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?
Well, you know that three-hundred acre aspen clear cut that just had its tenth 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 three-hundred 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 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 dog wood hedge, a tote road with thornapple 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 three-hundred acres may have ten 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, (1) cover, (2) dog, and (3) 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.
Personally, I favor what I call “Performance Labradors.” They are lightly built labs with good legs, about 50lbs 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 one hundred 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.
Fritz Heller – is an Hotelier living in Northern Michigan, is an active Member of the Ruffed Grouse Society, and has been hunting over flushing dogs for Grouse since 1999 with fantastic success. He owns four Labrador Retrievers and an American Cocker Spaniel. He’s won the state of Michigan Ruffed Grouse Society Gun Dog of the Year title four times, and won the 2015 National Grouse and Woodcock Invitational.