Vermont’s King Of Gamebirds

For the 15 years I lived in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom my passion for hunting was renewed by ruffed grouse. I moved to Vermont from New Jersey in 1979 with thoughts of huge whitetails in my head, but when I arrived, it was the large numbers of grouse that caught my attention. As a novice grouse hunter not knowing where the good coverts were, I flushed 25 birds my first day in the woods. Sorry to say I never hit single bird, though I shot at plenty!

I was carrying a 12-gauge, auto-loading skeet gun because it was open choked, but the weight of the gun undid any advantage offered by the wider pattern. I quickly realized that the grouse was a 20-gauge bird.

About twice the size of a quail, a ruffed grouse is considered a short-flighted bird. Seldom will a grouse travel more than 70 yards after being rousted, and if you can see where he lands, you have a good chance of putting him up again.

This is a female grouse — note the brown ruff.

Grouse Prefer Thick Cover
Grouse also prefer to hang in thick cover with a canopy. Their most feared avian predator is the goshawk, so they keep to thickets where the hawk can’t get at them, and where bird hunters have a tough time shooting.

Ruffed grouse are docile birds when they are not hunted, and stories abound of early colonists swatting them off tree limbs with a stick. But shoot at them for a while and they catch on very quickly. Vermont birds are hunted pretty hard, and they know that men clad in blaze orange equal danger.

The most endearing quality of grouse is that you do not need a dog to hunt them. If fact, all but the very best of the close hunting dogs are a hindrance. A grouse will often sit tight for a hunter and flush practically underfoot, whereas they will jump up 20 yards in front of a dog. Give a grouse that kind of a distance handicap in heavy cover, and it will win most of the time.

To be a successful grouse shooter, one wants a fast-handling, open-choked shotgun. I use 20-gauge, side-by-side, and shoot heavy loads — 3 drams equivalent behind a 1-1/8-ounce of No. 6s. This load kills the bird dead in the air much of the time — a big deal if you are not hunting with a dog. Though grouse prefer to fly away from danger, they can run pretty well when that option is not available, too.

This is a male grouse — see the dark feathered ruff.

Flushes Unnerving For Novices
The biggest hurdle the novice grouse hunter has to overcome is the noise of an unexpected flush. They sound like a whole covey of quail getting up, and the closer the flush, the more unnerving it can be. Until you have several close flushes under your belt, you are not apt to hit much.

On my last hunt, my partner put a bird in front of me at about 10 yards. This bird really had the afterburners going, but I could hear him coming and got the gun swinging from right to left. My first shot was dead on the bird, but there was an inch and a half sapling between us — my shot cut it in two and the bird kept flying. I followed quickly with the second barrel, and that shot also clipped a branch, but enough of the pattern got through and I dumped the bird. You shoot a lot of trees when you hunt grouse!

Right-to-left shots are the bread and butter of the right-handed shooter. It is the rare straight-aways that are easiest to miss, because the bird is usually traveling at a slight angle — sometimes the pattern goes harmlessly through the fanned tail. Even the very best grouse hunters miss more than they hit. If fact, one bird in five shots for an entire season would be about average for a grouse expert.

There is another game bird present in many Vermont grouse coverts — the woodcock. This unlikely looking bird migrates to Louisiana from the Canadian Maritimes on wings that look as though they couldn’t fly across a logging road. I keep telling myself they are not difficult to hit, but I miss quite a few anyway.

Hunting Woodcocks: A Change-Up
If you compare baseball to bird hunting, the grouse is a hard slider, and the woodcock is a change-up. They don’t fly fast, but they often get up close, and I tend to shoot too quick and too close because I’m always expecting grouse. Woodcock are the perfect bird for hunters with dogs as they will sit tight for a pointer — sometimes the hunter has to practically boot the bird in the air. It’s hard to see how you could miss a woodcock in front of a pointing dog, but I’m sure it happens.

The other big factor in Vermont grouse hunting is the terrain isn’t flat. Rolling hills, hollows, gullies, creek beds, and steep ridges are all grouse coverts, and all are covered with thickets of thorn apples and briars. The backs of my hands look like someone dragged them down a dirt road after a couple of weeks of grouse hunting. The easy coverts are hedgerows, but only those with apples or red berries and a nearby softwood sanctuary generally hold birds.

Robert Derick of Newport, Vt., with a limit of grouse killed on a rainy October day.

Another endearing trait of grouse is that they are most active late in the afternoon. If you like to sleep in, this is a good bird to hunt. Thirty years ago, we used to start at 8 a.m. and hunt until dark. Now we begin at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., and quit when we are tired.

Grouse are among the tastiest of game birds, but be careful because white meat has no fat, and the birds are very easy to overcook. Bake them two minutes too long and they become dry as cardboard and tough as leather.

The next time you are up for a challenge, get out and give grouse and woodcock hunting a try!

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