To kill more grouse you need to know the basics of the bird’s habits and habitat preferences. It also pays to have a modicum of wing-shooting skills.
If there is any way a grouse can flush just when you don’t expect it, get a tree between you and the shot pattern, veer left or swerve right as you squeeze the trigger, this amazing bird will do it. And that’s on top of living in some of the roughest, steepest, brier-infested habitat imaginable, with grapevines and brambles vying to snag your barrel right when a bird erupts.
But when all the hours of hard walking, flushes heard but not seen, and missed shots finally culminate in the successful harvest of a grouse, the effort will seem worthwhile.
Beyond knowing the basics of shot-gunning and ruffed grouse behavior 101, the best way to improve your chances of killing birds is to avoid making mistakes. I feel well qualified to write on this topic, having flubbed up in every way possible while hunting grouse for many years on hunts from Michigan to North Carolina.
Gradually, though, I learned from those mistakes. And as I did, I saw my flushing and bagging rates go up as well as my enjoyment of the sport. One could easily compile a lengthy list of mistakes grouse hunters make, but these ten are some of the most egregious errors you can commit. Most are easy to correct. And being aware of the potential flub-ups ahead of time makes it easy to avoid making them in the first place.
1) Bad Firearm Choice
This is somewhat subjective, but many grouse hunters use guns that are way too heavy, with barrels way too long for this brush-busting sport. Avoid those two mistakes by choosing a lightweight, short-barreled shotgun for grouse hunting.
Heavy guns weigh you down on the long hikes through the hills and mountainous habitat where grouse live. They are also harder to mount quickly and swing on a fast-departing bird when you only have seconds to find the target and fire. Six-and-a-half pounds should be the top weight. Lighter is better still.
A long barrel is also a detriment when working through dense, briar-filled cover where grouse like to hang out. It can easily get caught on saplings and vines just when you try to mount and fire.
Carry a lightweight 12-28 gauge shotgun in any action you like for easy swinging in thick cover. I use a side-by-side, but autoloaders and over-unders, are also good choices.
Avoid single-shots. Sometimes you’ll miss with your first shot, but the grouse will still be in range if you had a second shell available. On other occasions, two grouse may flush, and you won’t have a follow-up shot available for the other bird.
2) Selecting the Wrong Choke
The thick cover these birds inhabit most of the time means shots will be short-range—sometimes as close as 10-15 yards, often 20-25 yards.
Open or skeet is the best choice for these shots. At times, an improved cylinder will be a good option if the cover is sparser than normal and birds are getting up farther out. But rarely will a modified choke be a good choice. Open patterns also help those of us with modest shooting skills connect more often.
3) Using the Wrong Shot Size
You can also help your success rate by using a small pellet size. That allows more shot to be packed in each shell, meaning a denser pattern.
Grouse are fairly easy to bring down with size 8 pellets for early hunting, 7-½ for late season. If you’re hunting unusually open terrain or it’s late in the season and grouse are flushing far out, 6’s can occasionally be a good choice. But only in those special situations.
4) Walking Too Fast
It’s natural to want to cover a lot of ground as you search for grouse. But the truth is, you’ll probably walk past a lot of birds if you use that approach.
You’ll also become tired more quickly, and you won’t be able to hunt as long. Fast-moving hunters also tend to blow right past good cover instead of walking it out thoroughly.
The ruffed grouse knows it blends into the brown leaf-strewn forest habitat and does not like to fly unless absolutely necessary. It would much rather sit tight unnoticed and let you saunter past. If you walk slowly, it will unnerve grouse more and make birds flush that would otherwise just hunker down and wait until you’re gone.
5) Not Pausing as You Work Through Cover
Besides walking slowly, it’s also important to pause often. This is not just to catch your breath, but it’s also a strategic tactic. A sudden halt in your progress makes a grouse feel a predator has spotted it and is about to attack. The bird’s instinctive reaction is to flush.
This strategy is so effective you’ll move almost twice as many birds by stopping often in good cover as you will if you simply walk through it. This approach also lets you raise the gun to port arms and be ready if a bird rockets out. Just be sure you stop in a spot where you can swing the gun freely if a bird flushes, and make the pause near a prime deadfall or brush pile that might hold a grouse or two.
6) Not Pinpointing Grouse Food
Thick habitat often has the foods grouse prefer, but be on the lookout for items such as grapes, honeysuckle, ferns, greenbrier, and small acorns. Dogwoods, alder, blackberry, viburnum, sumac, plum, birch, and hawthorn are also favored. Abandoned orchards are famous for attracting birds and were favorite spots of the old-time grouse writers such as Frank Woolner. Focus on ridges early. Later in the season hunt protected hollows and stream bottoms.
7) Hunting Near Parking Areas and Roads
The logic is clear here. Those are the areas that get hunted the hardest. There are likely fewer birds there because some have been harvested, and those present will also be warier. Hike in a half-mile and then begin hunting. You’ll likely find more grouse and they won’t be as skittish.
8) Hunting the Wrong Type of Habitat
Woodlands typically consist of two types of cover—open mature forest or thick cover areas that have seen timber either harvested or knocked down by storms. If a section of woods looks park-like and a nice place to take a walk, it’s not grouse cover.
Look for the exact opposite—thick, tangled, crowded with saplings and briars and grapevines. Search for greenbrier, rhododendron, and laurel with lots of blowdowns and dense cover.
9) Using a Fast, Wide-Ranging Bird Dog.
Dogs can be a great aid when pursuing grouse, but a far-ranging animal will likely jump more grouse out of range than it points. Choose a slow-working, perhaps older dog that will stay in sight most of the time and obey your commands well.
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10) Not Shooting Fast Enough or Following Up Your Shot
This takes a bit of practice. When a grouse thunders out with a roar under your feet, it’s hard to pull yourself together and get a quick shot off. But if you don’t shoot quickly, you’ll likely watch your quarry disappear behind brush or a tree trunk in a split second. Raise the gun, cover the bird, and pull forward as you slap the trigger. Make it one quick, fluid motion.
It’s also important to be ready for a second or third grouse. Often you’ll find several grouse together. If you miss, or if you connect and have marked the spot where the first bird fell carefully, be ready to try for a second grouse.
If you don’t get a shot or miss, watch where the grouse flies. Often you can re-flush it by following up. It may just cruise over a rise and settle down in the next blowdown or brush pile. Following up is also wise because sometimes you will hit a grouse, not realize it, and find the bird 80 or 100 yards out. A grouse is much too precious a resource to waste—in the woods or on the dinner table.