With deer season now over, it’s time to turn to grouse and other small game to finish out the hunting agenda for the year. We looked at squirrels recently, but grouse hunting is another great option for this month and early February, with the season ending Feb. 8.
Grouse populations aren’t at the levels they were 40 years ago. But there are definitely enough of these beautiful brown and russet birds to make hunting them a wonderful way to spend a winter day in the woods and mountains.
If you’re thinking of trying for this challenging bird, first make sure you’re in shape and ready for the physical challenge these birds present. Grouse hunting is a sport for those with a strong set of lungs and sturdy legs. Long days of hiking through thick, elevated terrain are required to find and flush the quarry.
Middle-aged and older hunters can still enjoy the challenge this wary bird offers, though, if they go at it carefully by pausing often and not hunting too fast. Also keep outings on the short side, say 3-4 hours at a time instead of the grueling dawn-to-dusk days young hunters put in.
Deer and turkey hunting are better earlier in the fall, but grouse hunting in the Shenandoah Valley area gets better in the late winter. With a dedicated effort, several short trips should yield at least an opportunity to put a bird or two in the game pouch.
The bag limit is three grouse per day. To harvest that many grouse would be a rare event. Most hunters count the day a success if they down one bird on every second or third trip.
Grouse can be hunted either by jump shooting or by following a pointer, setter or Brittany Spaniel. I’ve done it both ways, and while I enjoy the dog work, you’ll generally get a chance to shoot at about the same number of birds with or without a canine companion.
For grouse, the best dogs are ones that hunt slowly. Often they are older animals. You want them to hunt close and not bump too many birds out of sight or out of shooting range.
When searching for grouse without a dog, the key to success is recognizing what kind of cover the birds like and then using the “sudden pause” technique to flush them. Grouse would rather skulk in heavy brush and let you walk right past. But if you stop abruptly, they’ll sense they’ve been spotted and flush to escape. That gives you the opportunity for a shot.
Scan the cover ahead as you walk and plan your pauses so they take place when you’re in a good spot to shoot and close enough to the cover that the grouse will be in range when it flushes.
While you search for grouse, you’ll soon realize there are essentially two main types of cover. One is open and airy and looks like it would be a good place to take a stroll. You can see for long distances and there’s little ground cover. Trees present are mostly mature hardwoods. That’s not the kind of habitat where you’ll find grouse.
The second type of habitat is thick and tangled. Patches of greenbrier, grapevines, honeysuckle, crab apple and dogwood predominate. Tree growth consists mostly of saplings. This is the type of habitat where you’ll flush late season grouse in northwestern Virginia. There’s lots of cover for security from predators and food is present in the form of grapes, berries, seed-bearing plants, ferns, forbs and buds.
When hunting grouse in late season, don’t be surprised to find several birds in a group. Cover is concentrated and food supplies have dwindled, so the birds flock together during winter. You’re just as likely to flush three birds out of a deadfall or grapevine thicket as one.
If you connect with a bird, mark where it fell in your mind and then be ready for a second flush. If you miss, just get ready and try to do better on the second or third chance. That could come within seconds after the first bird rockets out of the cover.
Shotguns should have a skeet or improved cylinder choke in a single barrel, improved cylinder and modified in a double. Shot size can be either 6’s or 7 ½’s. Wear canvas-faced brush pants and a blaze orange vest or coat with large pockets for your lunch and extra shells as well as a game pouch for any grouse you might be fortunate enough to bag.
Finally, always let someone know where you’re planning to go. Grouse hunting takes place in some pretty rugged and remote areas.