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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The grouse: A quarry worth your careful study. © Ron Toel

October 1997

The practical grouse hunter

A compendium of advice to pursue ruffed grouse and learn to love the chase.

Dave Crehore


The grouse: A quarry worth your careful study.

© Ron Toel
Safety | Clay target games
Practice | How to shoot
Guns | Ballistics
Hunting dogs | Grouse habitat
How to hunt grouse | The practical hunter

Grouse hunting begins in the golden mornings of mid-September and lasts until the snow is deep enough to dust a bird dog's belly. Grouse hunters call it "chasing birds," but it's more than that. Grouse hunting is also a search for what remains of the old, wild Wisconsin. It's a blend of expectation and memory, of sights, sounds and smells as delicate as first ice on the creek, as loud as a short-barreled shotgun and as pungent as muck.

Wisconsin is probably the best place in the country to chase birds. It's in the heart of the country's grouse range, with huge areas of public land open to hunting. Best of all, the grouse season is more than three months long across most of the state.

Ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) are native birds of the young forest. They weigh in at 1 3/4 pounds, are about 19 inches long from head to tail, and have a wingspan of 25 inches. Their broad, cupped wings power them to speeds of 35 to 50 miles per hour during their noisy escape flights. The trademark "ruff" is an impressive collar of feathers the male grouse erects around its neck during courtship displays.

If you don't hunt grouse, here's a primer on how to do it, drawn from my four decades of experience. If you are a grouse hunter of long standing, read on anyway. You'll find plenty to agree and argue with.

Recognizing the practical grouse hunter

Practical grouse hunters aren't road-hunting bums or tweedy wannabes. While hunting, they walk a couple of miles a day, sweat a lot and get punctured by prickly ash. By late October, they are frayed, leg-weary and easily startled. Most of them can't afford first-class guns, dogs and gear, but that's no problem. All a grouse hunter really needs is a suitable shotgun, a good pair of boots, some blaze orange clothing, a sense of humor and a lot of practice.

Grouse hunting, condensed

Grouse hunting goes like this: You find a grouse woods, make sure it's OK to hunt in it, and then walk through it, with or without a partner or a dog. You try to figure out where the grouse are, so you can walk close enough to make them fly.

The exact moment of the flush will always be a surprise, and the roar of wings will scare the piedoodle out of you. Grouse twist, turn and accelerate as they fly through the trees; you have about two seconds to make sure no one is in the way, point your gun and get off a shot before the bird is out of range.

Grouse hunting burns more calories than it produces. To find grouse you have to keep pushing through dense woody cover, and if you flush a couple of birds per hour over the course of a day, you are doing fine. You'll barely be able to see some of the grouse you put up, and if you hit one out of four or five, rejoice. You've earned it.

There will be days – lots of days – when you don't get a bird. But grouse hunting isn't supposed to be easy, and anyway, no one is keeping score. From time to time you'll encounter an apparently "tame" grouse trotting down a tote road or staring at you from the branches of a tree. You'll be tempted to shoot at it, but you won't. Grouse hunting builds character, and tests it, too. If you shoot sitting birds, you flunk.

Finding grouse habitat

You hunt grouse by hunting their habitat. Start with places like these:

  • Thick, young, woody cover – aspen, alders, honeysuckles, dogwoods – within or adjoining older forest stands. If the walking is easy, you're in the wrong place. If there's flowing or standing water nearby, so much the better.
  • Edges, where differing kinds of forest meet – young and old, deciduous and evergreen.
  • Best of all, "jumbles," where water, openings, conifers and deciduous growth of assorted ages are all mixed up together.

Try the young, thick, damp places first, then move uphill to some of the others. When you flush a grouse, identify the trees, shrubs and herbs before you move on. Look for similar plant communities elsewhere, and you're likely to find more grouse. A practical grouse hunter has to be a practical botanist, too.

