Hunting the Unhuntable
By: Steve Galea
Work the heavy cover when all the educated grouse have gone into hiding.
Serious grouse hunters are possessed by a special kind of crazy. They brave tangles that deter most snakes. They risk being skewered, flayed, and lashed by underbrush for even the remotest possibility of a flush. But, although they might be crazy, they're not stupid. They know that the more unfriendly the cover, the greater the likelihood of finding undisturbed grouse within. It makes perfect sense: a grouse needs food and protection from predators. Tangled places provide both.
I'm talking about meadows overgrown with hawthorns; old orchards; edge cover thick with raspberry, blackberry, and wild grape tangles; and groves where the density of young evergreens, poplars, or alders makes each step a challenge. In short, I'm referring to places where less-determined hunters would never go.
They're not necessarily large patches of cover. Sometimes, especially early in the season before family groups of grouse have dispersed, a covert the size of a house can hold a surprising number of birds.
Yes, these spots are tough to negotiate. The truth is, though, with a little care and the right tactics, they can be hunted, and the hunting can be great.
The problem with cover like this is eventually someone has to go in and try to move birds. If you do this accompanied by a flushing or pointing dog, so much the better. A well-trained hunting dog is invaluable in heavy cover. It will investigate corners you can't, locate game far better than you ever could, and find and retrieve shot birds you might have lost. More than this, dogs add joy and character to a day afield.
The key is to trust your dog, go slowly, and let it thoroughly work an area. Hunting into the breeze also helps.
Outfit your dog with a bell or, if you don't mind spending more, an electronic beeper collar. Knowing your dog's location is crucial. After all, its body language announces when it has scented a bird – and this, in turn, allows you to ready yourself for a flush or move up on a point.
If you're hunting without a dog, all is not lost. Stop-and-go tactics and frequent changes in direction can often unnerve a grouse and cause it to flush. Throwing rocks into exceptionally thick cover sometimes flushes birds, too.
With or without a dog, always try to advance to openings where you can swing or point a shotgun. Flushing birds does no good if you're too tangled up to shoot.
Lastly, when hunting small coverts with others, only one person need go in. The remainder should block escape routes and shoot birds that break cover – always bearing in mind where the other hunters and dogs are, of course. Also remember, if a bird rises or a dog gets birdy, let everyone know in no uncertain terms.
Point and Shoot
Shooting flushing grouse in heavy cover is different from shooting decoying ducks. In thickets, there's seldom a chance to wait for the perfect moment. Take the first shot opportunity; there's rarely a second. This is because grouse have a talent for putting tree trunks, leaf cover, or tangles between themselves and the shooter. The fact that most grouse are taken within 20 yards of the gunner is no coincidence; beyond that, too much cover gets in the way.
When there's no room to swing a shotgun, as is often the case in thick cover, snap-shooting is the best option. Basically, you shoulder your gun at the flush, point to where the bird is headed, and pull the trigger. Hopefully, the bird and the shot will meet. Snap-shooting is quick, instinctive, and, once you get used to it, effective. If a bird is disappearing behind leafy cover, shoot anyhow. If you're on it, it will go down.
If you think that grouse hunting can only be done from the edge of a trail or woods, then this is definitely not for you. Busting heavy cover is hard work, tiring, and often frustrating. Grouse will flush unseen; thorny branches will claw at your clothes and sabotage easy 27 shots; and, most times, the grouse will win. But, every so often, things will go right and you will walk out of the woods with a game bag filled with feathers. On those days, I take a break, share lunch with my springer, and give thanks for unhuntable places and a special kind of crazy.