For most upland grouse hunters, an ideal day afield would include many flushes — the more, the merrier, in fact.
I don’t see it exactly that way. I’d rather have two good flushes with shot opportunities than 20 flushes without. There’s no point in bumping 20 birds if you, or someone in your party, has little to no chance of getting a shot off.
The bird that thundered upwards at your feet while you were carefully picking your way through some raspberry canes is nothing more than an exercise in futility if you can’t get a gun up. And, if it flew deeper into even tighter cover and was only heard rather than seen by your hunting partners, your chances just got infinitely worse.
The ideal grouse hunt, as far as I’m concerned, is a day filled with flushes that turn into shot opportunities.
Here are a few ways to make that happen.
Nothing causes an upland hunter to miss more shot opportunities than being caught up in vegetation. Fortunately, there is an easy fix. All it takes is a bit of situational awareness.
Try your best to follow the path of least resistance through cover — be that along a game trail, an old logging road, a gap in the vegetation, or along the edge of it. Ideally, you want to spend most of your hunt in places where swinging a gun is easier, or at least not wholly impossible.
That thick cover that’s so tempting to bust through should be where your dog, if you have one, works. If you don’t have a canine companion, throwing the odd rock, or using stop-and-go techniques can sometimes unnerve a bird into flushing. And when it does, there will be nothing to inhibit your gun mount and swing.
I know you might flush more birds by busting through the cover yourself, but as I said, if you can’t shoot because you’re entangled, what’s the point?
Towards the light
My strategy entails always hunting towards the light. This is not a near-death experience thing either.
Rather, I mean that I hunt, if possible, with the intention of flushing birds into the least dense cover in the immediate area.
For instance, if you approach a covert that is a transition zone from dark forest to open field, hunt through it from the forest (rather than field) side. This way, you are more likely to flush a bird over the field, which just might provide one of those nice open shots we all dream about.
Conversely, if you approach from the field side, you’ll likely only catch a glimpse of the bird as it flushes farther into the woods.
In stretches of unbroken forest, “the light” I’m referring to might mean that stand of birches or poplars that edge the hemlock stand you suspect grouse to be in, or something similar.
One covert I frequently hunt is a patchwork of hawthorn thickets and an old apple orchard that basically rings a meadow. A hunting partner and I have put more than a few grouse in the bag by stationing one of us in the meadow while the other works the outer edges.
Often enough, we’ll flush birds from the haws and orchard over the meadow, where putting a bead on them is easier.
You can use similar strategies when hunting a strip of heavy cover that runs alongside a trail. Position a stander on the trail while the other goes in and tries to flush birds out to it. Often this provides really nice crossing shots with blue sky in the background.
The key to getting more shot opportunities isn’t rocket science. It just takes an awareness of your surroundings, some simple tactics, and a basic plan to best approach the cover at hand. Do this and you’ll see more grouse beyond your shotgun’s bead — and, hopefully, that will translate to a few more in the game bag, too.