Picking a grouse dog

After 40 years of experience with a variety of dogs, I've learned that a grouse dog earns his keep after the shot, not before it. His principal function is to fetch the downed bird, or help you make sure a bird isn't down. Most hunting breeds will learn to warn you by pointing or acting "birdy," when there is a live grouse nearby, and that's great. But fetching dead birds is still more important than finding live ones.

A good grouse dog is a valuable hunting companion. © T/Maker
A good grouse dog is a valuable hunting companion.

© T/Maker

No matter what breed it is, a good grouse dog – one that understands grouse, retrieves reliably, works within 25 yards of you at all times, and warns you of an impending flush – is priceless. On the average, you get one of these per lifetime.

At first, hunt without a dog to develop some bird sense of your own. You may prefer going dogless; in fact, many good grouse hunters feel that going one-on-one with a grouse is the ultimate challenge. If you do decide to get a dog, don't be in a hurry. Try to hunt with various breeds, and talk to some dog owners and professional dog trainers. Pick a dog that suits your hunting style, temperament, checkbook, available spare time, habits and living quarters.

Finally, remember that if you hunt without a dog, you are the retriever. Expect to spend 15 minutes looking almost every time you shoot.

Ballistics and the brush factor

An angler can let the big one go, but there is no "shoot and release" in hunting. When you shoot at a grouse, there are only two acceptable outcomes: a clean miss, or a bird that tumbles to the ground stone dead. A grouse gun must be powerful enough to be humane.

Not that it takes a lot to bring down a grouse. Three solid hits with #7½ shot, or two solid hits with #6 pellets, will effect a clean kill. But, the clutter of twigs and branches between you and a flying grouse in heavy cover will soak up roughly 20 percent of the shot pellets that leave the barrel, greatly reducing the effectiveness of any shotgun you use. That's the brush factor.

Sparing you the math, it boils down to this: To reliably and humanely kill grouse flying through thick cover, you must start with a load of at least one ounce of shot no smaller than #7½. As ranges increase late in the season, switch to an ounce or more of larger, heavier #6 shot.

Gun weight, balance and length

After a grouse flushes, you've got about two seconds to get off a shot, so your gun must be at the ready all the time, with your hands in shooting position and the muzzle at eye level. Carrying a heavy gun in this position all day is tiring, so a grouse gun's ideal weight is between 6¼ and 7¼ pounds, and the closer to 6¼ the better.

A grouse gun should have about half its weight between the shooter's hands, with the other half more or less evenly divided between the barrels and stock. The balance point of a double-barreled gun should be right at the knuckle or trunnions on which the barrels turn; repeaters should balance at the breech, or at most an inch ahead of it.

A relatively short gun is easier to carry in the ready position as you weave through the popples. I recommend a maximum overall length of 45 to 46 inches, approximately the length of a double-barreled gun with 28" barrels or a repeater with a 26" tube.

The 20-gauge shotgun meets the grouse hunter's needs perfectly. It's ballistically sufficient, yet light and trim enough to be an easy carry. For reasons of balance, weight and speed, a 20-gauge over-under is the best gun overall, followed closely by a 20 pump, with autoloaders coming in third. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a lightweight 12-gauge, if that's what you have. Early in the season, use skeet and improved cylinder chokes in either the 12 or 20; later, use improved cylinder and modified chokes.

How about the "little guns" – the 28-gauge and .410 bore? When used in grouse woods, I think the 28 is a crippler. It is simply inhumane to fire the 28's petite ¾-ounce shot charge at ruffed grouse in heavy cover; too often, only one pellet gets through to the bird when two or three are necessary. And as for the piddly little .410 bore – hell's fiery pit awaits hunters who peck away at ruffed grouse with the .410's unpredictable patterns and miserable 11/16-ounce of shot.

