Hit-Or-Miss Grouse

Keep your cool to make the most of second chances for ruffs.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

The sudden explosion of a ruffed grouse into flight is so surprising that often upland hunters don't have time enough to shoot. Too much grouse thunder can drive a wing- shooter bonkers. Over the long haul, the typical upland gunner seldom bags more than one grouse out of every three attempts.

As a result, "reflushing," or following up where you think the bird has landed in order to get another crack at it, is an important component of grouse hunting. Few ruffed grouse fly more than a hundred yards or so after the initial flush, and they nearly always land in trees (often conifers) well above the working range of a dog's nose. You'd think that a grouse in a tree would be as obvious as a bowling ball on a billiard table, but it doesn't work that way. You actively have to go looking for them. Here are the basic strategies for successful reflushing.

Follow the Bouncing Bird
Watch where the grouse goes when it's flushed. This is easy, right? Not exactly. We often get so caught up in the explosive drama of that initial encounter, what with the gasping and the shooting and then the missing, that visual tracking of the fleeing bird's path can be surprisingly difficult. The challenge is to guess the location of that secret hideaway and develop a strategy for properly approaching it.

A grouse devotes the first second or two after it flushes more to speed and distance than to moving off in a specific direction. It's at the tail end of the final glide path that the bird's real objective is revealed. You can usually see a quick swerving to one side or the other as the grouse brakes for a landing and then darts away into the foliage.

A healthy grouse will seldom let you see exactly where it lands. Sometimes, right at the end of the initial flight, a clattering of wings will betray the distant refuge as the bird gropes for a more secure grip on its hastily found perch. When you hear that flutter and have seen the direction of the bird's final swerve in flight, you should be able to pinpoint the grouse.

The Right Approach
If the lay of the land allows, avoid walking directly toward the site where you suspect the grouse landed. For one thing, a flushed grouse usually comes to rest on the far side of a tree or blow-down. This means that the reflush will be unseen by the hunter who makes a straightaway approach. Circling or coming in from a different angle places the grouse in a more vulnerable position when it finally takes to wing again.

I also try to guess in which direction the grouse will try to escape the second time, so I can "corner" the bird and perhaps be offered a better shot than the first. Reflushed grouse seldom fly back toward the site of the original flush; instead, the birds usually fly toward heavier cover, and when it's at all possible, they'll choose a route that hides them from your view.

[pagebreak] Attempt to approach the suspected hideaway from thicker toward thinner cover, and from the side opposite the place where the original flush occurred. You'll likely be rewarded with a flush that arcs around you instead of directly away.

Anticipated Behavior
The searching hunter can take his time, but the gun must always be held at the ready. After the initial flush, the grouse is less susceptible to the stop-and-start and zigzag tactics of classic grouse hunting. A once-flushed ruff, especially one that has just heard the gun, is inclined to wait until the hunter departs before it moves and makes its presence known. Its genes are too familiar with the persistent ways of hawks, which, having missed their prey on the first swoop, perch nearby, patiently awaiting a second chance at a bird in open flight.

Proximity-sheer closeness-is what's needed to trigger grouse into rocketing into flight a second time. Often, grouse will finally erupt from a tree that was just a bit farther down e flight alleyway than your intuition had originally indicated. Remember this, and go farther next time.

After the Shot
Often it's difficult to know for certain whether your shot pattern has actually hit a grouse. I remember one "missed" bird in particular for the lesson it taught me. The flush had been totally unexpected, more so than usual because I had just stepped off the roadside and was in the process of loading my side-by-side when the grouse tore out of the brush at my feet. I hastily closed the gun and fired, but much too far to the left. And that's not all; most of the shot pattern buried itself in the trunk of a poplar tree just a few yards from the gun's muzzle. I saw this happen: I knew the shot was off, and I had solid evidence that this one had been a clean miss.

The grouse twisted and darted down through the covert and then broke up through the canopy of leaves to rocket across a clearing toward a thick stand of hemlock trees. The flight appeared perfectly normal until the very end.

Then something odd happened. I saw the grouse brake with the usual flaring of wings and fantail, but then it carefully and slowly flew to a perch in the closest hemlock. The bird made no effort at all to keep its landing site a secret. This seemed incongruous, but confident that I knew exactly where to reflush the bird, I approached the hemlock from a different angle, and with great determination to do some straight shooting this time. But the grouse didn't flush. I circled the tree with my gun up and ready. I scanned the lower branches until I became satisfied that there was no grouse in the tree. I was baffled. But when I looked down I saw the bird lying on the ground, belly-up and stone dead.

