mile range. Eight selectable stimulation levels, combined with the Combination Boost Control system for three levels of instant boost per stimulation level. Front-facing buttons allow for easy operation. ($160 and up/dogtra.com)
Sportdog Upland Hunter 1875
With a 1-mile range, and tone and vibration options, this system expands to three dogs with additional collars. Seven instantly selectable, static stimulation levels, ranging from low to high. Rechargeable batteries. Blaze-orange finish, waterproof, submersible to 25 feet. ($385/sportdog.com)
Plano Travel Cases
The All Weather Series offers rugged protection for the traveling shotgunner no matter whether you are hitting the freeway or flying. Available in 36-, 42- and 52-inch options. ($69-$129/planomolding.com)
Flambeau HD Weapon Storage Case
Made of ultra-durable polypropylene, this case features foam inserts that can be custom-cut and high density rubber wheels to make transport easy as can be. It features four secure latches and three handles, and it meets TSA requirements. ($178 for large/lambeauoutdoors.com)
Pelican Storm iM3100 Long Case