Tips for late season grouse hunting
With deer seasons finished for the year, there’s one sport that still draws diehard hunters to the woods no matter how cold the air and how deep the snow – grouse hunting. It’s hard to think of a better way to conquer the monotony of gray winter days than walking through the woods seeking out this feathered brown and black quarry.
Here are some tips to make your late season efforts yield more than just healthy exercise for the lungs and legs.
Hunt the best areas
Open, mature forests may be fun to walk through for a hike, but you won’t find grouse there. Instead, look for thick, nasty cover with lots of briars, brush, deadfalls, and dense sapling growth. If it’s so thick it doesn’t look inviting to walk through and you can’t see very far, that’s grouse cover. Also check out laurel, rhododendron, and honeysuckle thickets.
In the Shenandoah Valley, ridges were good earlier. Now it’s time to drop down lower into protected hollows and along stream bottoms.
Look for the food
Grouse eat tender green forbs, berries, buds, and fruits. Look for grapes, honeysuckle, blackberry thickets, dogwood, greenbrier, sumac, and olives. Old abandoned orchards may also draw in birds at times.
Sure, it’s tempting to walk forest logging roads and ATV trails through this thick cover. But chances are the grouse near these easy access spots have either been shot or wised up and moved back into thicker cover.
Hike in a quarter mile or more and begin your hunt at that point. The birds you do flush probably haven’t seen many hunters before and will sit tighter for a good close flush.
I learned this trick by accident. I would pause to catch my breath or get a drink of water and before I could renew the hunt a grouse would often flush.
I quickly adapted this into my hunting strategy by pausing periodically. Don’t just stop anywhere, though. Make sure you will have a clear shot where you pause if a bird flushes. And don’t stop too far from the cover or the bird may be out of range when it erupts.
Sure, it’s good to cover a lot of ground. But if you move too fast you’ll likely stride right past lots of birds. Stopping is good, but just slowing down will also flush more grouse.
These birds are well camouflaged and don’t want to fly. They feel vulnerable when they do. A slow pace makes you seem more threatening and the flight response is more likely.
Another advantage to this is you won’t be out of breath and tired when a bird flushes. You’ll be ready and have the energy to mount the gun quickly and make an accurate shot. And in the end, a slow pace will let you maintain your stamina for longer and probably cover more ground than hunters who charge through the cover like they are in a race.
Use the right dog
Grouse hunting can be very effective without a dog. But if you do use one, make sure he is a close-working hunting partner. A dog that ranges far out ahead will flush too many skittish birds out of range. Even if he holds his point well, the birds may fly before you can get to him. Dogs that hunt within sight are best, maybe 50-100 yards in front. Old dogs are ideal.
Be ready for another flush
Too many hunters start berating or congratulating themselves after missing or making a shot instead of immediately getting ready for another bird to fly. Especially in late season grouse maybe bunched up in groups of two, three or more birds.
If you are aware of this, you’ll be even more prepared to make a good shot on the second or third chance. Of course, if you hit the first bird, be sure to carefully note exactly where it falls, especially if you’re hunting without a dog.
Watch where they fly
If your shots fly astray, don’t throw in the towel on that bird. Watch carefully where it flies and there’s a pretty good chance you can jump it again. Many times a bird will fly through an open area and make a landing at the next thick patch of cover. Watch carefully and then make a beeline to that spot where he may be just inside the thicket.
Avoid the wind
If strong winds are blowing, you can actually use that to your advantage. Drop down into hollows, creek bottoms and work the lee sides of hills. You’ll find birds concentrated in these areas trying to escape the chilling effects of the wind. It’s also easier to hear birds flush in these quieter areas.
Yes, deer season is just a memory now. But don’t ignore the challenge of ruffed grouse hunting. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a cold winter day.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.