Expert Tips For Early-Season Grouse

Ruffed grouse remain the uplands' most challenging target, but there are ways to fool them. Here's how one expert does it.

To the novice uplander, experienced grouse hunters possess an almost magical ability to find ruffed grouse. But in fact, anyone can do it. The tricks are being able to recognize prime grouse cover, being willing to walk (and walk, and walk!) -- and finally, when a bird flushes, being on guard and ready to shoot.

You can spot experienced grouse hunters an abandoned apple orchard away. Their presence is often heralded by the melodic sounds of a gun dog's belled collar. These hunters' game vests are tattered from bulling their way through alders, briars and thickets of laurel.

Grouse can beguile and charm any hunter, acting the fool one day and the genius the next. You won't get them all! But there are ways to fool these truly wild game birds -- if you're up to the challenge.

Here's a look at how it's done:

During the early season, grouse have an embarrassment of forage available to them, from acorns and beechnuts to berries, apples, insects, grasses, sprouts and buds.

In early fall, these food sources are scattered throughout the woods, making it difficult to locate that certain spot where birds are feeding.

So where do you start?

There's a grain of truth in the old adage, "Find alders and you'll find grouse." Stack the odds in your favor -- and save some boot leather -- by finding stands of alder, birch, aspen, rhododendron and dogwood. These will provide grouse with food and cover year 'round.

If weather conditions are particularly dry, focus on food-producing areas near swampy edges and bogs or along flowing water. Drought-like circumstances stunt plant growth and crop production, so grouse will seek out places where there's plenty of water to grow succulent foliage. Look especially for soft-mast forage like berries and greens.

If moisture conditions are normal, concentrate on clearcuts and edge cover near old orchards, abandoned farmland, logging roads and waterways. Look for regenerating clear-cuts in the sapling stage. Anything that looks impossible to walk through is where you want to be!

Hunt the edges of clearcuts abutting mature timber. Grouse use these areas to feed and roost. The clearcuts provide food; the mature growth offers roosting sites and escape routes.

Once you've downed a grouse, examine the bird's crop to see what it's been feeding on.

Then concentrate on areas that hold those food types. Buds, insects, berries of all types, apples, even mushrooms may be found in the crops of grouse. These are soft-mast foods, normally found in clear-cut areas that receive plenty of sunlight.

Watching a wily grouse flush and land is a lot like trying to follow the pea in a shell game. That sudden explosion of feathers is always a surprise, even for experienced hunters, and trying to keep an eye on the bird's flight path can be a challenge.

Typically, after a grouse flushes, you'll have about 2 1/2 seconds to mount and shoot. No wonder the average harvest rate is about three birds per box of shells fired!

Once flushed, a grouse devotes its energy to acceleration and putting as much cover as possible between itself and the perceived danger. Typically, the grouse flies less than 100 yards. As its flight ends, the bird glides on cupped wings, veering left or right before hitting the ground on the run.

Watch for the bird to brake and veer off into cover. You may not be able to pinpoint the exact location where it came down, but you should have a good idea of the grouse's location.

And here lies the secret: Don't approach the flushed bird in a direct line, but circle around and try to come in ahead of it. Remember, that grouse is trying to put cover between the two of you, and the straight-ahead approach will indicate that you are still a threat and will give a grouse the advantage. When flushed a second time, most birds are gone for good!

Usually the bird won't return to the location of the first flush because it bird knows that the perceived danger lay in that direction.

Move in with your shotgun at high port and anticipate a flush in any direction -- including behind you.

Don't be surprised to find that an area that was full of birds yesterday is suddenly empty today.

If you did get off a shot and missed, the grouse is likely to hold tight. It won't flush a second time until you or your dogs practically step on it.

In warm, dry weather, scent dissipates quickly, making it more difficult for your dog to locate birds. In humid weather, scent clings to the vegetation, making it easier for your companion to do his job.

Keep an eye on the weather and use it to your advantage by hunting prior to rainstorms and immediately afterward. Grouse, like most species of wildlife, seem to know when nasty weather is forecast and will feed heavily prior to a storm.

During a torrential rain, grouse will ride it out in dense cover. Once the storm passes, they will be out again, eagerly looking for food.

In a light passing shower, you can continue to hunt because grouse are not normally disturbed by drizzle and even light rain. In fact, you may even get in closer because wetter foliage means quiet walking. In a heavy driving rainstorm, grouse will seek shelter in tall, dense cover and are difficult to budge till after the storm has passed.

These are the two best times to hunt grouse. If not disturbed, grouse may remain on the roost most of the morning before leaving heavy cover and searching for food. Midmorning is the perfect time to hunt because the dew is still on the ground, making it easier for your dog to find birds that are busy filling their crops.

Later, the birds will spend the day loafing in heavy cover, or you may find them on the edges of logging roads where they look for grit to help digest their food.

Hunt the cover along old logging roads between midmornin

g and midday. Then skirt the edges of clearcuts at midday, because grouse will again leave heavy cover to forage for their late-afternoon repast.

During midday, particularly later in fall when food sources begin to dwindle, the birds may decide to fly to more distant feeding areas.

Don't be surprised to find that an area that was full of birds yesterday is suddenly empty today. That's when hunters will discover the investment value of quality shoe leather!

Most bird-hunting seasons typically begin in late September or early October, when the lush foliage makes it is easy for grouse to avoid hunters and bird dogs. That early season also boasts a smorgasbord of succulent food sources.

Because food and cover are abundant, grouse are not as gun-shy early in the season as they will become later on. Young birds (most abundant in early fall) are also unfamiliar with the tactics of human hunters, which means you may be able to approach them more closely.

In the early season, an open choke (Skeet or Improved Cylinder) is best because shots will be close and fast. In the early season, shot shell loads should be 7 1/2s or 8s to provide more punch when you're hunting in heavy foliage. If the birds are flushing wild and the cover is unusually dense, carry both loads, even some No. 6 shot.

After few weeks of serious ground pounding, most hunters will have found a number of coverts that grouse frequent. But just when they have a few birds under their belts and think they have it all figured out, suddenly the weather changes from balmy to frigid.

And the birds' habits change, too.

In the late season, grouse focus not only on finding food -- which isn't as plentiful as it was in the early season -- but also their need to stay safe from predators.

Once the leafy cover is fallen, grouse will spend their nights in the thick evergreens. One good tactic is to hunt around stands of evergreens next to clearcuts that still hold food sources.

At this time of the year, any thick cover -- even a tangle of grapevines, a fallen tree, a pile of brush or thick clump of saplings -- is likely to be a grouse hideout.

Late-season grouse tend to flush wild and fly farther. You'll no longer have the luxury of close shots. A Modified choke and high-brass shot shells loaded with No. 6 or 7 1/2 make a good combination for late-season gunning.

With or without a dog, grouse hunting is the ultimate upland challenge. No one shoots 100 straight, but it sure is fun trying!

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