You couldn't ask for a better flush.
The grouse erupted from a tangle of grapevines about 20 yards away and rose in an arcing, right-to-left flight, offering an easy, natural swing for a right-handed shooter such as myself. In spite of that, I managed to take the shot just as the grouse flew behind the crown of a small maple tree. Fortunately, many years of grouse hunting have trained me to stay on a bird after a miss, so I was ready when the grouse appeared in the open a split second later. I fired the second barrel of my over-under, and the fleeing grouse folded up instantly.
"Got it!" I shouted to my hunting companion, Shawn Bernecky. We were hunting with Shawn's excellent bird dogs, a pair of English pointers named Darty and Dyson. Over the past several seasons, I have had the good fortune to shoot dozens of pheasants, chukars and quail over Shawn's dogs, but this was my first opportunity to put a grouse in the game bag with the help of his well-trained pointers.
"I saw Darty lock on point, but the bird flew before I could say anything," Shawn called back.
When hunting with dogs, watching them work adds an extra dimension to bird hunting, especially when they start acting "birdy." And when a pointing dog strikes a point, it is almost as exciting the flush of the bird itself. Although I never saw the point on that grouse in the grapevines, I was looking in the right direction and saw it the moment it flew from the cover, giving me a relatively easy shot. Or at least as easy as any shot at a grouse can be.
Late-season grouse hunting, with or without a dog, presents a special challenge that appeals to many dedicated grouse chasers. This time of year, ruffed grouse tend to congregate in areas where both food and cover are most abundant. Once the birds find both those needs in one spot, they will often spend most of their time in relatively small areas. I typically do a lot of walking and still hunting during deer season and often flush two, three or even more grouse from a single spot. I have found some of my best late-season grouse spots that way.
Remember, however, that ruffed grouse populations tend to be quite cyclical, so cover that was full of birds last year might be barren this year and vice versa. In general, good late-season grouse habitat tends to be on south-facing ridges or hillsides, places that get as much sun as possible this time of year. Another vital component is good cover that allows the birds to endure storms and other harsh winter weather. Stands of pine, hemlock or other evergreen trees are grouse magnets this time of year because they provide vital shelter from wind. Dense patches of mountain laurel offer similar shelter and are also good places to find winter grouse.
When there is snow on the ground, grouse tracks, even if they happen to be a few days old, can be a great aid in locating areas the birds have been frequenting. Grouse tend to stay in a relatively small area now if conditions there are favorable, so the bird that made those tracks is likely to be not far away. If there is no snow to track grouse, pay attention to thickets and other areas that seem to harbor numbers of snowbirds such as chickadees, titmice other juncos. These birds share some of the same winter food sources with grouse, so if they are hanging out at a given spot, grouse probably are too.
Even though late-season grouse hunting has its own set of problems, one factor does lean slightly toward the hunter who has located some birds.
In the bare woods of winter, many shots at a flushing grouse tend to be a little more open now than in the fall. On the other hand, ruffed grouse are agile fliers that seem blessed with an uncanny ability to pick the best escape route regardless of the time of year. So if you're looking for "easy," grouse are probably not your game. But for those who enjoy the special challenge ruffed grouse offer, few things are as satisfying as pursuing these great game birds.