Gerald Almy: To collect more grouse, avoid mistakes

Gerald Almy

Veteran upland hunters consider the ruffed grouse the most challenging game bird of all. From years of pursuing this beautiful brown, russet and black bird, I can vouch for that.

One way to improve your success, however, is to avoid making mistakes. I feel well qualified to write a piece on this topic, since over the years I have probably 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.

I could list countless 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 harmful errors you can commit. Knowing what they are ahead of time should help you avoid making them.

One. Choosing the wrong gun. Many grouse hunters use guns that are way too heavy. They also carry guns with barrels too long.

Heavy guns become a burden to carry on the long hikes through the hills and mountainous country grouse inhabit. 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.

A long barrel is also a hindrance working through thick, briar-infested cover where grouse like to hang out. It can easily get caught on sapling branches when you try to mount and fire.

Leave those guns at home and instead, tote a lightweight 12-28 gauge shotgun in any action you please. It should also have a 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. 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, an improved cylinder will be OK, but very rarely will a modified be a good choice. My go-to 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 modest 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 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 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. But the fact is, 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 cover instead of walking it 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 rather than fly. The hunter slowly walking seems more threatening 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 also 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. 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.

Next Week: More tips on how to bag late season grouse.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.