November 5, 2009 at 8:55 a.m.

Giving thanks for straightway grouse

Giving thanks for straightway grouse
Giving thanks for straightway grouse

They do their best to make us look downright foolish at times, unnerving us as they explode from the ground or a perch overhead, their startling "whirr" of wings designed to disorient would-be predators.

What is more, they have an uncanny ability to fly where we least expect them to fly, and too often seem to anticipate a particular flight path that will almost always guarantee their safe escape. Of course, I'm describing the ruffed grouse, a bird that very rarely loses "situational awareness" while airborne.

If you do decide to walk the woods for grouse, keep in mind that these birds can quickly achieve speeds nearing 30 miles per hour, all the while artfully dodging tree trunks and branches. Anybody that hunts this bird can attempt to explain how tough they are to hit with a shotgun, but you really need to experience the moment firsthand, when bird and hunter converge at that critical moment when skill, luck and fate intersect for a brief second or two. If the hunter can somehow mentally slow that moment and swing the gun true, it is then that the scale begins to tip in the hunter's favor.

My family and I spent a long MEA weekend up at our cottage, located just south of Manitowish Waters in north-central Wisconsin. During the month of October and early November, the grouse is the undisputed king of the forest, drawing hunters to the north woods in search of this highly prized and respected game bird.

Personally, I enjoy the process of studying plat maps and other resources that delineate public and private lands. From there, it's a matter of driving along county and somewhat obscure back roads, in search of walking trails that might put me near preferred grouse habitat. After a few years, I've come to rely on some pretty dependable coverts that hold feeding birds season after season - places that always keep me on high alert when walking them during the early evening hours.

Finding a good grouse gun, using proper chokes and choosing (or hand loading) effective loads is only part of the recipe for success. The ability to almost instantaneously shoulder a gun and point and swing it properly - all within the tight confines of grouse cover - is where the rubber really meets the road.

They say that if you can hit one bird for every six you flush, you're shooting pretty well. I downed two birds that weekend, but I'm hesitant to tell you how many empty hulls I extracted from the breech of my side-by-side and placed in the front left pocket of my vest. Let's just say there were a few more than a dozen. I won't go so far as to define "a few."

One thing I was reminded of that weekend is that you simply cannot walk too slowly for grouse. The birds I shot flushed while I was standing motionless, anticipating their move. One of the most effective methods to flush birds is to walk for five to 10 seconds, then suddenly stop. Grouse, if they can't see you, get quite nervous when a possible predator or hunter stops making noise near their cover.

I've said it before and it is worth repeating; there is no such thing as a bad grouse hunt. If for no other reason, it's the perfect excuse to walk the woods and trails during the prettiest time of the year. And there is always the anticipation of a flushing grouse that, no matter how many years we've been hunting them, makes our heart skip a beat and our pulse race.

On Saturday evening of that weekend, before leaving for home the following day, we bowed our heads and gave thanks at the dinner table. On that day, I was particularly thankful for a pair of grouse that flew straight away.

If you have comments for Dan or story ideas contact him at e-mail [email protected].

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