A good friend of mine came into the Ptarmigan gun room the other day. He is an absolute master with a fly rod and a decent shot with a shotgun. Being from the south he is very comfortable in the dove fields, but New England grouse covers intimidated him and the wylie gruff had always eluded him. Until now. “I got my first grouse Lars. I just had to stop poking at him at the first window of opportunity and swing with the bird like there were no trees”.
Ruffed grouse cover is thick. Plain and simple there is no other word for it. A mixture of seven to twenty year growth mixed with the occasional hardwood and bull pine. This density gives the grouse food and insulation from the weather. It also protects them from predators including the ones that are masters of the aerial assault like accipiters, owls and a string of #8 shot. After generations of being chased by sharp shinned and coopers hawks it became instinctive for the wary grouse to immediately put trees and cover between them. It learned very quickly that even though the hunter and dog were not predators of flight it had to use the same defense to avoid the swarm that seem to follow their flush. This neat little survival trick has frustrated grouse hunters for many seasons.
It is hard not to be overly aware of the trees and obstacles created by dense cover. But unfortunately this distraction has evolved a method of poke and hope. A quick snap shot is taken when the blur presents itself in that small narrow lane the shooter is focused on. This is a low percentage shot and with ruffed grouse we need all the help we can get. There is a better method – it’s called “there are no trees”.
Now I haven’t gone completely mad. I understand that if you were to walk through a grouse covert with that thought you are going to bust your head on a big poplar or tangle up in the middle of a wild rose patch. As in the past a path is carefully selected and when stopping doing so with the shooting foot forward in a closet size clearing giving just enough room to move mount and shoot. But when the bird flushes it all disappears and you apply the same technique that is used when practicing on targets in the open. The fore hand points and follows the glimpses of the bird developing a flight line. The gun mount hand follows suit and starts to slide the gun to the cheek. When it all comes together you squeeze the trigger win or lose. There will be times that the timing of firing the gun and the grouse going behind a tree are unfortunately perfect. But what will surprise you is how consistently your lab brings back a dead grouse.
To understand how this can work is to have a better grasp of the ballistics involved. A 7/8 oz. load in a 20 gauge shell measures approximately 5/8″ in diameter and the same in height. This is called a square load for a 20 gauge. In #8 shot it will have about a 360 pellet count. As it leaves the muzzle this shot column starts to string out and, at a typical distance grouse shot, can reach nearly 6 feet long. When the muzzle of the gun is moving it creates a paint stroke affect with the shot string (visualize a stream of water shot out of a hose while it’s moving). If you poke at the bird there is no paint stroke. If you move the gun in a line that intersects the flight path of the bird then again only a small percentage of the shot count will fall on the path of the bird. When the muzzle is moving on the same plane as the grouse’s flight line then a much higher concentration of pellets will cover it’s path. So even though the beginning of your shot string did nothing more than leave a mark on the trunk of the old bull pine, there is still more shot for the bird to run into when it reappears from behind the tree. Remember there are no trees.