When I daydream about grouse cover, the image in my mind is of a rough and tumble patch of hawthorns and wild apples hemmed in by an old logging road and a waist-high meadow. In this place, grouse flushes are hard and startlingly loud with trajectories that rise obliquely past autumn colours until they are silhouetted against an eggshell sky. There, unobstructed by branches, leaves, or tree trunks, my bead crosses over the grouse. Then, at the report, it stiffens and folds neatly, plummeting in one final, dramatic act, leaving only a puff of feathers to ride the breeze and mourn its passing.
Dream shots like that happen each season. Most times, however, I find my grouse in the dark growth.
The phrase dark growth paints a perfect picture of a stand of spruce, balsam, hemlock, or cedar. These are dim, shadowy places where vistas are limited by needle-laden boughs, uprooted trees and pillar-like trunks. The criss-crossed skeletons of decomposing deadfall prohibit direct paths. Small moss-covered rocks, patches of ferns and autumn mushrooms nibbled on by grouse and other secretive creatures, are strewn across a needle-carpeted floor.
It is the other classic cover and grouse hunting here, is a wholly different game.
Cover more than food
In my experience, the main difference is that grouse are in the dark growth more for cover than food — in fact, the best dark growth often adjoins good food sources, like old orchards and farmsteads.
It might be the thermal advantages gained on a cold day or the physical protection and concealment provided by evergreen boughs — but dark growth is exceptional cover either way. Here, a hunter could very easily pass an undetected bird perched 20 feet above and a goshawk could easily fly over one tucked tight against a tree trunk.
The thermal properties of evergreen cover also make them prime places to look when the temperatures drop, snow flies, and energy conservation is critical. This is prime roosting cover.
Tree flushes and snap shots
Birds found in places like these can be notoriously hard to put in the game bag. For me, the dreaded tree flush is often to blame.
The issue is most grouse hunters are ground oriented. We prowl through places like this, eyeing ground cover and busting it as we go or watching a dog do the same. Certainly, this accounts for some flushes, but more often the first sign of a grouse in dark growth is the beating of wings in the evergreen canopy as one finally abandons its perch. If you look up in time and shoulder your gun, you’ll have a very brief glimpse of a grouse slipping through the canopy before it lands in another tree or continues to parts unknown. Snap shooting is your only option and tree-flushed birds are notoriously hard to hit.
Two-thirds up, deep in shadows
To be prepared for the flush means slowing your hunt — unless you are adept at walking and looking up at the same time, which is not advisable in any grouse cover. My imperfect solution is simply to stop every few feet and examine the evergreens, focusing mostly about two thirds up, deep in the shadows, which is where, I once read, the thermal properties are best in cover like this.
It’s an imperfect solution because like all wild game, grouse are often not where the books say they should be. But it works on occasion and that’s a good start.
Once you see a bird, you then run into the moral issue. Do I shoot it as it sits there or do I try to flush it and get it on the wing? Call me unsporting, but I’ll take the easy shot every time, for in the dark growth, finding those tree-bound birds is the sport.
Silent low runners
They’re not always in the trees. Sometimes in cover like this, you also see them walking and gaining speed among the ferns before a flush. Or, they’ll hold tight against a log too and then the takeoff will be more to your liking, for in the evergreens where the undergrowth can be sparser, you’ll get good chances to put a bead on a low flying bird as it passes between all those trunks. And you’ll also have a better idea of where it went.
Openings and edges
As in any good grouse cover, pay particular attention to those little openings within old clearings, ATV paths, or where a creek runs through. These are edge areas where the transition allows grouse good access to the best of both worlds. Find those and you’ll often bump a bird.
Grouse hunting in the dark growth, where the light is dim and the birds hold tight, is productive, especially as the season progresses. These places where sound is muted and shadows are long, hold frustration and opportunity to be sure. Yet, if you think about it, that’s all any good grouse hunter could ever hope for.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoor writer and award winning newspaper columnist who lives in Haliburton. He hunts or fishes at least once a week to keep things in perspective. Reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2020 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.