There is a certain degree of skill that is helpful in putting down the ever agile and vigilant king of game birds the ruffed grouse. A harmony of constantly changing elements must be met in fractions of seconds as you raise your noble side by side to bring thundering phantom back to leaf leaden earth. Alone, skill honed on the trap range although helpful, plays a single instrument among a symphony. The surrounding environment, shooting skills, dogs, your position in relation to bird flush, shotgun, the birds flight path and speed, how ready you were, and field of vision, are all contributing factors in the pleasant process of king-slaying. As a result, shooting grouse becomes a game of sorts to keep the odds balanced in your favor. I call this game: The game of awareness. How do we play this game? Unfortunately this game is impossible to play perfectly. It just doesn't happen. However, there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favor, and by keeping some of these strategies in mind, you will begin to raise the percentage chance of you making that magical connection of lead to feather.
Truth is, shooting grouse presents difficulty particularly pertaining to the often thick environment these birds reside. Thorn carved scars on my arms as well as my Mossberg's marred wood finish attest to this. I've found the key to success lies simply in thinking ahead, being aware of your surroundings, and poising yourself to be able to quickly shoulder your firearm into a position of maximum mobility.
Here are four ways to up your chances.
1 - Be mindful how you carry your gun. Although this piece of advice seems obvious even the most experienced hunter can neglect it.
A two handed ready is best for grouse. It provides the shortest movement required to shoulder your gun. Furthermore, it should be your ultimate goal to make the act of shouldering your shotgun in one concise movement. It is helpful to practice this movement a half a dozen times as you walk down the trail. To do this, in a safe direction pick a small target on a tree, shoulder your firearm and try your best to get that bead hovering over your target as quickly as possible. Speed is key for grouse. When they flush, they flush fast and often times low in the least favorable direction for a shot. Therefore, buying yourself time by practicing a quick draw could mean another bird in the bag. It should also be said to always be aware of where your barrels are pointing. Not only for safety's sake, but also so that they don't get caught on branches, brush, or young trees as you raise them to shoot.
2 - Take your time and be mindful of your surroundings.
It's an easy thing to forget, especially when you're struggling to swim through a young aspen thicket. I find myself every year getting tired of the brush, breaking my two handed ready, and marching desperately through to the next clearing only to have a grouse flush mid stride when I'm least ready. To which I attempt to bring my lazily held side by side to bare, only to have the young aspens and thorn bushes grasp its barrels like vines, forcing me to watch helplessly as the thundering wings of my wily quarry fade into the distance. Ashamedly, I've even tripped and fallen! And yet, If I would have just taken my time, minded where my barrels were pointing, and paused occasionally to assess the best path through the underbrush, I would have been immensely better off. As a bonus result, l would have naturally ended up in better positions to shoot.
3 - Learn to use your peripheral vision better.
When approaching the dogs over a point in thick cover, or cover that you know is holding a bird, it is easy to start looking for the bird walking on the ground. Keep your eyes on the suspected area but be ready to catch the flash of wings or movement in your peripheral. If you're lucky, you'll see the flicker of the first wing beat before you hear it, thus arming yourself with another valuable split second of time. This could also be explained as looking at a bird holding area as a whole, rather than focusing from place to place with your eyes. Experienced upland bird hunters have ingrained themselves with this skill.
4 - Be aware of your body, particularly your feet.
When approaching a birdy area, be mindful of how your feet and shoulders are positioned. It is much easier to swing a shouldered gun towards your off hand direction than your trigger hand direction. It's important to realize, your ability to rotate your shoulders is directly effected by the position of your feet. If your dominant foot ( the same side your gun is shouldered) is forward, it is much harder to swing towards that direction. Ideally, you would have your offhand foot forward for the best barrel mobility. I often find myself shuffling keeping my offhand foot forward when I'm in the thickest covers.
These four things have made a huge difference in the amount of grouse I've shot over the last five years. In the end, it's important to remember that ruffed grouse are experts at this game of cat and mouse we play. They have an uncanny ability to present themselves in the most difficult positions to shoot, maneuvering through impossibly thick undergrowth with ease. And more often than not, they will give you the slip. But with some vigilance, skill, and a little luck, you can hopefully outsmart the king.
-Adam Regier, Modern Wild