One of the most bittersweet memories of my long hunting career was the first day I hunted. It was Minnesota, 1971, one of the peakest peak years in one of the best grouse states, and I was in a very good cover. Early on opening morning I, my father, and his brother entered a birdy woodlot across from my uncle’s farm. And the shooting commenced.
All morning long, grouse after grouse exploded in front of me. I shot. And shot and shot. Again and again, nary a feather was parted. Frustration bore down on me. And when the day was done, as I was finishing a whole box of shells, I finally bagged my first bird.
A Most Challenging Game
I’m still not sure how or why I could have missed 24 of my first 25 shots at grouse. But it instilled in me a fascination with the challenge and a determination to become proficient at this most challenging game. I’ve studied this thing, and can offer these suggestions for improving your performance on grouse shooting.
* First and foremost, accept grouse shooting for what it is. What it most definitely is not is swinging on winging clays against a clear azure sky as some bum behind you murmurs, “Lead that one 3 feet, a foot and a half on the next.” Grouse shooting is trying first of all to see a target that is actually trying not to be seen, with sun and sticks in your eyes, your gun barrel smacking against saplings as briars pull at your sleeve — whoops, a sudden change of direction there … . Just plain accept that this is different from the ideal shotgun shooting situation. Much of what follows harks back to that.
* In my experience with lots of hunting buddies, I would say that most hunters would put considerably more grouse in the bag if they would do one simple thing. Shoot. That’s right. When I hear someone say I got 17 flushes today, but only a couple shots, I think, “You probably should have shot a dozen times.”
“But you can’t hit what you can’t see,” they would say. But yes you can and I would have to say as weird as it may sound that in the early season I see about half of the grouse that I shoot at, at the time I pull the trigger. It’s about seeing the movement, tracking a flight line, swinging through it, and hitting the trigger. Much of the time the bird has gotten behind the bushes, but it’s too late — for him! Much of the time I am shooting at a mere flash of feathers — or more precisely, where I surmise they will be when my pellets get there.
* When practicing on a clays’ course, train yourself for this type of shooting. It always strikes me as ridiculous when I see someone mounting their gun before shouting “pull.” Has a grouse ever let you do that? Here’s how to practice. Keep your gun down as you would when walking through a thick woods. DO NOT plant your feet in “proper” shooting position. Look hard to your right or left. Then yell “pull.” Wait for the sound of the trap going off, then look hard for motion as you yank your gun to your shoulder. Stare hard at the target as you sweep the muzzle past it and slam the trigger. Whether you nailed it or missed, immediately go back through your mind’s eye to recognize what you did that made you hit or miss. Etch that in your memory, and resume training.
* You may have discerned by now that successful grouse shooting is all about quickness. You can prepare yourself for this in the field by picking a small target, throwing your shotgun to your shoulder and pretending to shoot. Small birds are good for this. Make sure to leave your safety on, and take it off when it’s a grouse. Work on how quickly and accurately you can mount the gun — it is key in grouse shooting.
Use The Right Shell
* Use the right gun and loads. You want a relatively short shotgun that is pointing where you look at the instant of your mounting it. Ideally it is an over/under or side-by-side that will afford you a completely open (skeet) choke in the first barrel and improved cylinder in the second. Trust me, a pattern cannot get too open for the shots you hope to get before the bird gets too far into the trees. I like 8 shot for the first barrel, 7-1/2 for the second. Don’t make the mistake of using light field loads. When you’re shooting at birds you can’t see, that means a lot of your pellets will never make it there.
There you have it, my best advice for improving your grouse hunting. And if I may reiterate, the key is this: Just shoot!
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