Ten Commandments of Grouse Hunting

I grew up hunting ruffed grouse in the Great Lakes States, and after almost a decade being gone hunting pheasants and quail on the Great Plains, I returned to the grouse woods. It reminded me how challenging Mr. Ruff can actually be and encouraged me to make an assessment of what it takes to be successful on a long-term basis.

Here's my list of the 10 most important rules of grouse hunting.

1. Pick Your Pockets

Grouse more than any other game bird will gravitate to pockets of prime cover, meaning those containing whatever its priority requirements are at the moment. Usually it is a thick mix of food and escape cover. Ideal habitat is typically young aspen as thick as you can find it. If it's so thick you can hardly swing your gun without smacking a 2-inch popple trunk, it's perfect!

Absent of aspen, other habitat will work with the right ratios of food and cover. The best way I know to locate these is to dive in and hunt. When you find a lot of grouse, mark the spot on a map, stand back and memorize its characteristics. Soon you will develop an eye for birdy cover.

2. Get A Good Dog

I've heard it claimed that it takes 500 encounters with birds to make a good grouse dog. I won't go that far so much depends on the dog but I will say that dog work is more critical for ruffed grouse hunting than any other gamebird. Anything other than a pointer, and a very good one at that, is more of a liability than an asset in grouse hunting, and you'd be better off without one. A good pointer for grouse is usually one that can be made to hunt close without a lot of hollering. Sometimes, a bigger ranging pointer will work, but it's got to be one that works delicately and points at long range. Short of this, birds will not hold, and longer-range flushes in the trees just do not work.

3. The Right Gun And Load

This one is easy. If it's got one barrel, it needs to choked wide open. If it's got two, it should be skeet and improved that improved barrel designed mainly for longer shots, which occur mainly in late season. Regardless of gauge it should have at least 1-ounce of 7-1/2s or 8s propelled by a medium game load charge of powder.

You've got to follow the rules to be successful on ruffed grouse.

You've got to follow the rules to be successful on ruffed grouse.

4. Match Tactics To The Situation

In different times of season, and different times of the day, you'll find grouse in specific places doing specific things. In predominantly dry areas, you sometimes find them close to water sources first thing in the morning. On cold but sunny days they often roost in evergreens or stick to sunny sides of slopes. In evenings, they will come to forest openings for insects or roadsides for gravel. Learn these patterns to hunt more efficiently.

5. Play Shooting Angles

Positioning yourself for the clearest shot is key. It works best if you've got the bird pinned by a pointer; anticipate the flight path, check for clearings, note the sun direction, and position yourself accordingly. I have hunted spots in Minnesota where very thick vegetation abuts lonely country roads. Here, it's legal to shoot small game from roads, so early in the season when it's too thick to shoot in the most birdy woods, I walk the shoulder and send the dog in, often getting wide-open shots at road-crossing birds.

6. Shoot!

I don't know how many friends I've hunted with that would have birds flush in front of them all day and hardly ever shoot. I just saw a blur and couldn't shoot, they'd say. I realized they didn't understand that in grouse hunting, especially the thick early-season woods, that's about all you get. Start mounting the gun at the first indication of a bird, make visual contact as it flushes, swing ahead and shoot.

7. Hunt Early Season

At the beginning of the season, grouse are still in their family broods, prior to October's scattering, or crazy flight. They are more numerous and susceptible to hunting now than they'll be later.

8. Go Where No Man Has Gone Before

As the season progresses, the effects of hunting pressure will reduce the birds you see in the easy places. Now is when I seek out the unhunted spots, which usually means places difficult to hunt or get to.

9. The Wader Trick

Here's my best secret grouse hunting technique: I pack some lightweight stockingfoot waders in my game pouch and head to a place where a medium-size river divides an easily accessed area from a no-access zone. I slip from my boots to my waders and in a quick, easy wade find myself in virgin country!

10. Stop Hunting In December

Remember, I said these tips were about being successful on a long-term basis. Biologists have concluded that ruffed grouse taken in the early part of the season do not affect the overall survival numbers, but those taken in winter will. Stopping your hunting in December, it's proven, will result in more birds next year.

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