You must be prepared if you want to bag more ruffed grouse this fall. After several poor outings I learned these lessons the hard way (which is basically shorthand for I’ve missed more than my share of birds by being unprepared). Here are the 10 best ways to avoid wingshooting miscues in the grouse woods this season.
1. Get fit as a fiddle
If you want to kill more grouse, then you’ll need to wear out your boots. But logging lots of miles weaving around alder whips and lifting your legs over deadfall is tiring. Do it in the early-season heat and the late-season cold, and you’ll be slap wore out.
Summer picnics always pack on weight, so lose the jelly belly before opening day. There are a lot of different ways to get in shape, but I rely on the United States Marine Corps’ Personal Fitness Test (PFT).
The numbers in the chart are the bare minimum to pass a PFT, and more is always better. If it’s good enough for the Marines, it’s good enough for me.
The connection between your upper and lower body is your midsection, so if you are short on time, then explore your core. Crunches, planks and jackknifes are all good, but if you had to do only one exercise, then pick the half-kneeling wood chop. That single exercise strengthens shoulders, back and midsection all at once. Those are the muscles you’ll use when grouse hunting.
2. Use the right gun
The gun you love should be the one that drops birds, period. Sure, there is the nostalgia of hunting with grandpa’s side-by-side, but only if it fits. Modern shotgun measurements are average in length and flat. Length of pull is usually 14 1/2 inches, drop at comb is 1 1/2 inches, and drop at heel is 2 1/2 inches. They fit the average shooter well, and no tweaks or modifications are necessary.
Older shotguns have different dimensions, and that means the stocks are shorter and they have a lot of drop. Too short a stock causes shooters to scrunch into the gun and to roll their shoulders, while too much drop puts your eye in alignment with the safetyand not the rib. The net result is that you have a shotgun that isn’t shooting where you’re looking.
If you are consistently missing a lot of birds, then get a professional gun fitting. Compare your measurements to those of your favorite shotgun to see if that’s the problem. To hit more grouse, you might need a new stock. If you don’t want to restock a firearm, then sell yours and buy one that fits.
3. Keep an open choke
If it’s not your stock, you may miss grouse because your chokes are too tight. Last fall I killed a grouse under my setter’s point, and because of the thick foliage, I would have bet it was a 50-yard shot. I paced off the distance, only to discover the bird fell at 21 yards (which is the same distance of clay targets thrown in the grouse shooting game called skeet). Those chokes are named appropriately. If you’re shooting a double then make your first barrel cylinder (C) and your second either skeet in (SI) or skeet out (SO). You’ll get great pattern spread from the cylinder choke, and then have a tighter choke for your second shot. Use SI if you’re in thick cover and SO if you’re in the big woods. Pump and semi-automatic shooters should go with either a cylinder choke or skeet in. To supercharge your pattern spread shoot lighter loads for your first shot (i.e., a 3/4-ounce 20-gauge load instead of the standard 7/8-ounce 20-gauge).
4. Stand in the open, shoot into the thick
It’s easy to think that if you stand in thick cover and shoot into the open you’ll kill more grouse. You’ll tell yourself that the bird is in the open, so you’ll have better target acquisition. You’ll follow that up with reduced shot dissipation as your No. 8s won’t be deflected by branches. But when you’re in the jungle, branches check your swing, and when that happens, you’ll shoot behind and miss.
If you shoot from an open area into the thick cover, then you’ll be able to swing and keep up with the grouse. Don’t worry if you lose sight of the bird as it flies into a leaf canopy. Keep on swinging on the bird’s flight plane and pull the trigger. Grouse aren’t grizzlies; only a few, well-placed pellets are necessary to bring them down.
5. Keep your eyes on the prize
While some grouse will flush from a tree, the majority are feeding on the ground. Focus your attention on your dog and the terrain and you’ll acquire the target more quickly than if you’re looking around and yakking with your buddy. The grouse whirl startles most hunters, which makes them break their concentration. If you’re slow to pick up the bird’s flight plan, the odds are you’ll rush the shot. Concentrate on the cover in front of you, watch your dog, and be ready. When the grouse flushes, focus your eyes on its flight, and then mount, swing and shoot.
6. Don’t aim your shotgun like a rifle
If you’re a whitetail hunter who also grouse hunts, you’re probably guilty of this one. You aim at the buck by looking at the sights or through the scope. Confidence comes from that approach, but shotgunning isn’t an exact science. To bring down a grouse you just need to deliver the shot pattern in the bird’s general area. You need to concentrate on the bird and not on the bead. There is no need to be precise—or aim—with a shotgun when hunting grouse.
7. Keep your head down
We all want to know if we hit the bird, and that’s why shooters lift their heads. Lifting your head causes your cheek to come off of the stock, and when it does, you’ll typically shoot under the bird. If your cheek is off the stock, then the odds are you’re not swinging your muzzle, either. Keep your cheek on the stock and lift it after you’ve completed the shot cycle.
8. Be quick, but don’t rush
Snap shots are point and shoot, and they’re different from crossing shots. Several issues come about with a rushed crossing shot. First, gun mounts are sloppy. Cheeks aren’t on stocks, eyes aren’t looking down ribs, and buttstocks don’t land in the hollow of your shoulder and chest. Second, concentration on the target is weak and unfocused. Third, front and rear hands aren’t working in synch, which causes muzzle rock, and muzzle rock is the reason hunters shoot over or under birds. And lastly, rushed shots usually don’t have any follow-through. Find a speed that is quick but also allows for smooth mechanics.
9. Smooth out gun mount
Poor gun mount often relates to gear. Bunched layers mean hunters wrestle to get a good mount just as they do when cotton jackets grab rubber recoil pads. That herky-jerky mount causes missed birds. If your gun has a rubber recoil pad, cover it with smooth electrician’s tape (which you can remove at the end of the season). And wear a shooting shirt and a strap vest. Vests offer more movement than jackets, and you can layer in a fleece vest when it gets cold. A smoother, quicker swing kills more birds.
10. Get up on your dog
If you hunt with big-running dogs, then you have to keep up with them. Hard-charging dogs cover a lot of ground and find more birds. But if you’re lolly gagging, then it’ll take time to get up on that point. Pinned wild birds will hold, while unpinned birds feel the dog’s pressure and will walk away or flush out of range. Hunters that aren’t keeping up with their dogs miss the best opportunities at killing grouse. It doesn’t matter if your dog runs big or inside of bell range; you must keep up with your companion.
In most conditions, ruffed grouse are hard to hit. But if you incorporate these 10 points into your season, then you’ll kill more birds without having to learn the hard way.