How to shoot a grouse

Grouse are hard to hit because they almost always surprise you, because they are in range for only a couple of seconds, and because a shotgun doesn't point as naturally as your finger. You can't do much about the first two problems, so to improve your grouse shooting, you have to make the shotgun an extension of your pointing instinct. Some practical suggestions:

  • Focus: While hunting, keep your eyes focused on the middle distance. When a bird gets up, watch it, not the gun. Use your unfocused, almost subliminal view of the barrel as a pointing aid while you devote 98 percent of your attention to the bird.
  • Gently, gently: Bring the gun to your face, not your face to the gun. When you mount your shotgun to shoot, push it slightly forward, track the moving target with the muzzle, and then bring the stock gently up to your face and shoulder just before you shoot.
  • Get fit: A shotgun "fits" fairly well when you bring it to your shoulder and find that the eye on that side is above the centerline of the gun, with the barrel's top rib appearing level and on the same plane as the eye. The gun will then shoot where you look. If the rib seems to be slanting uphill, the top of the stock is lifting your shooting eye too high and the gun will shoot high. If the stock is too low, you won't see the rib at all and your gun will shoot low. It's OK if a grouse gun shoots a little high, but a low-shooting gun is a disaster. A low stock can be built up with stick-on rubber pads.
  • Be ready: In the field, carry your gun with its muzzle at eye level and hold the stock against your right rib cage with your right forearm (or vice-versa for left-handers). The barrels should be angled out about 45 degrees from the front of your body, and at a 45 degree upward angle.
  • Be binocular: If possible, learn to shoot with both eyes open. To find out if you can be a "two-eyed" shooter, make a half-inch circle with your thumb and forefinger. With both eyes open, concentrate on a small object about 20 yards away. Keeping both eyes open, extend your arm to its full length and center the object in the circle. Now move your hand slowly back to your face, keeping both eyes open and the object centered in the circle. The eye that the circle naturally comes to is your dominant eye, the one your brain uses to point at things. If your dominant eye is on the same side as your shooting shoulder, you're in luck. Two-eyed shooting should be fairly easy for you. But if you shoot from the right shoulder and have a left dominant eye, you'll have to learn to close your left eye as you mount the gun, letting your right eye do all the work – and vice-versa for left-handers.
  • Follow the leader: If you are right-handed, your left hand grips the forestock of the gun, and is called the "leading hand." When a grouse flushes, you'll hear it before you see it. Your body will instinctively turn toward the sound and, when you see the bird, your leading hand will point the gun near it, usually just behind it. As you move the gun to the bird, the stock will come up to your shoulder almost automatically.
  • Swing through: A moving target must be shot with a moving gun. Once you've learned to mount the gun smoothly, instinct will bring it up right behind the bird. Swing through the bird, fire when the gun passes it, and keep swinging along the bird's projected line of flight. Keep your cheek firmly on the stock until well after the shot is fired.

This "swing-through" method gets the gun moving faster than the bird. Your eyes and hearing find the bird in the air, your instinct points the gun just behind it, and your conscious mind sweeps the gun through the bird to fire at the place where it is going to be a fraction of a second later. Don't worry about how far you have to "lead" the bird. Just remember this sequence: behind–beak–bang.

Use a shotgun with the proper fit. © Dave Crehore
Use a shotgun with the proper "fit."

© Dave Crehore

To nonhunters who have read this far: I'll bet a lot of you thought that shooting birds with a shotgun was easy. Ho, ho. It ain't. You have to learn to do all this stuff, quickly and well. Otherwise you're just out for a walk. A long sweaty walk with wood ticks.

Practice, practice

It takes practice on clay targets to make you and your shotgun into a working team. I think the best clay target games for grouse practice are ones you invent for yourself with an inexpensive ground-mounted target thrower, an assistant and an empty field. Obviously, make sure you have permission to shoot and throw targets on the field first.

Tie about 25 yards of heavy cord to the thrower's release and stretch it out directly behind the machine. Set the machine to throw the targets at about a 45-degree upward angle and not too fast. Simulate hunting by walking slowly toward the rear of the machine with your gun on safe and at the ready position, and have your assistant pull the cord from behind you when he or she feels like it.

