By Gerald Almy
"There are two kinds of hunting: ordinary hunting and grouse hunting."
--Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
The ruffed grouse is without a doubt one of the most challenging upland gamebirds to hunt. But one way you can improve your luck with this handsome brown, russet and black bird is to avoid making mistakes.
I feel uniquely qualified to write a piece on this topic, since over the years I believe I have made every mistake possible in the grouse woods, some of them many times over. But gradually I began to learn from those mistakes. And as I did, I saw both my flushing and bagging rates go up and also my enjoyment of the sport. Sure, just walking through grouse country is enjoyable, but bagging a few birds now and then certainly makes it even better.
I could list dozens of mistakes I've made or seen other grouse hunters make. But over this week's column and next we'll examine some of the most common and damaging ones. Knowing what they are ahead of time should help you avoid them, or at least recognize when you make them and avoid them the next time.
One. Using the wrong gun. Many grouse hunters use guns that are way too heavy. They also carry guns with barrels too long.
A heavy gun becomes a burden to carry on the long hikes through the hilly or mountainous country grouse inhabit. It also is harder to mount quickly and swing on a fast-departing bird when you only have a matter of a second or two to find the target and fire.
A long barrel is also a hindrance working through thick, vine-tangled, briar-infested cover where grouse like to hang out. It can even get caught on sapling branches when you try to mount and fire.
Leave those guns at home and carry them on waterfowl or pheasant hunts. Instead, tote a lightweight 12-28 gauge shotgun in any action you please. It should also have a fairly short barrel, for easy swinging in thick cover.
I like a double, but autoloaders and pumps are also fine. Avoid a single shot if possible, because you'll often miss with your first shot and occasionally the grouse will still be in view for a second try. At times two grouse may also get up, and you won't have a follow-up shot available for the other bird.
Two. Using the wrong choke. This is a common mistake for many kinds of upland bird and small game hunting, but it's especially critical for grouse. The thick cover these birds inhabit most of the time means shots will be short range. Sometimes they might be as close as 10-15 yards. Other times maybe out to 20-30 yards. Thirty-five yards would be a very long grouse shot.
That makes it clear that an open choke is usually the best bet. At times improved cylinder will be okay, but very rarely will a modified be a good choice. My main grouse gun is a 16 gauge bored skeet and skeet(open). If a bird gets up 40 yards away, I just pass it up. But 90 percent of them get up closer, and the open barrel gives a broad pattern that helps with my mediocre shooting skills.
Three. Using the wrong shot size. You can also help your success rate by using a small pellet size. The smaller the pellets, the more there are in a shell and the more likely one or two will connect.
Though they look big, grouse are fragile birds and fairly easy to bring down. I go with size 8 for early hunting, 7 1⁄2 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 also be a good choice.
Four. Walking too fast. It's human nature to want to cover a lot of ground as we search for grouse. The more ground you cover, the more birds you'll find, right? No. Not really.
Actually you'll probably walk past a lot of birds if you use that approach. You'll also wear yourself out faster physically and have to cut the length of the hunt short. Or you'll be tired when a bird flushes and not mount and fire as quickly as you otherwise could. You'll also tend to rush past good bits of cover instead of walking them out thoroughly.
Grouse are extremely well camouflaged and really don't like to fly. They would much rather sit tight and let you saunter past them, even as close as ten feet away, rather than fly. They know they're exposing themselves to danger when they do and want to avoid it if possible. The slow walker seems more threatening to them and is more likely to make them flush.
Five. Not stopping often enough. This brings us to a related mistake. Not only should you walk slowly to be sure you cover the best habitat carefully, you should pause often. This is not just to keep yourself fresh, but also as a strategic tactic. Pausing seems to make a grouse feel a predator has spotted him and is about to attack. The silence unnerves him, compared to a hunter just casually walking past. He tenses and flushes.
I've found that you'll flush almost twice as many birds by stopping frequently 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.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.