By Gerald Almy - firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week we looked at some common mistakes grouse hunters make that reduce their chances for success. Here are five more flub-ups we should all try to avoid as we hike through the cold, gray forests this winter in search of this intriguing black and russet gamebird.
1. Not stopping at the right locations. Make sure you're in a clear area when you pause so you can raise the gun and swing it without the barrel catching on a grape vine or sapling growth. Also, be sure to stop near enough to the prime cover that when a bird flushes he won't be out of range. Lastly, choose a spot where there won't be an obstruction between you and the quarry when it flushes.
2. Hunting the wrong type of cover. There are generally two types of cover in a typical forest. One is open, park-like, with mature timber. It looks like a nice place to take a walk or have a picnic.
Then there's grouse cover! It's thick, congested, overgrown with grapevines, greenbrier and dense sapling growth. There are blow-downs, laurel, rhododendron and thick sapling growth. Sometimes the area has been growing back from clear-cutting. It makes for tough walking and tough shooting. But that's where the grouse are.
The mistake too often made is hunting where it's easy walking and inviting. The grouse aren't there. They're in the thick stuff. Get in and bust them out.
3. Not finding the food. Not only do you need to find this thick habitat, you can improve your chances further by pinpointing areas within these dense jungles that provide grouse the most food. It could be grapes, honeysuckle, ferns, greenbrier, oaks, or aspen. Dogwoods are also favored, as are hawthorn, alder, blackberry, raspberry, viburnum, plum, sumac, ash, birch, cranberry and olives. Old abandoned orchards can also attract the birds for the leftover fruit. Ridges are often best early in the season, then later move to hollows, stream bottoms and more protected cover with less snow accumulation.
4. Hunting too close to the road. Birds will be warier and spookier near parking areas. They'll also be present in lower numbers because of the hunting pressure they've been exposed to. Hike in a quarter or half mile, and then start hunting. You'll find more birds and they'll be less skittish.
5. Using wide-ranging bird dogs. A dog can be a great help in grouse hunting. But if you have a wide-roaming dog that doesn't stay close and obey commands well, it can actually bump more birds out of range than it points for you. By all means, bring a dog if he's trained to hunt close and knows grouse. Otherwise, you might do better off just jump shooting the birds. I like a dog that sticks within 50-75 yards.
6. Not shooting quickly enough. This is common among novices in particular. A grouse thunders out of cover, often right at your feet, so loudly and raucously that it's shocking. By the time you collect yourself and raise the gun he will likely put brush or a tree between you and him and vanish before you slap the trigger. Shoot quickly, as soon as you can get the gun up to your shoulder and firmly mounted with your cheek tight on the stock.
7. Not being ready for a second or third grouse to flush. If you flush a grouse, there's often a chance another bird may be in the cover where he was. Be ready for a second chance if you missed the first bird. If you bagged the first grouse and have marked it carefully in your mind exactly where it fell, then you can also be ready to try for a second one. If you haven't, let the second grouse go and concentrate on locating the one you hit.
8. Not watching carefully where a flush bird flies. If you miss a grouse, there's a decent chance you can re-flush it. But to do that you need to watch carefully as it flies away and get a good bead on where it might have landed. Often it will fly through a semi-open area and land then run into the next thick patch of cover. Pay attention and you may get a second, or even a third crack at that bird.
9. Hunting in areas exposed to strong winds. Grouse don't like wind. It robs them of their ability to sense movement of brush and potential approaching predators. And in winter it robs them of body heat and chills them. Look for hollows, valleys, dips and sides of hills protected from the strongest breezes to bag the most grouse. You'll also find the hunting more comfortable there as well.
10. Hunting alone. Well, I confess I do this a lot. But when possible, always try to bring a buddy or two along. It's much easier to thoroughly hunt a patch of cover if two bodies are walking through it, trying to flush birds. Often you'll move a grouse that will fly by your partner and vice versa. That will give you extra shooting opportunities you wouldn't otherwise have.
Four eyes are also better than two for finding dead birds. And it's simply fun to share the woods with a companion and the joys and frustrations of chasing America's most challenging upland game bird.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.