Work on giving your full attention to the target, stepping toward it with your left foot, developing a smooth, gentle gun mount, and swinging through with your head locked to the stock. At first, concentrate on rising targets flying away from you at gentle angles; later, learn to hit targets flying at right angles. A hundred bucks worth of shells and targets invested in this kind of practice will teach you more than years of banging away in the woods.

Clay target games

Skeet and trapshooting are fun and challenging, but they don't provide much meaningful grouse hunting practice. Skeet shooting requires a "sustained lead" shooting method that I find useless in preparing for grouse hunting. Trap targets are shot at ranges of 30 yards or more with 12- or 20-gauge guns that weigh eight or nine pounds. And only a few of the targets on a typical sporting clays course resemble anything that ever flew, crawled or swam, let alone a grouse. If you're just starting out, skip the organized clay target games. Instead, try to find an experienced shotgunner to teach you the basics with your own target thrower. Also, check out the helpful books and videos advertised in magazines like Shotgun Sports.

Safety

When I started grouse hunting, my dad made a little speech that went something like this: "It doesn't matter how well you shoot; you'll learn to hit birds with experience. The important thing is to be safe. Good shooters are envied; safe shooters are trusted."

Safe gun handling

  • Assume every gun is loaded until you have personally opened the action and checked the chambers and magazine. Keep the action open until you either load the gun or put it away.
  • Never load a gun until you are actually ready to use it. When you are through using a gun, even for just a minute or two, unload it. Unload before crossing a creek or a fence, while searching for a downed bird, while taking a break, while scrambling up or down a hill.
  • Until a game bird or clay target is in the air, keep your shotgun pointed away from anything that could be harmed. Safe shooters are muzzle conscious.

Safe hunting

In grouse hunting, two is company and three is definitely a crowd. It's difficult enough for two hunters to stay organized in thick cover; gang hunts involving three or more hunters are dangerous. Hunt alone or with one trusted partner and follow these rules:

  • Communication: Grouse cover is thick; sometimes you will have trouble seeing a hunting partner who is only 20 yards away. Make a simple hunting plan and stick to it: Determine who will be on the right and left, which way you will go, and how far you will go before stopping or turning.
  • Cooperation: The only safe and effective way for two hunters to work grouse cover is to advance together along parallel lines about 20 yards apart. The hunter on the left will shoot at birds flying ahead or to his left, but will not shoot at birds flying to his right, and vice versa for the hunter on the right. When a shot is fired, all hunting stops until the fate of the bird is known. Grouse hunters should not engage in "drives," where one hunter walks toward the other, or in "bird-dogging," where one hunter plows through thick cover while the other waits for a bird to burst out. Both of these tactics are dangerous.
  • Caution: "Be sure of your target and what is beyond it before you shoot" is the cardinal rule of safe hunting. But being sure of what's beyond a speeding grouse in the thick cover they inhabit is practically impossible. Safety under these conditions requires rigid adherence to two commandments:
  1. In heavy cover, grouse hunters must shoot only at birds that are at least eight feet above the ground. Don't shoot at low birds that could have a hunter or a dog behind them!
  2. Wear blaze orange clothing and stay in visual contact with your partner at all times. If you lose sight of your partner, stop hunting, call and listen until you locate each other.

Throughout the season, keep your eyes peeled for bow hunters in tree stands. Many of them wear full camouflage and are darned near invisible at a distance. Finally, don't tempt fate by hunting grouse during the deer gun season, especially with a dog.

Eye protection

The branches and berry canes in grouse cover whip back when pushed. Glasses with sturdy lenses will keep these thorny hazards out of your eyes. If you don't wear prescription glasses, get a pair of good-quality shooting glasses with clear or light orange lenses. Avoid glasses with heavy or dark rims that will distract you and block your view.

The long season

Grouse grow on you. Their consistent ability to make fools of men, women and dogs will teach you humility if anything can. Put in some time with grouse, pay your dues, and you'll become hopelessly fond of them, their haunts and their time of year.

Dave Crehore, DNR's Public Affairs Manager in the Lake Michigan Region, has enjoyed hunting and shooting sports for more than 40 years.