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With so much going on in the outdoorsman’s world right now it’s easy to forget that this is probably the best week of all for bird hunters in Maine. The firearms deer season is still a week away, the leaves are down and our native ruffed grouse are easier to find (and see) as they spend the dwindling daylight hours filling their crops. Topping the list will be apples, acorns, leaves, seeds, buds and insects but there are thousands of forage items that these popular game birds find appealing at this time of year.
Lest one think that grouse hunting is “easy,” let me remind one and all that a good shot may down three or four birds per box of shells. Hunters without dogs do well if they bag one or two birds per day (if they shoot them on the wing), and even hunters using the finest pointers and setters often have trouble downing a limit of four birds per day. On paper, grouse shooting should be easy – just point the shotgun a bird’s length in front of the flying bird and pull the trigger. Easy enough to discuss, not so easy in practice! If grouse flew like clay targets (in a straight line and incrementally slower) most hunts would end in an hour. But, grouse flush unexpectedly, fly fast and erratically, and have the unique talent of putting a fat tree trunk between themselves and the shooter at the instant the hammer falls. It’s likely that more trees are shot each year than grouse, which partly explains the three-birds-per-box ratio. More birds escape when they startle the hunter by flushing in places they weren’t supposed to be and going in directions they weren’t expected to go. This happens so often (even to experienced hunters) that flushes are counted as part of the game: “We flushed 12 birds, saw eight, got two,” is the way most hunts are explained.
Back in my rabid grouse-hunting days, I hit the woods every day of the season with my trusty black Lab, Brandy, and I kept meticulous records of how many birds we flushed, how many we saw, how many shots I fired and how many birds came home with us. At our peak we downed one flying grouse per 2.9 shots fired, or about 8 birds per box of shells. One day I went four for four, including a double (earning me the coveted Orvis pewter doubles pin!), but there were times when I went 14 and 0, earning me a disgusted look from the dog!
There is no rule that says grouse hunters must use dogs and fancy shotguns, nor that they must shoot them in the air. In fact, I catch hell all the time for even suggesting that anyone shoot their birds on the ground but having spent many decades hunting near and with bird hunters of all types I would bet that more grouse are shot on the ground while packing their gizzards with grit than are taken by upper-crust shooters who wait till the bird is airborne. I know several fellows who hunt grouse using single-shot .410 shotguns. They walk the gravel roads and logging trails and pot their birds on the ground at 20 yards. Everywhere I go I meet hunters who take their birds this way. It’s legal and productive, and if meat is your ultimate goal it’s the best way to go. As one fellow told me, “I’m a hunter, not a sportsman.” One hunts for meat, the other for the experience. Fortunately, there’s room for both in the great north woods. The grouse don’t care either way.
For the ultimate bird-hunting challenge, try walking those same roads but taking shots at only the birds that are flying. The odds will be stacked against you but every so often you’ll get your chance to shine. Most of the birds you encounter will run down the road or into the roadside brush and then flush out of sight, a frustrating habit that works for them; but once in a while a bird will wait too long or let you pass by and then flush close enough to offer a shot. Success at this game requires focus and quick reflexes because it’s the rare grouse that gives the shooter time to prepare for what’s coming. In my early days I actually used a stopwatch to reveal how much time elapsed between the flush and the potential shot, and in most cases I had less than two seconds to hear, see and shoot at a flushing grouse. Figure on getting a heartbeat and a half to locate the target, get the gun up and pull the trigger. No wonder the shots-per-flush ratio is so low!
The advantages of having a well-trained, experienced dog as a hunting partner are many. I liked the speed and enthusiasm of Labrador retrievers (or any flushing breed), but setters and pointers are also efficient grouse hunters. The dogs can find, point and flush grouse with some semblance of order and anticipation, giving the hunter time to move in, find the bird and be ready to shoot when it takes wing. The bird regains control at that point and so success rates are still low, maybe one grouse per four or five shots fired. Well-trained dogs are also able to retrieve wounded birds and relocate missed grouse for a possible second flush. Miss again, however, and that bird is gone for good!
Hunting techniques vary but the end game is always the same. Wrap plucked birds in aluminum foil with a pat of butter and a tablespoon of Italian dressing, and then lay the bird on a grill over a bed of hardwood coals. Let the bird roast for 20 minutes per side and then unwrap one of the most delicious wild meals of all. Cooked this way grouse are moist, tender and delicious, ample incentive to go out again tomorrow and do it all over again.
Hunt grouse any way you like, but this is the week to do it. This is what October is all about!
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