FALL FLUSH

HUNT THE DEEP WOODS FOR GROUSE

Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - By Tony J. Peter­son

“… it’s good news if you … don’t mind … fin­ish­ing the night with hands and knees etched with bloody lines by thorn bushes.”

There are cer­tain game an­i­mals that have learned to thrive while liv­ing in man’s back­yard. White­tails, cot­ton­tail rab­bits and a host of oth­ers have adapted to our ex­is­tence, and have learned to use our homes and lan­duse prac­tices to their ben­e­fit. Then there are an­i­mals that go the other way.

Ruffed grouse live in the big woods, and al­though you might see a bird or two sit­ting in a back­yard crabap­ple tree in the dead of win­ter, they gen­er­ally don’t do well around hu­man ac­tiv­ity. They are big-woods dwellers that find catkins, berries and gen­eral peace where most hunters won’t go.

For the as­pir­ing grouse hunter, this is good news. Scratch that; it’s good news if you’re will­ing to work and don’t mind bust­ing brush and fin­ish­ing the night with hands and knees etched with bloody lines by thorn bushes. It’s not walk-the-trail hunt­ing that yields the most en­coun­ters. You must think dif­fer­ently than your two-legged com­pe­ti­tion, es­pe­cially if you plan to hunt pub­lic lands. Traitorous Trails

Ac­cess roads, two-tracks and ATV trails are the places where hunters and their bird dogs tread. This is be­cause enough birds can usu­ally be killed from them, of course, but more im­por­tantly, be­cause it’s so easy. Walk­ing through 4-inch grass with a shoot­ing lane di­rectly in front of you is dream hunt­ing, but it isn’t the most pro­duc­tive way to fill your game bag—at least not af­ter open­ing week­end.

The con­cen­tra­tion of pres­sure is in­tense on walk­ing trails, but be­comes a to­tally dif­fer­ent beast where ATVS are al­lowed. Some days it seems that ev­ery hunter in the county is cruis­ing slowly on a four-wheeler try­ing to spot an out-of-place “brown bowling pin” in the path ahead of them.

These hunters, if you can call them that,

kill birds. But, they also ed­u­cate birds, and they make those trails an ideal place to hunt where en­coun­ter­ing birds is a rare op­por­tu­nity. True walk­ing trails are bet­ter, but they also re­ceive plenty of hunt­ing pres­sure. This is why, if you’re re­ally in­ter­ested in a flush-filled day, you need to leave the beaten paths. Map­work

Iden­ti­fy­ing where grouse are likely to live isn’t easy un­til you set foot in the woods. Then, it gets eas­ier, but not easy. Dur­ing Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, there are many op­tions at the grouse buf­fet, and it can be daunt­ing to pin down any food source that might con­cen­trate birds. Gray dog­wood berries are of­ten­times a solid bet dur­ing the early sea­son, but good luck iden­ti­fy­ing them on an aerial photo.

The bet­ter bet is to look at your cho­sen grouse ground on some sort of aerial photo ser­vice, like Google Earth, and iden­tify edges. This can also be done with most maps on the av­er­age smart­phone, which sim­pli­fies the equa­tion.

Scour the bird’s-eye-view pho­tos un­til you see edges. They’ll be any­thing from where low­land meets high ground, clear-cuts meet older growth forests or is­lands of cover in an oth­er­wise cookie-cut­ter for­est. Any place with a hard edge be­tween two types of cover is a good place to walk and work the dog. Grouse, like white-tailed deer, love edges for rea­sons only they know. It could be be­cause that is the most likely place to find mul­ti­ple food sources, or maybe it’s be­cause food sources are lo­cated next to ex­cel­lent cover. More likely, it’s a mix of many rea­sons we can only guess at. Either way, when you go in blind and get off the trail, don’t bar­rel your way through the woods. Rather, hunt and sneak your way through. Beat­ing Wings, Now What?

One of the rea­sons that trail hunt­ing is so pop­u­lar is be­cause it’s usu­ally eas­ier to get a shot off there than in the woods. Deep-woods

“... if the ini­tial bird es­capes, his buddy might be right be­hind him. If you’re ready to shoot, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with some of the tasti­est game ...”

hunt­ing re­sults in a frus­trat­ing amount of flushed birds that don’t of­fer shots. This is es­pe­cially true, if like me, you hunt be­hind a flush­ing breed of dog like the Labrador retriever. Point­ers of­fer a bet­ter chance of get­ting off a shot, but they come with their own chal­lenges in the big woods.

