Without a dog, grouse hunting is challenging, to say the least, but two shooters on foot can fool a lot more birds than a lone hunter. Our expert grouse hunter explains how.
There is a saying among seasoned grouse hunters that goes something like, "About the time a man learns to outwit grouse, he dies." I have been an avid grouse hunter longer than I like to admit and looking back over my years and experiences in grouse country I can easily relate to that old adage.
On more than one occasion, I have flushed a bird under ideal circumstances and, thinking the bird was dead on arrival, missed the shot. On each occasion, all I could do is scratch my head and wonder: How did that happen?
To say the least, ruffed grouse are a contradiction, always doing the unexpected. They are masters at ignoring the rules of fair play and the bag of tricks that allows them to escape the blast from a shotgun with such ease is second to none.
There are two ways to hunt ruffed grouse: with the aid of a dog and without. Providence never saw fit to bestow upon me a qualified setter, pointer or flushing dog, so my autumn pursuits have always been conducted working prime coverts and jump-shooting when opportunity knocked.
It is often believed that hunting grouse with a dog is more productive, and from the perspective of birds bagged, that is undoubtedly true. Dogs experienced in working cover will find birds in situations in which human senses don't stand a chance.
A skilled jump-shooter is not wasting his time by any means. True, we often have to make our own opportunities, and there are some basic ground rules for doing battle. Once a bird takes wing, jump-shooters are on the same playing field as hunters using dogs.
The key to success for dogless hunters is knowing where to look, being prepared to take the shot and making that opportunity count. Two jump-shooters working together will enjoy far more opportunities and produce more birds each time out than the solo hunter.
It only makes sense that two guns have a better chance at downing a grouse than one, but the odds get better when hunting with a partner when they work as a team and their strategy is on target.
TACTICS THAT WORK
On a parallel sweep along a tangled ridge, old apple orchard, thick briar patch or other likely grouse hideouts, hunters should move through 50 to 70 feet apart, close enough to be in visual contact and close enough to flush any birds in between. Ideally, both shooters should move at the same pace.
The distance between shooters will expand and contract depending upon the terrain; obstacles encountered en route and when investigating potential hotspots along the way. As the pace of one shooter slows or alters course, the other stands ready and prepared, moving only after both shooters are back in line and moving toward a predetermined meeting point.
Some experienced jump-shooters prefer to move through cover fairly quickly, often without pause. The reasoning for this is any birds in the area will undoubtedly know a threat is present, but a steady gait, rather than a stealthy, stop-and-go approach, is less likely to spook birds and will keep them holding in protective cover, often providing a closer shot.
It is also often believed that grouse always fly uphill or into the wind. While this often happens, it is not a rule cast in stone. Grouse somehow know the best exits from a given covert and seem to know where they want to go before they flush (or soon after takeoff). The direction of departure from a given area will most likely depend on existing cover between where the bird is and where it wants to go.
Grouse may prefer to launch into the wind, but once airborne, however, they will twist and turn to the left or right seeking the best cover to flee the area.
Two jump-shooters working together can take advantage of this behavior by having one gunner work his way into the heart of the thicket while the other works the outside edge that offers the best shot.
MIND THE SUN
Most experienced jump-shooting duets also use the sun to their advantage. When given a choice of entry into a covert, they try to keep the sun at their backs or in the opposite direction they expect a flushing bird to escape, especially early in the morning and late in the day when the sun is at its lowest. Getting a clear shot at a flushing grouse is difficult enough without having the sun in your eyes!
HIGH OR LOW?
While some shooters like to approach and work familiar coverts from a higher elevation, given a choice I prefer to work my way up a hill. It takes a great deal of energy for a short-winged, plump-bodied grouse to lift off and escape a thicket, but descending downhill, all it has to do is gain elevation and glide out of range. If forced uphill, however, its flight is apt to be of shorter duration. By noting where the bird lands, a second opportunity may later present itself once the shooters reach that point.
In either case, uphill or down, the odds are high that a flushed grouse will counter by swinging left or right using available cover in its escape.
When two hunters are properly spaced with guns ready working at the same pace, or when one hunter works through the cover while the other parallels the outside edge, the chances for one or the other getting a shot increase.
WHICH WAY DO WE GO?
Maintaining a specific course is rarely a problem when working known coverts, but in new grouse territory even experienced shooters and partners accustomed to working together can stray too far off or move in too close. In such situations, it pays to agree on a general course for each hunter and a predetermined ending or cut-off point, perhaps a fence, stonewall or a line of alders or briars.
Some veteran hunters use the angle of the sun to maintain their course of travel. Others use a compass or a distant landmark. Whatever the case, upon approaching the agreed-upon wall or fence, the first hunter should hang back 20 or 30 feet with gun ready and wait for his partner to catch up before moving forward.
This is because grouse notoriously hang where a fence lines the edge of a covert, stonewall or line of trees, or on the far side of a thicket.
To amble up and blunder through such cover is to invite a sudden, unexpected explosion of wings at a time when the lone shooter is off balance and least prepared for it.
Wait for your partner to finish his sweep. This opens up two possibilities. One is that
you will have a shot at a bird your partner has put up. Or he stands ready for a shot at a bird you may bump as you cross over. It is important to have at least one gun ready for action in any of these situations.
Once a bird takes wing, jump-shooters are on the same playing field as hunters using dogs.
Grouse are seldom bothered by continuous noise, but a sudden stop will often send them battering skyward. When pausing or crossing a barrier, stop upon reaching the other side, wait a good 30 seconds, and then take a second step and halt again before your partner attempts to cross over. That second step will often flush a bird that was holding tight, and if it does, two guns are ready to get the job done. This tactic also leaves one gun ready on each side of any obstacle you may encounter.
There are times when a slow but steady approach followed by a sudden stop may produce a flush. This is often true in previously hunted haunts.
Grouse have favorite feeding, sunning and resting areas, and unless the habitat drastically changes from one season to the next, the adage "Where birds once were, they will be again," often holds true — for a few years, at least, until the habitat outgrows itself.
A slow, steady approach to these known areas terminated by a sudden halt upon reaching the best shooting position will often catch grouse off guard.
IT TAKES TIME
Generally, the best jump-shooting duets have hunted together for years. They know each other well, how the other works, thinks and how to work a particular patch of cover without verbally discussing it beforehand. And they are always conscious of proper and safe gun handling. Such a partner is a rare gift.
Hunters new to the sport will have their moments of frustration, and mistakes are inevitable — grouse remain one of the most challenging, unforgiving upland targets of all.
Fortunately, the education of a grouse hunter is one of the most joyous of outdoor pursuits and a lifetime in the uplands isn't enough. Otherwise, my partner and I, and thousands of others, would have given up the pursuit of grouse long ago!