[pagebreak] Later, when I cleaned the grouse for supper, I discovered that a single flattened pellet had penetrated the chest and lungs. The most likely explanation for this chance kill is that the shot pellet had ricocheted off the side of the tree trunk and hit the grouse. The strangeness of that final, deliberate descent was a strong clue that the bird was injured, even though I'd been absolutely certain I'd missed by a mile.

Recovery Efforts
New research indicates that 8 to 10 percent of mortally wounded grouse are never recovered. In a recent study by the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project (ACGRP), miniature radio transmitters were attached to several hundred grouse over a wide area. A total of 158 birds were harvested by hunters, but according to researcher Patrick Devers at Virginia Tech, an additional 15 dead or wounded grouse were retrieved by field technicians.

That's about 9 percent of the total that were lost to human hunters, though certainly Mother Nature made sure they didn't go to waste. Still, it behooves us as sportsmen to follow up every grouse we shoot at, and to search at least as diligently for the downed bird as we would for a reflush.

Any hesitation at all, any change in flight at the moment of the shot, is indication of a hit. A few lost feathers is an obvious sign that only feathers were clipped, but a pause in the wingbeat, a dropped leg or even an added burst of airspeed is almost sure to mean the grouse has been hit in a vital area. A tumbling, awkward fall from the sky usually is a sign either of a broken wing or, more likely, an injury to the muscles used for flying. When a ruffed grouse hits the ground unable to fly, it often still can run-and run it will, toward thick ground cover under which it can hide.

Trust the Dog
I queried grouse hunters who swap upland hunting stories on the bulletin board of uplandjournal.com regarding how they detect whether a grouse has been hit. One of the most frequently told stories involved hunters who failed to trust their dog after shots.

A common scenario: The hunter assumes his shot has missed, but the dog runs ahead a hundred yards or more anyway, seemingly out of control. Then it returns with a grouse in its mouth. Hunters I surveyed generally agreed that dogs often display an uncanny ability to detect whether a bird has been hit. Many recalled grouse that had run long distances after they hit the ground, later to be pulled from beneath logs, brush piles and, in one case, from under a deadfall partially submerged in creek water. One bird recovered in Iowa had even crawled into a fissured limestone cave.

[pagebreak] Listen after you shoot. The autumn foliage of the early season often blocks a hunter's view at the moment of the shot. Listen for the sound of the grouse landing with a flapping of wings, or crashing through the ground cover with a thud. That will often tell you where to search.

If you can't locate a bird you might have hit, return to the area later that day or even the next morning with your dog after a pocket of scent has had a chance to develop. The dog might make the most of its second chance, even if the grouse expired hours before. Carry your gun at ready, though, just in case the bird has enough life left in it to flush and escape you and your dog again.

I usually drop my blaze-orange hat on the ground to mark the suspected spot and then work outward with a methodical bush-by-branch search until I find the bird or become satisfied that it was not hurt too badly to recover. Crippled grouse seldom move once they have hidden, though, so don't expect your mere presence to stir them into betraying their location.

One time during a search and re-covery effort in particularly thick cover, I finally found the grouse deeply burrowed into the grass under my hat.

No kidding.head a hundred yards or more anyway, seemingly out of control. Then it returns with a grouse in its mouth. Hunters I surveyed generally agreed that dogs often display an uncanny ability to detect whether a bird has been hit. Many recalled grouse that had run long distances after they hit the ground, later to be pulled from beneath logs, brush piles and, in one case, from under a deadfall partially submerged in creek water. One bird recovered in Iowa had even crawled into a fissured limestone cave.

[pagebreak] Listen after you shoot. The autumn foliage of the early season often blocks a hunter's view at the moment of the shot. Listen for the sound of the grouse landing with a flapping of wings, or crashing through the ground cover with a thud. That will often tell you where to search.

If you can't locate a bird you might have hit, return to the area later that day or even the next morning with your dog after a pocket of scent has had a chance to develop. The dog might make the most of its second chance, even if the grouse expired hours before. Carry your gun at ready, though, just in case the bird has enough life left in it to flush and escape you and your dog again.

I usually drop my blaze-orange hat on the ground to mark the suspected spot and then work outward with a methodical bush-by-branch search until I find the bird or become satisfied that it was not hurt too badly to recover. Crippled grouse seldom move once they have hidden, though, so don't expect your mere presence to stir them into betraying their location.

One time during a search and re-covery effort in particularly thick cover, I finally found the grouse deeply burrowed into the grass under my hat.

No kidding.