Know­ing this, it’s best to go into the woods with the at­ti­tude that you’ll flush birds you sim­ply won’t get to shoot at. That’s grouse hunt­ing. Your best bet is to lis­ten to a bird that flushes and try to pin down where it flew and at­tempt a re­flush. The odds of get­ting the same bird up twice aren’t high, but it hap­pens enough to al­ways jus­tify the ef­fort.

The other thing to con­sider when birds start erupt­ing from the cover is that, while you won’t run into win­ter­ing cov­eys right now, you very eas­ily could run into a few

birds to­gether. The first flush of­ten isn’t the last flush in a spot, and that means if the ini­tial bird es­capes, his buddy might be right be­hind him. If you’re ready to shoot, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with some of the tasti­est game out there.

It’s also im­por­tant to note where birds are flush­ing from so you can at­tempt to run a pat­tern. If the birds are on the edge of a swamp, make note of that. If they are in the high woods and seem ran­dom, that’s a clue as well. Game an­i­mals don’t waste much en­ergy in their day­time move­ments, and there’s usu­ally a good rea­son to be do­ing what they are do­ing. The Re­cov­ery

With a dog, find­ing downed birds shouldn’t be too chal­leng­ing. Here’s the thing though: You must do your part. If you know you hit—or sus­pect you hit—an es­cap­ing bird, it’s nec­es­sary to ex­e­cute the best re­cov­ery ef­forts pos­si­ble. This means point­ing the dog down­wind from the bird and giv­ing it plenty of time to work the cover. Grouse don’t run quite like pheas­ants do, but they do run.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, you’ll clip a wing and the bird will take off 100 yards in a di­rec­tion you didn’t ex­pect. This is the dog’s ter­ri­tory, and it needs the right train­ing, di­rec­tion and pa­tience. The most com­mon mis­take I see hunters make is as­sum­ing that the bird won’t be re­cov­ered af­ter a few min­utes. A well­trained dog will see a trail­ing job through to the end if you give it enough time and don’t mess with its ef­forts. Oc­ca­sion­ally, my hunt­ing bud­dies and I will have to wait 15 min­utes for my dog to lo­cate a downed bird.

It’s also im­por­tant to note that not ev­ery bird shows that he took a pel­let or two. Some­times in the thick stuff, shot op­por­tu­ni­ties hap­pen in the blink of an eye, and it’s easy to as­sume that the bird es­caped un­scathed. Keep an eye on ev­ery bird you shoot at to see where it goes. The worst that can hap­pen is you get a chance to re­flush a healthy ruff. The best that will hap­pen is that your dog will nose around and find a bird that ap­peared fine but was ac­tu­ally hit. When you hunt with a rock­star grouse dog, you find out that this is more com­mon than most of us would as­sume. The Tim­ber Less Trav­eled

You can find a few ruffed grouse liv­ing next to trails and roads, but those birds are go­ing to be heav­ily pres­sured. If you’re truly in­ter­ested in find­ing the num­bers of grouse that will sup­port a sea­son of hunt­ing, you’ll need to start ex­am­in­ing aerial pho­tog­ra­phy and hunt­ing where oth­ers won’t. It’s not as easy to walk—or shoot—but the birds will be where the hunters are not, and that’s the best start you can have to round­ing out a cov­eted ruffed-grouse limit. MP

(be­low) Grouse are elu­sive birds that shy away from ar­eas fre­quented by hu­mans. (op­po­site) It’s tempt­ing to walk twotrack and ATV trails when look­ing for grouse, but the birds around those ar­eas re­ceive dis­pro­por­tion­ate pres­sure. In­stead, plan to leave the easy stuff and hunt edges where two types of cover meet. (PHOTO BY TONY J. PETER­SON)

(be­low) A flush­ing dog that ranges even 25 or 30 yards ahead of you is no good in the grouse woods, which ne­ces­si­tates an em­pha­sis on train­ing for close work. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

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