Knowing how to choose shot sizes and chokes for ruffed grouse hunting can change through the season
Let’s be honest, there are a lot of mistakes that can be made while hunting upland game. Particularly in the grouse woods where habitat is tight and dense. It can be anything: a gun is too long or too heavy, a dog doesn’t hunt close or hold well, forgetting to prep for a long walk in advance, etc…With all of the mistakes I’ve made and seen over the years, the one that’s overlooked the most often is the choke that’s screwed into the end of a hunter’s barrel and how to choose shot sizes. This may sound simple. It might even sound like something that doesn’t matter. But believe me, having the right choke and choosing the right shot size is imperative for ruffed grouse hunting.
Breaking it down
Some hunters just grab the nearest box of ammo that fits in their gun and go without a second thought of how to choose shot sizes or choke sizes. With so many chokes available from so many manufacturers, and so many shot sizes to choose from, it can be a bit intimidating. Let’s talk about chokes and shot sizes for those just getting started.
Shotgun chokes are screwed into the end of the barrel of the vast majority of shotguns floating about. If you own a shotgun that doesn’t have interchangeable chokes, this doesn’t apply to you. If your gun does have screw-in chokes, which are interchangeable, let’s talk about what chokes do. Simply put, a choke is screwed into the end of the barrel and is smaller in diameter than the barrel itself. Chokes come in a variety of “sizes” or constrictions. The more constriction, the tighter the shot pattern will be as it leaves the last couple of inches of the barrel. Common chokes are: cylinder, which has no constriction, improved cylinder, which is .010 inches smaller than the bore, modified, which is .020 inches smaller than the bore, and full, which is .035 inches smaller than the bore. The tighter the choke, the tighter the pattern.
How to choose shot sizes
When it comes to choosing shot sizes, most Ruffed grouse hunters would probably tell you that any shell from size 1 to size 9 will kill a grouse. A lot of people don’t understand the makeup of a shotshell or what the numbers represent. It breaks down like this: the higher the number, the smaller the diameter of the pellets. For example, #9 shot pellets will be less than .09 inches in diameter, and will have a mass of less than 1 grain. On the other end of the spectrum, #1 shot pellets will have a diameter of .16 inches or larger, and a mass just shy of 6 grains. What does this mean? It means that a shell can hold a LOT of #9 shot, and not a lot of #1 shot. #9 shot loses, however, loses velocity quickly so each individual pellet isn’t nearly as strong as that of #1 shot. With #1 shot, the pellets are stronger and retain more “punch” at longer distances. But there aren’t a lot of pellets going toward the bird.
The common choices
Most grouse hunters would say that an improved cylinder choke is ideal. For shot size, #6 shot is about as large as they would go and #9 is as small as they would go. I’d go out on a limb and say that most grouse hunter use #7.5 or #8, as they are the most readily available and can be found anywhere at a reasonable price. Those choices are fine and dandy—and will kill grouse in most situations. However, as all grouse hunters know, the situations change drastically from early season to late season, and vary from region to region.
How to change shot sizes and chokes with the leaves
Early season grouse hunting can be challenging. Okay, it’s downright frustrating. The leaves are still on the trees, the cover is thick, and the birds are tough to see when they rise. Dogs can disappear in the thickets, and by the time you find them on point, a bird may have adjusted 8 times in an 80 yard stretch. There are a lot of young birds around and the birds aren’t educated during the early part of the season. Flushes will be up close and personal, 10-30 yards are going to be the common shot distances, and the ability to aim precisely is out the window. It’s a point-and-shoot game. See the bird flush, point the barrel, pull the trigger. For this situation, a semi-open choke with a nice spread out pattern is perfect. A skeet choke (slightly tighter than a cylinder or open bore) or improved cylinder works great with anything from #7.5 to #9 shot. This combo is going to give you a nice large pattern, which you’re going to need for those close range shots. In early season, I like an improved cylinder choke with #8 shot.
As the season draws on, the leaves fall and the woods begin to open up. Birds get more wary and will flush farther out than those uneducated early season birds. An improved cylinder choke will still do the trick nicely in most situations, but you might have a random bird flush through a clearing at 35-40 yards that your #8 shot just won’t take down. If that’s the case, then it’s time to up your game. Changing the choke to something like a modified or light modified choke (slightly less constriction than modified) or changing to a pellet with some more punch at longer distances is recommended. Both can be changed if need be. For mid-season birds, I like a modified choke with #7.5 shot.
When late season hits, and all leaves are gone, the game is different. Birds aren’t hanging in the same areas once the snow falls. The shots are not only few and far between most days, but are much farther than they were earlier in the season. Once again, it’s time to up your choke/shot combo game. Even the thickest cover now appears open and vast. A modified choke with #6 shot isn’t a bad combo. Since you’re going to have time to line up shots and shoulder nicely, this combination will keep the pattern tight but the pellets will still be lethal at longer distances. I’ve even switched to a tighter constriction such as an improved modified to really get dialed in. For late-season birds, I like a modified choke with #6 shot.
Variables and suggestions
By no means do I intend for this to be your end-all-be-all guide to shot-gunning grouse from opener through Christmas. It’s just something to keep in mind. Earlier I mentioned changes from region to region. Hunting grouse in Montana isn’t like hunting birds on the edge of the Canadian Shield in northern MN. You need to adjust for the cover you’re hunting and go from there.
Patterning your shotgun with different chokes and different loads is important. It will help when choosing shot and choke sizes. Not only for you, but to show respect for the king of fall. We all want to make clean, ethical shots. Patterning and knowing your gun, chokes, and loads is one way of ensuring that.
A note about double barrels
If you’re lucky enough to own a double barrel with interchangeable chokes, you have the advantage of having two chokes ready. It’s nice when you have that tight flush where you need a big spread to hit the bird and a second bird flushes at a distance. I like to choke my first barrel with whatever fits the season I’m in. My second barrel is always a step tighter in constriction, as my second shot is rarely as short as the first. For example, I’ll tote a double barrel set up in early season hunting with a skeet choke in the first barrel and an improved cylinder in the second.
Matt Breuer has been working in the outdoor industry for over 15 years, guiding, writing, promoting, volunteering, and working with several conservation groups. He’s on the Board of Directors of the MN Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and is a recruitment and retention coordinator with RGS. He owns and operates Northcountry Guide Service & Promotions in northern MN. Link up with Matt by visiting www.northcountryguides.com .