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How to Hunt Ruffed Grouse with a Flushing Dog

How to Hunt Ruffed Grouse with a Flushing Dog

Grouse Hunting with Flushing Dogs

Grouse hunting with flushing dogs takes a different approach than it does with pointers

If an artist was trying to convey the magic of autumn in the grouse woods, they’d likely paint images of fine double guns, stately hunters, and dogs that point. More often than not, those brush strokes would end up in the shape of the English Setter, Pointer, or Brittany. Few would think of a hard-charging retriever or spaniel diving hard into an Alder clump as a Ruff explodes out the other side. And it’s too bad, because Ruffed Grouse hunting with flushing dogs is not just fun—it’s effective.

Many aspects of hunting ruffed grouse with pointers are similar to hunting grouse with flushing dogs. But if you want to maximize the abilities of your flushing dogs, you should know the differences. It is up to the Hunter to put his flushing dog in a place where he has birds to work and hopefully retrieve.

For the sake of this article, let’s assume you have a well-bred retriever or spaniel sitting at your side right now. He’s healthy, has a good obedience foundation, and knows how to sit remotely to the whistle and come when called. This particular dog is gun broke, has been introduced to game birds, and can hunt for extended periods of time.

Where do we go from here?

Working grouse cover with flushing dogs

Well, you know that 300-acre aspen clear cut that just had its 10th birthday? The one you hunted last fall with your buddy who owns a couple of nice pointers? That is not where we’re going to start. By nature, flushing dogs mostly need to work in gun range, hunting the cover you place them in. They need to be thoroughly and aggressively flushing any birds in front of your path, so they can retrieve them when you knock them down. That 300-acre clear cut is not your answer. Sure, it holds birds. But the bigger running and pointing dogs are really the ones who are going to excel in that expansive habitat.

Instead, we are going to concentrate on three grouse cover types to give our dog a chance to show off its skills. I will refer to these cover types as linear, food sources, and edges. Find one cover with all three aspects overlapping and we’re suddenly eating grouse instead of chicken for dinner. As the guy driving the truck, it is our job to build a long list of cover types that will best suit our dog’s strengths.

Linear cover is narrow and can be winding. Think creek bottoms or alder runs. It’s a place where your flushing dog can concentrate and cover easily while quartering or objective hunting. Food sources are just as they sound. Maybe it’s a dogwood hedge, a tote road with thorn apple growing in the ditch, or an old well site with autumn olive planted. These covers are microhabitats and easily covered by a flushing dog. Sometimes, they are so thick and nasty that you need a dog to flush the birds out for you.

Edge cover is vital, too. That 300 acres may have 10 grouse in it, but seven of them are on the edge. Take your dog and hunt where the young aspens meet older woods or fields. Edges like these allow more light, food, and thicker cover to hunt.

By finding microhabitats to hunt in a larger environment, we are able to get the dog into places that would be near impossible for us to walk; let alone shoot. As the hunter, we must do our best to position ourselves in the openings and along the edges, moving through thinner cover. And never forget to read escape routes so you can intercept birds.

Our concerns are now three-fold: cover, the dog, and the hunter. All three need to be in balance for us to maximize our success. Since we don’t have high-range pointing dogs taking us to the birds, we need to take our flushing dogs to them.

Upland Gun Company Dog Engraving

The flushing dogs of grouse hunters

Personally, I favor what I call “performance Labradors.” They are lightly built labs with good legs, about 50 pounds or so, and have intense agility. These aspects are pretty standard in English Springers and Cockers who don’t share the same popularity or size variances of Labradors. I want a dog that is aggressively searching the cover, a dog who knows when to quarter and when to hunt objectives.

Exposure is vital. I spend nearly 100 days a year in the woods scouting, training, and hunting. The dog needs to learn how to work with small amounts of scent. Even if you are moving towards your best shooting position, he needs to be able to sit remotely on the edge of gun range. The sooner your flushing dog gets birdie, the bigger your advantage is in working towards openings and escape routes. When you can expose the right dog to the right cover aspects, we have two out of the three concerns down.

The final concern: the guy driving the truck. He is as important as the dog on the ground or the cover you’re walking. Having a long list of productive covers is the first start. Not just covers that hold grouse, but covers that both you and your dog can use to increase flush rates. This is possible across an entire season, independent of conditions. After all, it’s not just about where you park. It’s also how you walk through the woods and understand grouse behavior.

The pace of your hunt, generally speaking, is going to increase with flushers rather than with pointers. It’s important, therefore, to stay in shape and know how to walk through the woods. Feel your way around cover. Look for lanes within the woods that are slightly more open and allow you to move more easily. Pay attention to the direction birds are heading when you flush them, scribbling out mental notes for next time.

When it all comes together, you can enjoy some really fine days afield. Your dog will bust the heavy cover, pushing birds your way. Meanwhile, the bird will be more concerned with avoiding the dog rather than the gunner walking into a point. Consider a flushing dog for your next grouse dog. You might be surprised at the productivity and enjoyment they can bring.

View Comments (12)
  • Hey Fritz glad to hear some about English Springers I have felt they have be Ed n underrated dog for years.Mine is too old to hunt aged 17 now but he was a good grouse and good pheasant dog. At age six Idecidef to try to train him on ducks, he exceled at that. I hunted him until he was 13 on waterfowl. He still wants to hunt but his hearing is gone and body is frail. But I will give an English Springer another look when it comes time to get another dog.
    Good piece as always Fritz happy hunting.

  • Great article! I hunting the New England uplands with my second Golden Retriever since 2003 and, while I’m far from an expert dog handler, we find a respectable amount of birds and are occasionally fortunate enough to bring some home for dinner. The close interaction you experience with a flushing dog is amazing and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

  • Awesome article. We are currently without dogs, but will be getting some again soon. Likely another Lab, but perhaps a pointer as well. Your description of habitat for flushing dogs describes our land near the Jordan Valley, MI perfectly. I can only imagine how it may add to our success and enjoyment when we’re fortunate enough to bring a dog along.

  • I have hunted grouse and woodcock for over 30 years with flushing dogs of all kinds. Golden Retriever, English Springer, English Black Lab, and now a Labradoodle. Once your buddy learns the game they all can be great upland dogs.

  • Great article Fritz. We recently lost our 9yr old golden retriever to cancer and she was an incredible grouse hunter and family dog. As a passionate grouse hunter I had myself convinced that I needed to switch breeds to a classic pointer. Your article has helped me reconsider about my choice. Living and hunting in wolf and trapping country, the thought of a dog ranging out 100yds plus is a little nerve wracking. There is something so rewarding about always having an eye on your hunting partner and getting to go for those “brisk” fall walks in the grouse woods with a “flusher”.

    -Davis Viehbeck
    Thunder Bay, Ontario

    • VERY WELL put sir! Nothing like hunting up close and personal with your good buddy on a beautiful crisp fall day.

  • The three Chesapeakes I hunt with do a fabulous job of covering the ground and flushing grouse. We taught them quartering for Canadian Kennel Club hunt tests and they put it to good use in the woods.

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